CHINA TOPIX

Updated 4:59 PM EDT, Fri, Oct 11, 2019

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Behind the Increasing Vietnam-China Tensions in the South China Sea

Just last month, it was reported that a Vietnamese fishing boat sank after colliding with a Chinese vessel. The strike happened near the disputed Parcel Islands in the South China Sea, amid tensions between the two countries.

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The five victims and crew members of the crash clung to the sinking boat for their lives, but it wasn’t until two hours later when rescue finally came in the form of another Vietnamese fishing boat. Instead of extending a hand, the Chinese vessel reached out to the Chinese Maritime Search and Rescue Center instead. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured in the altercation.

Not the first time

In truth, this wasn't the first time an incident of this sort had occurred. Five years ago, Chinese vessels encircled a Vietnamese fishing boat before purposely causing another collision and sinking the boat. Both camps cried different stories, with China accusing the Vietnamese ship of prior harassment.

For years, the Parcel Islands have been caught in the crossfire of the bilateral tensions between China and Vietnam, which can be traced back several decades. In 1970, China forcefully seized these territories and have since put up military outposts around the area, setting forth a series of maritime disputes in the South China Sea.

In this regard, Vietnam isn’t the only one with dominion to parts of the area, with the Philippines, Brunei, Taiwan, and Malaysia also having claims to the territory. Compared to all these countries, however, China continues to hold the biggest slice of the pie, at more than 80%.

Over the years, China has made use of its “nine-dash line” as a geographical marker to establish its hold over the sea. From the Chinese mainland, their supposed territory spans 2,000 km to reach all the way to the waters near Indonesia and Malaysia.

An economic advantage

Indeed, the tension is more than just a matter of district. The South China Sea is known to be a key commercial thoroughfare that bridges Asia with Europe and Africa. Currently, one-third of global shipping passes through the South China Sea. In addition, 80% of China’s oil imports also sails across it before reaching their soils. All in all, international trade in its waters clocks in at a total worth of $US3.37 trillion.

However, that’s not the biggest price tag tied to this corner of the ocean. According to the US Energy Information Administration, the area is a gold mine for natural resources, especially natural gas and oil. It is estimated that it houses at least 100 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. On top of this, 10% of the world’s fisheries can also be found in the South China Sea. In short, to have a piece of this particular pie translates to a significant economic boost and immense possibilities in global trade.

Day by day, China grows more aggressive with their efforts in taking over the sea, which could pose serious threats to Vietnam and other nations. Expat Bets’ feature on the Vietnamese economy states that the country has come a long way from their post-war struggles. They have seen outstanding growth in their manufacturing, agriculture, and information technology industries, all of which have helped propel the nation forward. However, an article on Aljazeera states that the deteriorating US-China bilateral relations bring about both opportunities and challenges for the burgeoning Southeast Asian powerhouse.

Despite the US’ history with Vietnam, it appears the two nations have found common ground in preventing China’s growing military power in the South China Sea. For this reason, Vietnam has been strengthening its defense relationship with the US in recent years.

In response to the recent sea collision between Vietnam and China, experts speculate that the incident may finally set forth a negotiation to create a maritime code of conduct by 2021. This would determine how naval and coast guard vessels can prevent accidents in the sea, though it has yet to be decided how this will apply to private vessels. If signed, the deal would likely include China, Vietnam, and the rest of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — namely, Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

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