Vietnam: the prowling wolf in the Spratlys

Herman Tiu Laurel / Phil-BRICS Strategic Studies / July 1, 2020

The Western and much of Philippine mainstream media has popularized the notion of “Chinese aggression” or “newly-found assertiveness of China” in the South China Sea, in connection with China’s nine-dash-line claims in the region.

But little or none is said of the actual “sea wolf” prowling and snaring its extensive prizes in the North and South China Sea including a huge swathe of the Philippines’ claims in the Spratlys.

The voracity of Vietnam in the South China Sea, which is the part that concerns the Philippines, does not escape even the U.S. monitoring, although America’s forward monitoring post in the region – the Asia Maritime Transparency Institute – maintains a quiet mien even if watchful eye.

In fact, on April 19, 2019 the Voice of American news reported on “How Vietnam Quietly Built Up 10 Islands in Asia’s Most Disputed Sea.”

Earlier however, The Diplomat had already documented Vietnam acquisitions at 21 features in the Spratly Islands, where they have installed 34 outposts. The latest feature Vietnam took a few days after a bloody clash on March 14, 1988 with China at Johnson South Reef.

These are: Southwest Cay (Vietnamese: Song Tu Tay), South Reef (Da Nam), Petley Reef (Nui Thi or Da Thi), Sand Cay (Son Ca), Namyit Island (Nam Yet), Discovery Great Reef (Da Lon), Sin Cowe Island (Sinh Ton), Collins Reef (Co Lin), Lansdowne Reef (Len Dao), Sin Cowe East Island (Sinh Ton Dong), Ladd Reef (Da Lat), Spratly Island (Truong Sa or Truong Sa Lon), West Reef (Da Tay), Central Reef (Truong Sa Dong), East Reef (Da Dong), Pearson Reef (Phan Vinh), Allison Reef (Toc Tan), Cornwallis South Reef (Nui Le), Pigeon or Tennent Reef (Tien Nu), Barque Canada Reef (Thuyen Chai), Amboyna Cay (An Bang).

Vietnam has also started to build 14 lookout structures (nha gian in Vietnamese) on six underwater banks or platforms located southwest of the Spratly Islands, where they have also started to set up permanent structures on Vanguard Bank (Bai Tu Chinh), Rifleman Bank (Bai Vung May), and Prince of Wales Bank (Bai Phuc Tan) in 1989, on Prince Consort Bank (Bai Phuc Nguyen) in 1990, and on Grainger Bank (Bai Que Duong) and Alexandra Bank (Bai Huyen Tran) in 1991. 

Whether these form part of the Spratly Islands is a matter of debate. China’s maps group them together with the Spratlys proper while treating them as if they were landforms above water.

These platforms measure between 100 and 250 square meters each, and stand on shallow elevations lying between seven and 25 meters below the sea surface. They show up during low tide and disappear during high tide. As a result, the Chinese numbers of the Vietnamese-occupied features in the Spratly Islands range typically between 27 and 30.

Philippine claims

Compared to the Vietnamese, the Philippines occupies only nine features or islands as some will insist they are. China occupies seven features, reefs and after reclamation operations referred to by some as islands.

The stark differences in the numbers of features claimed and occupied is obvious for all to see, yet it is a wonder why very few have raised this issue – especially among the most rabid Filipino “patriots” perennially egging for a fight with China.

The aggressive acquisitiveness of Vietnam transcends the ideological barrier of the Vietnamese government as one can see from a 1975 incident between the Philippines and Vietnam.

The Philippines in pursuit of its claims in the Spratlys after declaring the Kalayaan Island Group as part of the Philippines and sent troops from 1968 through 1971 to occupy its islands and naming them – Pagasa (Thitu Island), Parola (Northeast Cay), Panata (Loaita Cay), Kota (Loaita Island), Likas (West York Island), Patag (Flat Island), Lawak (Nanshan Island), Ayungin (Second Thomas Shoal) and Rizal (Commodore Reef).

