You Sank My Fishing Ship!

The sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat is pushing tensions between Beijing and Hanoi even higher --and driving China's rivals closer together.

Photo by Jason Pier - Flickr
Photo by Jason Pier - Flickr

The dangerous game China is playing in Asian waters became more violent as Chinese vessels reportedly rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat that wandered near a $1 billion oil rig Beijing planted earlier this month in waters claimed by both countries.

China’s heavy-handed approach to foreign policy seems to be driving Asian nations into an anti-China bloc, tightening ties among one another and with the United States. Coming only days after Chinese fighter jets buzzed Japanese patrol planes over disputed islands, regional leaders are escalating warnings about what they call China’s aggressive behavior, and all are articulating a more muscular response to Beijing.

Three weeks of tension ratcheted up late Monday, May 26, when the Vietnamese trawler was apparently rammed by Chinese ships before capsizing and sinking. The Vietnamese Coast Guard blamed the incident, which took place about 17 miles away from the oil rig, on aggressive Chinese vessels, scores of which have become a permanent fixture in the area. Vietnam summoned Chinese diplomats on Tuesday to convey its displeasure over the incident.

Chinese Foreign Ministry officials offered a different version of events, saying that the Vietnamese boat rammed a Chinese ship, damaging itself and sinking.

"It’s worth pointing out that the direct reason for this incident is that, in spite of the repeated representations, warnings, and dissuasions from the Chinese side, the Vietnamese side continues to forcefully disrupt the normal drilling operations of the Chinese company and take dangerous actions," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang at a regular briefing Tuesday.

Chinese officials repeatedly claim that Vietnamese Coast Guard patrols are interfering with the operations of HD-981, the billion-dollar oil rig searching for oil and gas in the contested waters of the South China Sea. Yet early Tuesday, the company operating the rig successfully concluded the first phase of drilling and shifted to a nearby location even closer to the Vietnamese coast.

The fishing boat’s mysterious sinking just adds to roiling nationalist tensions that have seized both countries since the dispatch of the rig. Anti-Chinese riots have spread across Vietnam, and one woman even immolated herself in protest. Users on Chinese social media largely applauded the ship sinking.

The biggest worry of the clash at sea isn’t the loss of one fishing boat, but rather that such incidents harden nationalistic sentiment among domestic audiences in both countries, said Ely Ratner, an Asia-Pacific expert at the Center for a New American Security.

"They further galvanize the public on both sides and make it more difficult for national leaders to compromise" or find a way to defuse the tension, he said.

More broadly, China’s ham-fisted foreign policy– illustrated best by efforts to fence off parts of the seas and the skies that other countries consider part of the global commons — is bringing countries as diverse as Vietnam and Japan together in their wariness of Beijing and driving the whole region closer to the United States.

One telling example: Indonesia and the Philippines just resolved a maritime border dispute that simmered in the background and soured relations between the two countries for 20 years.

Vietnam’s prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, said that the oil rig dispute is fracturing an otherwise stable relationship and suggested that economic ties between Hanoi and Beijing won’t be enough to repair it.

"We always wish for peace and friendship, but those things must be based on independence, self-reliance, sovereignty and territorial integrity. We will never trade these sacred things for a certain false and dependent peace and friendship," he said in written responses to questions from Western journalists.

Vietnam is mulling its limited response options, including moving closer to the United States and its allies and preparing to inflict "mutually assured destruction" if China raises the stakes.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told the Wall Street Journal that he wants to beef up Vietnam’s Coast Guard and push back against Chinese aggression in both the South China and East China seas.

"We will never tolerate the change of status quo by force or coercion," Abe said. Under his watch, Japan is jettisoning some of the pacifist restraints on the use of military force outside Japan that has defined the country since the end of World War II. Abe will give the keynote speech at an Asian security summit in Singapore this weekend — a first for a Japanese leader — and observers expect him to reiterate why smaller Asian countries must confront China’s expansionist behavior.

Tension between the Philippines and China over disputed maritime territories has also grown, leading President Benigno Aquino to take a tougher tone against Beijing.

Aquino recently told the Financial Times that China is playing a "dangerous game of brinkmanship and gunboat diplomacy." After entering office determined to forge closer ties with China, Aquino is now seeking better defense cooperation with the United States.

China’s bid to assert control over parts of the South China and East China seas, as well as its blanket dismissal of other countries’ concerns, illustrates what strategist Edward Luttwak called "great-state autism," or the inability of great powers to understand how their behavior is perceived by other countries.

For instance, Chinese officials defend the oil rig’s position on the grounds that the Paracel Islands, known as the Xisha Islands in China, are Chinese territory, as are the waters nearby.

"The Xisha Islands are China’s inherent territory; and relevant exploration and drilling activities are being carried out in waters that are indisputably under China’s administration. We are going about our own business in our own waters without causing any trouble to anyone," China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said Tuesday.

However, the United States, Vietnam, Japan, and the Philippines point out that the rig sits squarely inside Vietnam’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone, as laid out in the Law of the Sea treaty that China has signed and ratified.

Keith Johnson is Foreign Policy’s global geoeconomics correspondent. @KFJ_FP

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