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Rock, Paper, Scissors in the South China Sea

Rock, Paper, Scissors in the South China Seaphoto:

Rock, paper, scissors is a popular game among youth in China, and can be played anywhere and anytime between two people.  In the game, both participants count to three and then reveal their hand – a fist symbolizes a rock, a flat hand is paper, and two fingers signify scissors.  The winner is determined by each player’s hand – a rock smashes scissors, scissors cuts paper, and paper covers rock, unless both players display the same sign, and the game starts over.  The game often continues for long periods of time, with neither side backing down.  While popular among Chinese youth, it appears the game is also catching on among competing nations in the South China Sea.

In the latest skirmish in the South China Sea between Beijing and Hanoi over several rocks called the Paracel Islands (referred to as the Xisha by the Chinese and the Hoang Sa by the Vietnamese), Beijing took out its scissors on May 26, sending around 40 Chinese fishing boats to surround a group of Vietnamese fishing boats.  One the larger Chinese ships rammed into a Vietnamese boat, cutting a hole in the boat, and tossing 10 fishermen into the sea.  Earlier this week, Vietnamese state media broadcast an amateur video showing the ramming and sinking of the boat.  Admiral Ngo Ngoc Thu, vice commander of the Vietnam Coastguard, said on Thursday China had damaged 24 Vietnamese ships since the Chinese rig was first deployed.

The incident occurred around 30 kilometers (18 miles) from a large oil rig China deployed May 1 in a section of the sea claimed by both countries.  A large fleet of up to 140 Chinese vessels now surrounds the rig, while Chinese helicopters and military aircraft have flown over the area in recent weeks.  While Vietnam lays claim to these 30 islets, sandbanks and reefs, all of the area is currently controlled as part of China’s Hainan Province, which in July 2012, established Sansha City to administer the jurisdiction.  China took control of the islands following a naval skirmish between China and the Vietnam in 1974, after the withdrawal of American troops.

Following the discovery of the Chinese drilling rig, Vietnam’s immediate response was peaceful, as Vietnam’s foreign ministry officially protested that the rig was stationed within Vietnam’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone and continental shelf as defined by the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.  Vietnam’s state-owned oil company, PetroVietnam, demanded that China National Offshore Oil Corporation immediately withdraw the rig.

Videos taken by the Vietnamese Coast Guard of naval harassment were earlier broadcast on local television news channels and posted on Vietnamese news websites, and prompted thousands of Vietnamese in major cities to take to the streets in May and protest peacefully, demanding China remove the oil drilling rig and its protective fleet of ships.  Unfortunately, the peaceful protests turned violent on May 14, as a 1,000-strong mob stormed a Taiwanese steel mill in central Vietnam and attacked Chinese workers, killing two Chinese nationals, hospitalizing over 100, and setting the complex on fire.  Earlier unconfirmed reports quoted a doctor near the scene saying he had seen 21 dead bodies and another eyewitness said she had seen at least 13.  Rioting also took place in industrial parks just outside Ho Chi Minh City, as mobs burned and looted scores of foreign-owned factories believed to be Chinese-run – many were actually Taiwanese or South Korean.  By the end of the rioting, Minister of Planning and Investment Bui Quang Vinh said 400 factories had been damaged with worker protests having broken out in 22 of the country’s 63 provinces.  Vietnamese authorities seemed to have clamped down on the unrest over the weekend, having arrested over 1000 people and preventing any further protests with a heavy police presence in the major cities.  Protest continued, however, as a 67-year old woman set herself on fire in protest outside the gates of the Reunification Palace in Ho Chi Minh City on May 23.

Anti-Chinese sentiment runs deep in Vietnam, and has come to the forefront in light of Beijing’s increasingly assertive path to claim 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.   Vietnam has particular cause for alarm – in 2005, Chinese civilian law enforcement vessels killed nine Vietnamese fishermen in the South China Sea.  In 2007, a Chinese navy vessel sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel in the South China Sea, killing one fisherman. In July 2012, a Chinese fleet of 30 vessels, with 550 fishermen onboard and a 3,000-tonne supply ship alongside, visited the disputed Spratly Islands (known as Nansha in China and Troung Sa in Vietnam).  And 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.

Many analysts believe China is embarking on a strategy of gradually pressing its claims in the water by small, incremental actions on the fleets of other countries, such as cutting cables to their exploration vessels, imposing fishing bans, and harassing their fishermen.  Beijing may be testing the military prowess of its neighbors, picking small fights and then backing off before its combatants can form a coherent response.  Beijing also appears to be testing the willingness of the Obama Administration to intervene militarily, given recent hesitance in Syria and Ukraine.

In responding to Beijing’s latest challenge over the South China Seas, Hanoi has few options available.  Hanoi’s official protests to Beijing have so far had little effect, and recent meetings with member nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Myanmar resulted in little progress.  Most likely, Vietnam will have to pursue international arbitration – much like the Philippines has taken its territorial dispute with China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.  Indeed, Hanoi is now preparing extensive documentation to prove its claim (or covering the rock with legal paper, if you will).  Aside from diplomatic protests, Vietnam could further deploy patrols from its newly established Fisheries Resources Surveillance force to assert its sovereignty and jurisdiction over the area.  Patriotic fishermen have already swarmed to the disputed waters.  But these courses of action will only lead to more minor skirmishes, and the next fishermen may not be as lucky as the 10 Vietnamese fishermen recently rescued.  Hanoi could also engage in a bit of tit-for-tat, and expedite the exploration and production activities of PetroVietnam offshore, or allow the U.S. naval fleet to access Cam Ranh Bay in the coming months.

Yet for each of these possible actions, there will likely be a strong reaction from Beijing, perhaps another aggressive action.  Hanoi finds itself not only fighting to secure its rights on the water but also fighting in the court of international opinion.  And in this fight, Hanoi would do well to borrow a technique from the Philippine government, and document China’s aggression using international media.  In late March, when the Philippine government knew the Chinese would attempt to thwart their efforts to resupply its military outpost on the disputed Second Thomas Shoal, Philippine government officials invited members of the international media aboard their resupply ships.  Attempts by Chinese vessels to prevent the resupply were clearly documented, and the Philippines were able to successfully portray China as the aggressor and cultivate international opinion in its favor.

Certainly, Hanoi’s use of video by the Vietnamese coast guard earlier this month and again this past week has been instrumental in swaying both domestic and international opinion in favor of Vietnam’s version of events.  Yet video footage provided by only one side of the conflict could be subject to manipulation – important footage showing prior actions may have been deleted, or pieces of footage can be arranged in a particular order to tell a different story.  Without video evidence from unbiased sources, many claims will lose their effect or be disbelieved, such as Beijing’s claim that Vietnamese ships interfered with Chinese ships a total of 171 times.  Concerning this latest incident, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said it was the Vietnamese ships that were being aggressive, “In these seas. China’s ships were in a defensive mode … who was it who took the initiative for the clash? Who was it who created tension on the scene? This is very clear”.

Given Beijing’s latest action using an aggressive “scissors” strategy, now is the time for Vietnam to use “paper”, involving the international media to document what is going on its disputed waters, win in the court of international opinion, and avoid using escalating the conflict into one where “rock smashes scissors”.  For it seems at this point in time, neither player is willing to stop playing this addictive game.










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