Another feature could be Balagtas (Irving Reef), which lies between Panata and Likas Islands. There are no structures on this reef, but Philippine Navy ships take turns to guard the feature. 

Philippines victim of Vietnam acquisitiveness

In 1975 the Vietnamese using deception dislodged the Philippine Marines from originally was our tenth island Pugad (Southwest Cay) and renamed it Song Tu Tay. They have since installed their machine guns but the Philippine has so far not made a move at recovery.

Vietnamese aggressiveness goes beyond these territorial disputes.

Again, when news of fisheries poachers come up in the local newspapers it will invariably be about Chinese poachers.

However, in October of 2018 we were let in by Secretary Delfin Lorenzana to a secret that Philippine mainstream media kept from us for a long time when the defense chief hit the headlines saying “Vietnam most frequent poachers in PH waters – Lorenzana.”

In contrast to the Vietnamese, China has never even attempted to take any island or feature occupied by Philippine troops – yet China is treated by the Western and Philippine media as the “baddest” of the bad.

Hence, the question has been asked: Is Vietnam being given a pass only because it is the West does not consider it a threat thus the media’s silence – while it amplifies China as the big bad wolf only because it threatens America’s hegemony.

There is a recurrent mention from Philippine sources of China’s alleged grab of the Mischief Reef claimed already by the Philippines, but from all sources I have reviewed the Philippines never showed any occupation of the feature.

Occupation is one of the key elements of a territorial claim, hence the rush by all claimant countries to establish presence in the multitude of features in the South China Sea through occupation, control and administration of the said features.

As the wolf is a sly predator so is Vietnam, by playing the victim card appealing for and to world sympathy against the “big bully” China. But there is actually good logic in China’s moves in the South China Sea that is missed by almost all and sundry studying and reacting to the South China Sea disputes issues.

China’s bilateralism

This logic I discern from patterns of two bilateral interactions of China, one with Vietnam which is one of intransigence and the one with the Philippines which is of dialogue and win-win compromise.

The dialogue and negotiations between China and the Philippines resulted in a favorable 60/40 joint development and exploitation of the oil and gas resources of the Reed Bank which was previously disputed between the two countries. The dialogue resulted in an arrangement favorable to the Philippines which got the majority share from the deal. It is to be noted that the deal is between the two countries and no third country is involved.

The constant confrontations in the Paracel and the Spratlys areas between China and Vietnam over oil exploration and drilling operations of the two countries have not amounted to any gain for Vietnam, even though Vietnam has engaged other countries to joint ventures with it.

Third-country partners of Vietnam have been forced to stop joint projects with Vietnam in response to China’s objections to Vietnam ventures in the disputed areas – like Spanish company Repsol.

One invariable theme I discern from China’s published pronouncements and hear from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as explanations from Chinese diplomats I discuss with in the Philippines – is the theme of “cooperation” over and in South China Sea relations among China and Asean “stakeholders”, i.e. those countries that share that have coastlines to the China Sea.

China’s inclusivism

And that cooperation includes “sharing” of the Sea and its resources – but exclusively to the stakeholders.

I decipher several layers of meanings in this call for cooperation.

One is that pursuing each individual claim will only lead to a perpetual deadlock, and physical challenges will resolve nothing leading to extended periods of enmity.

A second says that the resources and security advantages of the SCS should benefit only the stakeholders as essential raw materials and goods such as fisheries can be depleted if not managed and exhausted if insatiable non-stakeholders are allowed in.

The PHL-China joint oil and gas 60/40 venture favorable to the smaller country is a perfect template for future agreements between the two countries and other stakeholders with China.

China with its huge population and advanced economy needs the resources while ensuring the smaller countries will also obtain sufficient shares of the resources for their own needs. At the same time, China with its vast capabilities can jointly manage conservation with the other stakeholders as China is already doing with its annual fisheries moratorium to conserve fisheries in the SCS.

 Vietnam, left to its own devices, will prove to be more belligerent dealer with other stakeholders in the South China Sea.

