On Sunday 9 December, an anti-China protest broke out on the streets of two major cities in Vietnam. According to what has been reported by The Guardian, authorities initially allowed about 200 protesters to go on a march but later ordered them to disperse and arrested those who refused.
China’s Global Times, a paper that usually expresses nationalistic views, has published an article saying that protests in Vietnam were actually directed against Hanoi and that the South China Sea issue was just an excuse to get to the streets.
This episode is just the latest development in a dispute involving almost the entire South East Asian region, as China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. All have conflicting claims over this corner of the Pacific Ocean.
Behind the confrontation are two interrelated issues. On the one hand, there are the vast gas and oil resources. Chinese sources estimate undiscovered oil resources to be between 70 and 160 billion barrels of oil, while the US Energy Information Administration claims that probable and proven gas deposits may be between 1 and 2 trillion cubic feet. On the other hand, nationalistic feelings are deeply rooted in the area, making any agreement hard to reach. The lack of cooperation, in turn, increases the risk of miscalculations in dealing with partners.
In July, the crisis claimed its first victim, the ASEAN summit, which ended without a final resolution for the first time in its 45-year history because of internal divisions on the issue of maritime rights. ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said that such a failure was unprecedented.
More recently, in November, another heated discussion began when Beijing decided to print on Chinese passports a national map that included the South China Sea (as well as territories disputed with India). Vietnam has overcome the issue by issuing visas on a separate paper sheet.
External powers are also playing a role. As it pivots to Asia, the US is more or less openly backing the Philippines, while last Spring Russia’s Gazprom announced a joint venture with state-owned PetroVietnam for exploring offshore oil reserves. Despite the fact that the area they intend to work on is not disputed, The Global Times bitterly commented: “The intention is clear that Vietnam is strengthening cooperation with Russia to go up against China in the territorial disputes.”
India, too, is getting closer to Vietnam. In October 2011, ONGC Videsh Ltd. declared it had signed a three-year pact with PetroVietnam for long-term cooperation in the oil and gas industry. New Delhi seems to attach significant importance to such a presence in the area and has recently affirmed to be ready to take action if her interests are under threat. On December 3, Indian Navy Chief Admiral D.K Joshi has announced that “not that we expect to be in those waters very frequently, but when the requirement is there for situations where the country’s interests are involved, for example ONGC Videsh, we will be required to go there and we are prepared for that.”