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Spratlys > News > English News > April 2004 

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Diplomatic storm brews over Spratly Islands with Vietnam boat tour

Time is GMT + 8 hours
Posted: 18 April 2004 1031 hrs

HANOI : A diplomatic storm is expected this week when Vietnam sends a boatload of tourists to its military outposts in the disputed Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea.

Despite warnings from Beijing, its powerful northern neighbour, about violating China's territorial sovereignty, Hanoi has vowed to press ahead with the inaugural trip which it has billed as a trial run.

On Monday, around 100 people carefully selected for their political credentials will leave the southern business capital of Ho Chi Minh City for the seven-day round trip.

Duong Xuan Hoi, deputy director of the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, said the boat tour, which is being conducted under the auspices of the Ministry of Defence, had been in the pipeline since 1998.

But it was only officially announced last month, prompting an angry reaction from China and a cautious response from the Philippines.

Along with Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei, they claim sovereignty over all or part of the Spratly Islands, which straddle vital shipping lanes and fishing grounds and are believed to contain vast oil and gas reserves.

Except for Brunei, all the claimants have military personnel scattered across the archipelago of more than 100 islets, reefs and atolls with a total land mass of less than five square kilometres.

Vietnam insisted on March 25 that it has "indisputable sovereignty" over the Spratlys, and that organizing such a tour within Vietnamese territory was "normal" behaviour.

But China's foreign ministry called on Hanoi to respect a declaration signed in November 2002 by China and the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to avoid any actions which may heighten tensions there.

The tension escalated a week later when Vietnam warned Taiwan that construction of a bird-watching shelter on a reef six kilometres from the largest Spratly island, Taiping, now controlled by Taiwan, could lead to reprisals.

Taipei shrugged off the threat and reasserted its territorial integrity over the entire flashpoint archipelago, which lies around two-thirds of the way from Vietnam's southeastern coast to the southern Philippines.

In the past, squabbling among the claimants to the Spratlys has erupted into violence.

The most serious incident occured in 1988 when Chinese and Vietnamese naval forces clashed at Johnson Reef, resulting in the deaths of 78 Vietnamese navy personnel.

The communist neighbours clashed again in the Spratlys in 1992, and since then there have been numerous other incidents between the six claimants.

Diplomats and analysts, however, say this week's boat trip is unlikely to trigger similar skirmishes but instead will most probably result in another round of verbal jousting.

"Vietnam has chosen a relatively non-provocative act that has no military dimensions," said Carl Thayer, an Asian affairs expert at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra.

He believes that Hanoi is prepared to sacrifice diplomatic goodwill with its neighbours for the opportunity to showcase its claims to the Spratlys.

"Vietnam will proceed with the tourist trip to demonstrate its sovereignty over the features that it claims. This is part of a long-term strategy that both Vietnam and China engage in.

"Each episode creates a precedent for the future. It is not any single act that is important but the constant assertion of sovereignty over a long period of time," Thayer added. - AFP

Source: http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/southeastasia/view/80671/1/.html 

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