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As Beijing Asserts, Hanoi Reacts

As Beijing Asserts, Hanoi Reacts

Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung visits a patrol boat of the Viet Nam Fishing Surveillance force under the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development yesterday in Da Nang City. — VNA/VNS Photo Duc Tam

This week, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung oversaw the launch of the Vietnam Fisheries Resources Surveillance force, set up to ensure the enforcement of fishing laws in the East Sea, otherwise known as the South China Sea. As established under the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, the force will assist deep-sea fishermen and help develop the marine economy, which encompasses shipping, aquaculture and fisheries. The marine economy currently accounts for 49 percent of the Vietnam’s GDP, which authorities are seeking to increase to 55 percent 2020. In conjunction with the creation of the force, the State Bank of Vietnam announced this week it will commit VND 10 trillion (U.S. $476 million) in low interest rate loans, with long payback periods, for fishermen building offshore fishing vessels.

While the force has a mandate to protect Vietnam’s marine resources, the generous loan terms offered to Vietnamese fishermen to build boats means the force will deal less with Vietnamese overfishing than with deterring foreign poachers. The force’s main mandate will be to monitor fishing activities, detect violations, and enforce punishment on foreign fishermen impinging on their waters, acting as the eyes and ears of the Ministry of Defense. Indeed, the new force will be required to operate effectively in line with national and international law, and closely coordinate with other ministries, such as the Ministry of Defense.

In addition to assisting the development of the Vietnamese fishing industry, the establishment of the surveillance force can also be seen as a direct consequence of increased aggression by Beijing’s maritime forces in disputed territorial waters. Starting earlier this year, China began the implementation of rules requiring foreign fishermen to obtain Beijing’s approval to operate in waters it claims. China claims virtually 90 percent of the entire South China Sea, parts of which are also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam under their own 200-mile exclusive economic zones. In July 2012, a Chinese fleet of 30 vessels, with 550 fishermen onboard and a 3,000-ton supply ship alongside, visited the disputed Nansha Islands, known outside China as the Spratly Islands – parts of which are also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. In March 2013, Vietnam accused a Chinese vessel of chasing and firing at a Vietnamese fishing boat in disputed waters. Many other small skirmishes go unreported.

With the implementation this year by Beijing of fishing approvals, the establishment of the Vietnam Fisheries Resources Surveillance force and the increase in the fleet of Vietnamese fishermen, we could see Beijing’s regulations tested in the coming weeks. Much as China’s ADIZ was tested by Washington when it flew two unarmed B-52 bombers through the ADIZ, (and subsequent flights by South Korean and Japanese jets), the disputed waters and their sovereignty will surely be tested. Indeed, with the beefing up of forces among China and rival claimants, and the stepped up patrols in the disputed territories, the risks of confrontation have never been greater.

On May 3, a Buddhist memorial service will be held by Vietnam at Truong Sa in the Spratly Islands, to commemorate the soldiers who died in the Battle of the Paracel Islands. The battle was a naval skirmish between China and the Republic of Vietnam in 1974, following the withdrawal of American troops from Hoang Sa (Paracel), which resulted in China’s occupation of the Paracel Islands. Since then, China has built an airport and seaport on Hoang Sa and in 2009, Vietnam appointed a mainland official as mayor of Hoang Sa in a largely symbolic move. Perhaps the memorial service will be an opportune time for both Vietnam and China to consider the ramifications of increased aggression and make joint moves toward deescalation. After all, most fishermen are not interested in politics — they just want to fish.




Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Twitter@ForeignDevil666