Vietnamese authorities have captured a Chinese vessel and its crew for allegedly entering its waters. DW talks to security analyst Bill Hayton about the implications of the incident.
Vietnamese coast guards seized the Chinese ship along with three crew members on Thursday, March 31, near the Bach Long Vi island in the Gulf of Tonkin. The vessel was carrying 100,000 liters of diesel fuel. The authorities claimed the ship was being used to refuel Chinese shipping boats operating illegally in the area.
DW: Why did the Vietnamese government take five days to announce the capture of the Chinese Vessel?
Bill Hayton: Everything related to China is very sensitive. The Vietnamese government probably wanted to make sure they had complete legal and political protection before going public and embarrassing themselves.
Vietnam claims it captured the Chinese vessel near the Bach Long Vi island in the Gulf of Tonkin. Is the area clearly inside Vietnamese waters?
This island is situated between the Vietnamese and Chinese coasts - I think 110 kilometers from Vietnam and 130 kilometers from China. So it is just on the Vietnamese side of the line. It is a tiny island, about a kilometer in diameter, I think. It used to be a disputed territory, but now both sides agree that it is part of Vietnam. When Vietnam and China defined their maritime boundary in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1999, and again in 2004, the island was put on the Vietnamese side of the line and fishing zones were drawn around it.
It is still a complicated issue. Initially, some transitional arrangements were put in place. A line was drawn, and the countries agreed that there would be a temporary common fishing zone and a permanent joint fishing zone. That kind of arrangement has largely remained in place.
This incident likely deals with Chinese fisherman going against the agreements of their own volition. Probably, they just wanted to catch fish, and were not in the waters as part of a Chinese state initiative to try and challenge Vietnam.
Do these incidents happen regularly?
I think it is a new incident in the sense that the governments are openly talking about it. It may even have been new that Vietnam has detained a Chinese ship in this way. The problem with Vietnam and China is that without free press it is hard to know whether we are witnessing a new incident or is it just new reporting of something that has been going on.
China and Vietnam have maintained reasonably good relations in the Gulf of Tonkin even in their difficult moments. Even during the 2014 crisis, the two countries held discussions to determine working arrangements in the Tonkin Gulf.
I wouldn't be surprised if the Vietnamese authorities had talked about this with their Chinese counterparts before taking any action. Both sides have a clear agreement and the ship was heading in the wrong area. The Chinese can't object to Vietnam policing its own waters.
A new Vietnamese government is being formed. Do you see any connection between the new administration and the incident?
It could be a signal by the Communist Party of Vietnam that it is not submitting to China on territorial issues. But this incident is different as it didn't happen in disputed waters. Vietnam has a strong case and it will be hard for Beijing to refute it.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration is currently working on the legality of China's nine-dotted line claim over the South China Sea, which is questioned by the Philippines. Do you see any link between the recent incident and the arbitration case in The Hague, where a verdict is expected soon?
Not directly. Publicizing it could be aimed for a domestic consumption. Vietnam has remained sort of neutral on the case in The Hague. I don't see a direct connection here.
Bill Hayton is Associate Fellow at the Asia Program of the London-based Chatham House think tank. His book "The South China Sea" was published in 2014 by Yale University Press.
The interview was conducted by Rodion Ebbighausen.