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VIETNAM-CHINA: Tours, Bird-watching Trigger New Row over Spratlys

Tran Dinh Thanh Lam

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam, Apr 5 2004 (IPS) - The Spratlys archipelago, a regional flashpoint in the South China Sea, is in danger of erupting into conflict again as rival claimants accuse one another of taking provocative action – ranging from arranging sightseeing tours to building ‘bird-watching’ stands.

The Spratlys archipelago, a regional flashpoint in the South China Sea, is in danger of erupting into conflict again as rival claimants accuse one another of taking provocative action – ranging from arranging sightseeing tours to building ‘bird-watching’ stands.

Last week, China’s temper flared over an announcement by a Vietnamese travel company that starting April, it would take tourists out to the disputed islands for what it called a routine tour of the country’s military outposts there.

The company in Vietnam’s central Khanh Hoa province said it received support from the defence ministry to organise diving package tours as part of its tourist itinerary to the contested long stretch of shoals, islets and reefs, which Hanoi calls the ‘Truong Sa’ islands.

Before that, Hanoi itself frowned at Taiwan’s building of a ‘bird stand’ on a Vietnamese-claimed atoll and accused Taipei of going on a ‘landgrabbing expansion’ campaign.

This exchange is the latest reminder that the Spratlys row continues to simmer under the surface, despite some headway on managing the conflict by the six claimants.

The Spratlys are a group of more than 200 islets and reefs and are believed to be rich in marine resources, oil and hydrocarbon deposits.

Vietnam, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei all want the right to exploit resources in the area, the exercise of military, geographic and economic sovereignty over the islands and control over one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

Predictably, China, which plays the role of regional big brother and which has occupied new reefs in the nineties, is peeved over Vietnam’s latest actions and has accused Hanoi of infringing its sovereignty by planning Spratlys’ tours.

“China has indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha (Spratly) Islands and surrounding waters and the move taken by Vietnam has infringed on China’s territorial sovereignty,” said China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan in a news briefing in Beijing.

But Vietnam’s foreign ministry spokesman Le Dung rejected China’s claim. “China’s claim violated Vietnam’s sovereignty over the islands and did not conform to the real situation,” he said.

“Vietnam has time and again asserted its indisputable sovereignty over both the Truong Sa (Spratlys) archipelago,” he asserted.

Last weekend, during a visit to Singapore, Vietnam’s Defence Minister Pham Van Tra was adamant. “The Spratlys are part of Vietnamese territory,” he said. “We have the right to take tourists to that place.”

In the nineties, Malaysia developed one reef in the Spratlys chain into a diving and leisure resort.

It is not without reason that the Spratlys has earned the title of regional ‘flashpoint.’

Claims and counterclaims have resulted in violent conflict in the past.

The most serious was in 1988 when the Chinese and Vietnamese navies clashed at Johnson Reef, sinking several Vietnamese ships and killing more than 70 sailors. The most recent skirmish came in August 2002, when Vietnamese troops based on one islet fired warning shots at Philippine military reconnaissance planes circling overhead.

But later that year, China and the 10 members of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) – which includes four of the Spratly claimants – signed a unprecedented voluntary accord to try to work things out without violence.

The complication now, however, is that governments continue to stake their claims through leisure tours and bird-watching stands.

On the sidelines, while China and Vietnam were engaging in their verbal spat over the diving tours, Taiwan sent a speedboat out to a disputed reef and built what Vietnam described as a small house on stilts.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Le Dung criticised Taiwan for erecting the structure on Banthan coral reef, in the Spratlys, as a “grave violation” of Vietnam’s territorial sovereignty. Dung said the Taiwan side would be held responsible for all consequences that might arise from the move.

Taiwan, however, later said it was a bird-watching stand.

Richard Shih, general director of Information and Cultural Affairs of Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry, said Taiwan had no intention of creating tension in the region, and that the so-called house was in reality “an environment station, surveying migrating birds”. Shih also said his country’s Foreign Ministry had already expressed this concern to Vietnam.

Though regional tensions over the Spratlys appear pale compared to the Korean Peninsula or the Taiwan Straits, it, however, is still unpredictable what China and Vietnam, might resort to if there is an impasse in their territorial claims.

Vietnamese foreign affairs spokesman Le Dung called on China to avoid complicating the situation, saying the two sides should observe the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the conduct of the South China Sea, and cease issuing unnecessary statements over the issue.

Both countries have agreed to meet early this month for their eighth round of talks over the South China Sea.

But several developments in Vietnam have put Chinese negotiators – at one point, China laid claim to 80 percent of the South China Sea – in a difficult situation.

Early this year, museums in the central provinces of Khanh Hoa and Danang held exhibitions of ancient maps, royal ordinances and official documents claiming Vietnam’s sovereignty over the Spratlys.

In Ho Chi Minh city, 65 year-old researcher Nguyen Nha publicised his doctorate thesis on Vietnam’s claim over the Spratlys declaring he would challenge international researchers, Chinese in particular, to prove with scientific, historical documents that his findings were false.

“Since the 17th century, Vietnam has many official maps and documents testifying Vietnamese presence on Truong Sa islands (Spratlys), but China has no similar proof,” he said.

 
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VIETNAM-CHINA: Tours, Bird-watching Trigger New Row over Spratlys

Tran Dinh Thanh Lam

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam, Apr 5 2004 (IPS) - The Spratlys archipelago, a regional flashpoint in the South China Sea, is in danger of erupting into conflict again as rival claimants accuse one another of taking provocative action – ranging from arranging sightseeing tours to building ‘bird-watching’ stands.
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