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
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
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
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
"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