Vietnam reacted strongly again in response to a recent visit by a Chinese cruise ship to the disputed Paracel archipelago (Hoàng Sa to Vietnamese and Xisha to Chinese). Hanoi pressed for an end to the cruise ship visits, which since 2013 have taken hundreds of Chinese tourists on a sun-soaked holiday intended to cement Beijing’s claim to the island chain.
Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Le Hai Binh strongly condemned China’s action, saying “Vietnam strongly opposes this and demands that China respect Vietnam’s sovereignty over the Paracel Islands and international law and immediately stop and not repeat those activities,”adding, “Those actions have seriously violated Vietnam’s sovereignty over the Paracel Islands and international law.”
China claims 90 percent of the South China Sea (or East Sea to Vietnamese) under its notorious “nine-dash line” and fought a war with Hanoi over control of the Paracels in 1974. Before the skirmish, Vietnam had control of some islands within the Paracel archipelago, China controlled others, and Taiwan also laid claim to some of the 30 islands and reefs.
According to Professor Toshi Yoshihara, of the Strategy and Policy faculty at the Naval War College, the Battle of the Paracels started as a clash between the Chinese and South Vietnamese navies. The fighting was short and intense, and “involved small, second hand combatants armed with outdated weaponry. The fighting lasted for several hours, producing modest casualties in ships and men.” The Chinese forces eventually prevailed, after three of the four Vietnamese warships had to retreat and the fourth sank with its captain on board. Dozens of southern Vietnamese sailors were killed, and China took control over the entire group of islands. Following Vietnam’s defeat, little mention of the battle has featured in Vietnamese media until 2014, some forty years later.
In 1979, Vietnam would fight another battle with China on their shared land border, with Chinese forces invading Vietnam to punish Hanoi for invading Cambodia to drive out the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge leadership in Phnom Penh. Chinese forces would again fight the Vietnamese in 1988, after China seized six reefs and atolls of the Spratly Islands after a skirmish at Johnson South Reef.
The latest heated rhetoric from Hanoi follows a series of warming relations between the two Communist brothers, who had in recent months seemingly set aside their differences, including an effort by the Vietnamese government to silence protestors in Hanoi marking the 43rd anniversary of the China’s occupation of the Paracel Islands in January. But distrust of Chinese intentions is always present, and Hanoi has reportedly been actively fortifying its key holdings in the Spratlys, including the construction of a runway, tunnels and bunkers.
For now, there is little Hanoi can do (besides comments from diplomats) to counter Beijing’s efforts at furthering its claims through waging tourist-fare. Hanoi has established an office for the administration of the Paracels in the coastal city of Da Nang, loaded with maps, photos and historical documents to support Vietnam’s claim. And a new museum is in the works to bolster patriotism among its citizens. But beyond furthering its legal case, taking on China’s massive military strength is a daunting prospect for this much smaller nation of 90 million. Harassing civilian cruise ships will not win over the international community.
Perhaps the only safe response is tit-for-tat diplomacy, either offering Vietnamese tourists a cruise to the disputed Spratlys or turning back the hoards of Chinese tourists flocking to visit the areas in Vietnam where the Hollywood movie ‘Kong: Skull Island’ was filmed.