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A New Gulf Of Tonkin Incident Between Vietnam - China

by Thi Lam

Ships Face Renewed Risk Of Pirates

(PNS) -- Vietnamese communities in the United States, Europe and Australia are protesting the Jan. 8 killing of Vietnamese fishermen by the Chinese navy. On that day, navy ships from the People's Republic of China shot and killed nine Vietnamese fishermen and injured seven others in the Vinh Bac Bo (Gulf of Tonkin). Eight fishermen were kidnapped.

According to Thanh Nien (Youth) newspaper in Ho Chi Minh City, the fishing boat owned by Phan Van Quan was able to escape after the attack, but one crewman was killed and five others critically wounded. Another ship from Hung Vuong Company incurred a much heavier attack -- eight crewmen were killed and two wounded. The Chinese detained all surviving crewmen as well as the ship.

Survivors of the Jan. 8 massacre reported that the incident took place in Vietnam's territorial waters, at or near the intersection of parallel 19.16 North and meridian 107.06 East. That's 10 miles west of the nearest border mark of the common fishing area between Vietnam and China.

In reaction to a weak protest from Hanoi issued five days after the incident, China called the killings an act of self-defense against "armed pirates" intending to capture Chinese fishing boats. The allegation is absurd; small wooden boats, even if they were armed, would never "attack" larger Chinese boats protected by naval vessels armed with machine guns and cannons. Reports from Western news agencies made no mention of any aggressive behavior from the Vietnamese fishermen. In the view of legal experts, the fact that the Chinese naval vessels penetrated Vietnam's territorial waters to kill and capture Vietnamese fishermen and seize their property constitutes a grave act of armed aggression.

The Jan. 8 killing is far from an isolated incident. According to Reuters, China detained 80 Vietnamese fishermen in the month of December. The Vietnamese coast guard reported a total of 1,107 illegal incursions by Chinese boats into Vietnam's waters during 2004.

The incident, in fact, can be added to a consistent pattern of Chinese expansionism in the Eastern Sea: conquest of the Paracel Islands in 1974; occupation of the Spratly archipelagoes in 1979; and annexation of 12,000 square meters of territorial waters in the Vinh Bac Bo conceded by Hanoi under the 2000 Vinh Bac Bo Pact.

Nguyen Van Canh, a visiting scholar at the Hoover Institute and an authority on Vietnam-China relations, notes that the common fishing area, as described in the 2000 fishing agreement between Vietnam and China, contains some of the richest natural gas fields in the Eastern Sea.

"In 2004, China brought drilling platform Katan 3 into Vietnam's territorial waters to explore oil and gas from Nov. 11 to Dec. 31," Nguyen says. "The site of the exploration was located 63 miles from the Vietnamese coastline and 67 miles from Hai Nam Island."

The 2000 Vinh Bac Bo Pact includes only a vaguely worded clause stipulating that "when gas is confirmed, the two sides will explore it together." Nguyen Dinh Sai, an engineer who has done extensive research on the Vinh Bac Bo, has written about a secret agreement between Vietnam and China that spells out in detail how the proceeds from gas production would be distributed between the two parties. From this we can infer that some kind of understanding between the two countries regarding the allocation of the proceeds from gas production must have been reached before the exploration operations can begin.

If true, the fishing rights issue may be only a cover, and the Jan. 8 massacre may be part of a well-concocted scheme to terrorize Vietnamese fishermen and to discourage them from venturing into Chinese gas exploration areas.

Protest by overseas Vietnamese communities is a good start because it will raise world awareness about China's nascent imperialism. But in the long run, only a strong and prosperous Vietnam, enjoying popular support and the support of the community of free and democratic nations, can preserve its territorial integrity.

On the geopolitical front, Japan should play a more active role in regional security, at a time when the United States has its hands full in Iraq and the Middle East. After all, Japan, like China, also needs oil from the Middle East, and it is in Japan's vital interests to safeguard the strategic sea lanes in the Eastern Sea. In Northeast Asia, the strategic balance could be made more effective if the U.S.-Japan security alliance were to be expanded to include South Korea, itself an emerging economic power backed by a well trained and highly motivated military. In Southeast Asia, on the other hand, the strengthening and rearmament of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) would effectively contribute to the security of the region.

Autocratic regimes know only the language of force. In the struggle against aggression and imperialism, power can only grow, as Mao Tse-tung once put it, "from the barrel of the gun."

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Albion Monitor March 1, 2005 (

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