Toasts Turn to Water Cannons as China, Vietnam Spar on Seas

May 19, 2014 3:28 am ET

(Updates with evacuation details in 18th paragraph.)

May 19 (Bloomberg) -- The crews from the Vietnamese and Chinese coast guards shook hands and took photos as they met last month, sharing platters of fruit and raising their glasses for a toast. Now, they are in a tense standoff in the South China Sea.

“The two sides were very happy and united,” Lt. Colonel Phan Duy Cuong, the operations assistant of Vietnam’s Coast Guard Command, said of the April 15 ceremony. “We toasted each other with wine. They went on our boat and we went on theirs.”

Ships No. 8003 and 2007 sailed alongside two Chinese coast guard vessels for three days in the Gulf of Tonkin. A month later, at least one of those Chinese boats has been spotted helping guard an oil rig that Vietnam is demanding be removed from contested waters about 140 miles (225 kilometers) off its coast, according to Cuong.

The dispute over the rig near the Paracel Islands reflects a renewed chill between the two Communist nations after efforts to draw them closer together, including a flurry of official visits last year. Both China and the U.S. have targeted Vietnam as a potential partner to bolster their influence in the region.

“We were working together just days before, but now there is a line dividing us,” Cuong said on board boat 8003, which carried a crew of 50 plus 100 live chickens in a pen on the stern. “I’m very sad.” While on the joint patrol in April, the boats together inspected Chinese and Vietnamese fishing boats.

Water Cannons

Cuong has been assigned to boat 8003 since it left Hai Phong port May 5 to patrol the waters west of the Paracel Islands. Over three days last week, the ship was chased by the Chinese coast guard five times as it attempted to break through a perimeter around the rig. The Chinese ships got as close as 400 meters to the Vietnamese craft, blasting their horns and ordering it to retreat. Other ships were rammed, Cuong said. Both sides have said they used water cannons.

The cooling in ties is less about China picking a fight with Vietnam and more about it warning off the U.S., according to Tan See Seng, an associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

“The reason for the schizophrenic quality of Chinese behavior, I suspect, has to do with what China thinks U.S. intention and strategy toward it might be,” Tan said by e-mail. “China’s big worry is the U.S. and its partners will block China’s access to strategic trade routes through the South China Sea.”.

China and Vietnam fought a border war in 1979, with China having forcibly taken the Paracel Islands from Vietnam five years earlier. In 1988, a Chinese naval attack in the Spratly Islands, which Vietnam also lays claims to, killed 64 Vietnamese border guards as China seized seven atolls. In 2007, Chinese naval patrol vessels fired on a Vietnamese fishing boat, killing one sailor.

‘City’ Lights

Out on the South China Sea last week, boat 8003’s radar screen showed about 60 Chinese ships facing off against half a dozen Vietnamese boats. Cuong’s ship got within three nautical miles of the oil rig on May 6 before being turned away and hasn’t been that close since.

“The first day we got there we saw all these ships turn on their lights,” said Bui Son, a crew member in charge of artillery. “It looked like a city. We were so surprised to see such a heavy presence of Chinese ships in Vietnam’s territorial waters. We were shocked.”

As he spoke, in the distance the rig rose from the sea like a giant tower, with a platform on a red base holding several cranes. At night it glows and can be seen as far away as 12 nautical miles.

Low-flying Aircraft

The crew of boat 8003 has seen two Chinese missile- launching ships in the area, while Chinese aircraft have flown over at low altitude. Vietnam state media reported a Chinese submarine in the area.

Colonel Luu Tien Thang, deputy director of the political division of the Coast Guard Command, said Vietnam has coast guard and fishing surveillance craft in the vicinity of the rig.

“We do not use the navy to show our willingness to resolve this peacefully,” he said on May 15 on boat 8003. “If we deployed the navy, it would escalate the situation.”

Anti-China protests in Vietnam last week morphed into attacks on factories operated by companies from Taiwan and Singapore, leaving two Chinese dead and scores of businesses damaged. That prompted Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung to instruct provincial governments and security forces to take “quick actions” to stop the violence and prevent protests.

The Binh Duong government will exempt protest-damaged companies from land rental charges, Vietnam’s official state television reported yesterday, citing Le Thanh Cung, chairman of the provincial People’s Committee.

China said yesterday it was sending five ships to Vietnam to evacuate its citizens, with more than 3,000 Chinese nationals leaving as of May 17. An additional 3,000 Chinese workers are expected to leave on the ships from the central province of Ha Tinh today and tomorrow, according to Tran Dac Hoa, the province’s Labor Federation vice president.

China’s ‘Family’

Things had appeared on a more positive footing last year, as China’s President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang made a series of visits to Southeast Asian nations, pledging investment and bolstering trade ties. Xi said in October “the Asia-Pacific is a big family and China is a member of this family.”

Vietnam and China last June set up a hot-line between their leaders, and expanded a 2006 agreement to jointly explore for oil in the Gulf of Tonkin. Li visited Vietnam in October, where he and Dung pledged to boost “political trust,” signing a memorandum of understanding for a cross-border economic cooperation zone and agreeing to open trade promotion offices.

Vietnam President Truong Tan Sang visited Beijing last June, where he had a three-hour meeting with Xi and they agreed to push “pragmatic cooperation” on areas such as defense, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

China says the rig is in its territorial waters, and has accused Vietnam of ramming its ships. The attacks on workers in Vietnam prompted Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying on May 15 to criticize the Vietnamese government for “indulgence and connivance toward domestic anti-China forces and criminals.”

‘Normal Behavior’

The rig’s presence off Vietnam’s coast is “very normal behavior,” General Fang Fenghui, chief of the People’s Liberation Army General Staff, said in the U.S. on May 15. Vietnam dispatched ships to disrupt the drilling operations, “and that’s something we aren’t able to accept,” he said.

China’s growing self-confidence on the international stage, coupled with Xi’s “tough” style, means the relationship with Vietnam could stay tense, according to Arthur Ding, a research fellow at the China politics division of the Institute of International Relations in Taipei.

“I don’t think you’re going to see it escalate into a war,” Ding said by phone. “China and Vietnam are still self- restrained.”

While Vietnam has confronted China in the waters it “also realizes that it’s quite impossible to confront China in a very sustainable way,” he said. “China has become the No. 2 power.”

Fading Friendship

Out on boat 8003, Son said he’s not afraid of the larger Chinese ships.

“What I do worry about is that our friendship is fading and we are losing trust in each other,” he said. “That’s the bigger loss for the two countries.”

“When we said goodbye, we promised we’d see each other again. Now we see each other in this very difficult situation.”

--With assistance from Sharon Chen in Singapore, John Boudreau in Hanoi and Chris Blake in Bangkok.