If we go by the historical record of Vietnam with its land-based neighbors Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, we will hear a litany of anti-Vietnam’s protests for its historical aggression into territories of those countries through various periods of history – against Cambodia in the 14th century, against Thailand in the 15th and Laos through those eras –  hence a strong lingering anti-Vietnamese cultural sentiments in those countries.

Fallacious UNCLOS ascendancy

Much is being made of the recent Asean summit statement written by the current chair Vietnam asserting UNCLOS as basis for claims over the South China Sea.

The dramatic statement was Asean’s members’ deference to the current chair which is more symbolic and changes little. UNCLOS is only one of several bases for laying claims to territory, the final settlement mode will still be dialogue and negotiations –physical challenges over claims is fruitless dreaming (or warmongering).

China’s unofficial position is expressed by Global Times:

“It is rational that ASEAN members intend to maintain their claims and defend their interests in the upcoming talks with China.

“Vietnam seems to be making the most claims. By virtue of being ASEAN”s rotating chairmanship this year, Hanoi may entice other countries to try to maximize their interests in the COC talks with Beijing…. Additionally, US repeated interference in the region may also ramp up confidence among ASEAN members.

 “China should further make efforts to expand cooperation with ASEAN countries, especially in the domains of non-traditional security. These would include joint maritime research, rescue operations, and crackdowns on piracy.

“More mutual interests are likely to create more mutual trust. This is another way to play down Southeast Asian countries’ sticking points with China.”

 We retain our admiration for the tenacity of Vietnamese society for taking care of its own interests in the progress, growth and empowerment of its nation and economy, the same tenacity that enabled it to deal a major blow to the top imperialist and global hegemon of the 20th Century – the United States of America.

But the South China Sea disputes is a whole new ball game in a whole new century.

We must keep in mind that since time immemorial the greater part of the SCS is common and now viewed as traditional fishing ground of all the stakeholders around the sea and, in the end, ought to be managed as such.

Aside from Vietnam there is another headache to contend with in the SCS and the traditional fishing ground principle – Indonesia.

In light of past and recent incidences of arrest and deliberate blowing up of Asean member states’ fishing vessel, including Filipinos, and very recent detention of Malaysian and Filipino fishing boats – this is a subject for a future article.

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6 responses to “Vietnam: the prowling wolf in the Spratlys”

  1. Thanks. Very interesting . Has the Ph-Ch Joint project begun operations? Mike

    Sent from my iPhone Mike Billington


    1. sorry for the very very late reply. the oil-gas joint PHL-China project is now on the engineering drawing board… so its moving forward… will keep you updated…

  2. Piloso Potassium Avatar
    Piloso Potassium

    Interesting. Does this mean that our government should bow down to Vietnam as well? More masters for Gong Di?

    1. Herman Laurel Avatar
      Herman Laurel

      It means all the claimant governments will have to end up talking to each other and find some compromise to “share” between and amongst each other… you see, Digong has succeeded in setting the template with China in the 60/40 oil-gas deal over disputed Reed Bank, Vietnam should also yield to compromise with the PHL over areas of the 20 plus so islands or features they claim, and with China too… as well as with Malaysia and Brunei where they have overlapping claims and sovereign rights demands…

      1. Piloso Potassium Avatar
        Piloso Potassium

        The nine dash line claim pretty much ended any chance of a multilateral agreement. Next, Beijing swooped down on the claimant furthest East and cut a sweet deal (I must say, Brother Xi is playing a masterful game of global Weiqi). Vietnam can be reasoned with; as for China, all the administration’s willing to do is whimper. Worry less about a wolf on the prowl than a tiger breathing down your neck.

  3. The Nine Dash like is a claim like all the ohter claims of the other five claimants, and when one claimant states that it seeks negotiation that means the conflicting claims can be discussed and some compromise – the Win Win solution that Chiuna keeps repeating – can be found and which was found for example in the PHL-China joint oil and gas deal that 60 is alloted to the PHL for a big win … It is Vietnam and Indonesia that seems to be truly uncompromising…

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