Foreign Policy Blogs

Chinese General Exits Hanoi Early

The Chinese ships that are guarding China’s illegal oil rig Haiyang Shiyou 981 in Vietnam’s waters have increasingly attempted to ram or blast Vietnamese vessels with high-pressure water cannons over the past few days, the Vietnam Fisheries Resources Surveillance Department reported Tuesday.

Chinese ship shown ramming a Vietnamese ship while guarding China’s oil rig Haiyang Shiyou 981 in disputed waters in mid-2014 (VnExpress News photo)

Just when Chinese and Vietnamese relations appeared to be going well, the waters of the South China Sea (and East Sea) may be heating up again.

Speculation is rife among geopolitical analysts following the early departure of a Chinese delegation from the annual Vietnam-China Border Defense Friendship Exchange Program this week in Hanoi. The two Communist countries were scheduled to hold a fence-mending gathering along the border where they fought a short, devastating war in 1979.

Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission Fan Changlong’s decision to cut short the delegation’s visit, and the cancellation of the event “for reasons related to working arrangements”, is reportedly over a heated argument during a private meeting Fan held with Vietnamese defense officials.

Some analysts, such as Wu Shicun, president of the Chinese-government affiliated National Institute for South China Sea Studies, believe the argument broke out over oil exploitation of the disputed island chains of the Spratly island chain, “One direct reason leading to the cutting short of Fan’s visit might be because Beijing sees Vietnam as breaking its promises about not exploiting oil in disputed areas in the South China Sea”.

Carl Thayer, emeritus professor of politics at The University of New South Wales in Australia, also speculates General Fan requested Vietnam to halt oil exploitation near Vanguard Bank in the Spratly island chain.

He also believes the Chinese response, which “If true, this would be a clumsy and counterproductive act by China,” may be due to Beijing’s disapproval over Hanoi’s efforts to promote strategic cooperation with the United States and Japan: “This setback would also be a sign that China is being more assertive in response to Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc’s visits to Washington and Tokyo in order to curtail the development of Vietnam’s defense and security relations with these two countries”.

Yet Thayer also warns that a military clash could take place within the next few days, noting that China is deploying 40 ships and several Y-8GX6 turboprop anti-submarine warfare aircraft to the area. The area has seen sparks of conflict before—in May 2011, protests broke out in Hanoi after a Chinese fishing vessel cut a Vietnamese boat’s cable near Vanguard Bank.

Sending that many ships into an area claimed by Hanoi may lead to additional anti-Chinese protests, as witnessed in mid-2014 when Beijing parked its $1 billion deepwater oil drilling rig, the Haiyang Shiyou 981, for 10 weeks in waters claimed by Vietnam as part of its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone set by international law.

At that time, the rig was surrounded by over 100 Chinese vessels, including military ships, some of which rammed or fired their water cannons at Vietnamese ships encroaching near the Chinese rig.

Should the above deployment of naval ships and aircraft actually take place, Chinese military officials would do well to recall Chairman Mao’s quote, “A single spark can cause a prairie fire”.



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