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Salami-slicing in the South China Sea

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“Nhiệm Vụ Tối Mật” – “Secret Mission” 2015 by Pham Huy Thong

Just when the memories of anti-Chinese protests and rioting have started to fade among the Vietnamese, the Chinese are stoking the fires again with another salami-slicing maneuver.

Last Thursday, Beijing announced the redeployment of the deepwater oil rig Haiyang Shiyou-981 to the waters near the disputed Hoang Sa (Paracel) Islands. The placement of the rig this time around is in waters south of the Gulf of Tonkin and northwest of the Paracels, according to the website of the Chinese Maritime Safety Administration, and is expected to be operational up until August 20.

The website announcement also requested passing vessels to stay at least 2,000 meters away, perhaps fearing a repeat of last May’s confrontation, where several Vietnamese coast guard boats, fisheries surveillance ships, and fishing boats were rammed by Chinese naval vessels for coming too close to this same Chinese rig deployed offshore but within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone.

This year, however, the Chinese have located the rig outside the exclusive economic zone of Vietnam, in a grey zone currently being negotiated between Vietnam and China. According to a Vietnamese Coast Guard source, should the Chinese oil rig violate Vietnam’s sovereignty, the Coast Guard would “make announcements.”  This small, possibly incremental step by Beijing can be described as “salami-slicing”, or “Salami tactics,” a term first coined by the Hungarian Communist leader Matyas Rakosi in the late 1940s to describe the destruction of the non-Communist parties by “cutting them off like slices of salami.”

The announcement of the rig’s arrival by Vietnamese media follows a visit by Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh to Beijing on June 17 to 19 for the eighth meeting of the Vietnam-China Steering Committee on Bilateral Cooperation. During the meetings, both sides agreed to use negotiations to keep territorial disputes under control, avoid any actions to complicate disputes, emphasize the implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (East Vietnam Sea/West Philippine Sea) and make progress toward a Code of Conduct. Given the lack of outrage here in Vietnam over the rig’s deployment, the positioning of the Chinese rig was also likely negotiated between Hanoi and Beijing, with Beijing promising to strengthen economic, trade and investment ties.

So far, the Vietnamese people appear to have accepted the deployment of the Chinese rig, as there have been no reports of anti-Chinese protests or rioting despite media coverage. However, some Ho Chi Minh resident representatives voiced their strong opposition to China’s recent actions in the East Sea on Monday to State President Truong Tan Sang and Tran Du Lich, head of the NA delegation of the city. Residents there called for a strong, official response from the National Assembly to China’s violation of Vietnam’s sovereignty, which President Sang acknowledged has not been strong enough.

The arrival of the Chinese rig also coincides with the delivery of a fourth of six Russian-built Kilo-class submarines to Vietnam, under a $2 billion deal signed in 2009. Vietnam may be able to tolerate some salami-slicing by the Chinese, but for this tactic to work most effectively, the true long-term motives should be hidden and cooperation emphasized. Given Vietnam’s long history of successfully fighting off the Chinese, the Vietnamese are traditionally skeptical of Chinese motives and cooperation, and should Beijing choose to slice too much, history tells us the Vietnamese will be ready once again.



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