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Spratlys > News > English News > April 2004 

Category: @News  @China

Bird watchers, divers, tourists ignite Spratlys row
07 April 2004
By Tran Dinh Thanh Lam

HO CHI MINH CITY - The Spratly archipelago, a regional flashpoint in the South China Sea, is in danger of erupting into conflict again as the six rival claimants to the islands accuse one another of taking provocative actions - such as arranging sightseeing tours to military outposts, scuba diving and setting up "bird-watching stands". The main contenders are China and Vietnam.

Last week, China's temper flared over an announcement by a Vietnamese travel company that starting in April, it would take tourists out to the disputed islands for what it called a routine tour of the country's military outposts there. In addition to Vietnam, five of the claimants have military garrisons on islands and reefs in the Spratly chain.

China calls them the Nansha Islands, Vietnam calls them the Truong Sa and Spratlys, and they are generally known in the West as the Spratlys.

The travel company, based in Vietnam's central Khanh Hoa province, said it had received support from the country's defense ministry to organize scuba diving package tours as part of its tourist itinerary to the contested stretch of islets, reefs, shoals and sand banks, referred to by Hanoi as the Truong Sa islands.

According to a spokesman for the Vietnam National Tourism Administration, many people already have registered for the inaugural trip, which is due to leave Ho Chi Minh City on April 18 or 19.

Before announcing its package tours, however, Hanoi itself frowned at Taiwan's building of a bird-watching stand on a Vietnamese-claimed atoll and accused Taipei of going on a "land-grabbing expansion" campaign.

The Spratlys are a cluster of islands and islets rich in marine resources, oil and hydrocarbon deposits.

Aside from Vietnam and China, the Spratlys are being claimed in whole or in part by Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines, which all want the right to exploit resources in the area, to exercise military, geographic and economic sovereignty over the islands and to control one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.

All have signed a code of conduct, which was supposed to prohibit the construction of new structures on the disputed islands, but most claimants have violated the code and continue to build structures or put up markers in the area. The exchange between China and Vietnam is the latest reminder that the Spratlys row continues to simmer, despite some headway on managing the conflict by the six claimants.

Predictably, China, which plays the role of regional big brother and which has occupied new reefs since the 1990s, is peeved over Vietnam's latest actions and has accused Hanoi of infringing on its sovereignty by planning tours to areas of the Spratlys known in China as the Nansha Islands.

"China has indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha Islands and surrounding waters, and the move taken by Vietnam has infringed on China's territorial sovereignty," said China's foreign ministry spokesman Kong Quan in a news briefing in Beijing.

But Vietnam's foreign ministry spokesman Le Dung rejected China's claim. "China's claim violated Vietnam's sovereignty over the islands and did not conform to the real situation," he said. "Vietnam has time and again asserted its indisputable sovereignty over the Truong Sa [Spratlys] archipelago," he asserted.

Last weekend, during a visit to Singapore, Vietnamese Defense Minister Pham Van Tra was adamant. "The Spratlys are part of Vietnamese territory," he said. "We have the right to take tourists to that place."

Apparently others in the region feel that way as well. In the 1990s, Malaysia developed one reef in the Spratlys chain as a scuba diving and leisure resort.

Thus, it is not without reason that the Spratlys has earned the title of regional "flashpoint". And in the past, claims and counterclaims have resulted in violent conflict.

China has clashed with Vietnam several times over the Spratlys. The most serious skirmish was in 1988 when the Chinese and Vietnamese navies clashed at Johnson Reef; China sank several Vietnamese ships and more than 70 sailors perished. The most recent encounter was in August 2002, when Vietnamese troops based on one islet fired warning shots at Philippine military reconnaissance planes circling overhead.

But later that year, China and the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) - which includes four of the Spratly claimants - signed a unprecedented voluntary accord in an effort to work things out without violence.

The complication now, however, is that governments continue to stake their claims through leisure tours and bird watching stands.

While China and Vietnam were engaging in their verbal spat over the diving tours, for instance, Taiwan sent a speedboat with eight workers out to a disputed reef and built what Vietnam described as a small house on stilts.

Vietnam's foreign ministry spokesman spokesman Le Dung criticized Taiwan for erecting the structure on Banthan coral reef, calling it a "grave violation" of Vietnam's territorial sovereignty. And Dung said the Taiwan side would be held responsible for all consequences that might arise from the move.

However, Richard Shih, director general of information and cultural affairs of Taiwan's "foreign ministry", said his government had no intention of creating tension and said the so-called house was in reality "an environment station, surveying migrating birds". Shih also said his government had already expressed its views to Vietnam.

Though regional tensions over the Spratlys pale in comparison to those over the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait, it is impossible to predict the actions of China and Vietnam in case of a prolonged impasse in their competing territorial claims - or a provocation.

Vietnamese foreign affairs spokesman Le Dung called on China to avoid complicating the situation, saying the two sides should observe the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the conduct of the South China Sea nations, and cease issuing unnecessary statements over the islands issue.

Both countries have agreed to meet early this month for their eighth round of talks over the South China Sea. But several developments in Vietnam have put Chinese negotiators - who at one point laid claim to 80 percent of the South China Sea - in a difficult situation.

Early this year, museums in the central provinces of Khanh Hoa and Danang held exhibitions of ancient maps, royal ordinances and official documents, asserting Vietnam's sovereignty over the Spratlys.

In Ho Chi Minh City, 65-year-old researcher Nguyen Nha publicized his doctoral thesis on Vietnam's claim over the Spratlys, declaring he would challenge international researchers, Chinese in particular, to disprove his findings, using scientific and historical documents.

"Since the 17th century, Vietnam has many official maps and documents testifying to Vietnamese presence on Truong Sa islands [the Spratlys], but China has no similar proof," he said.

(Inter Press Service)

source: http://www.atimes.com/atimes/China/FD07Ad01.html