The Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea are thought to have rich deposits of oil and gas and thus several countries lay claim to them, including China and Vietnam.
The region is believed to be rich in gas and oil deposits
China, Taiwan and four Southeast Asian nations, including Vietnam and the Philippines, have conflicting claims over the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. The area is believed to have rich deposits of oil and gas and it also has a rich fishing ground. Moreover, the region is important from a geostrategic point of view because it is located in the shipping lane from Southeast Asia and southern China to the Middle East, Africa and Europe. Some 80 percent of oil deliveries to China take this route.
The disputes have often escalated in the past, with dozens of soldiers dying in the battle of the Paracel Islands in 1974 between China and Vietnam, but all claimants currently say officially that they are seeking a peaceful resolution.
In the summer, many Vietnamese took to the streets to protest against China
In May, the Philippine President Benigno Aquino openly warned the Chinese against an arms race saying that it would only exacerbate tension in the area. In July the foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China adopted the implementing guidelines of the "Declaration of the Code of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC)." Although the code is very vague, within it all parties agree to promote peace, stability, mutual trust and to seek peaceful solutions to their disputes.
However, this did not prevent a series of incidents in which Vietnamese boats were shot at by the Chinese navy and accused of trespassing, which led to angry protests in Vietnam. Phuong Le Trong from Bonn University told Deutsche Welle that these protests underlined the fact that a "large majority of the Vietnamese population wants clearer policies and more assertion" in the face of Beijing. Most Vietnamese want the government to defend the islands that they see as sovereign territory against China, he said.
China did not react well to the protests and an article in the Global Times, the English-language newspaper produced by the Communist Party, called for a military solution. "For those who infringe upon our sovereignty to steal the oil, we need to warn them politely and then take action if they don't respond. We shouldn't waste the opportunity to launch some tiny-scale battles that could deter provocateurs from going further."
Nguyen Phu Trong and Hu Jintao met earlier this month in China
Gerhard Will from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs told Deutsche Welle that Vietnam not following a coherent line was a major problem. Hanoi has been conducting see-saw politics - at the same time trying to find a balance between the different parties and keeping as many options open as possible.
Earlier this month, the situation became even more complicated when India and Vietnam signed an accord to promote oil exploration in Vietnamese waters, provoking China's ire even more.
At the same time, Nguyen Phu Trong, the Secretary General of Vietnam’s Communist Party, signed an agreement in Beijing outlining basic guidelines on how future negotiations should be conducted and how conflicts in the area should be settled.
Phong Le Trong says that the government's "double strategy" and the lack of transparency in the decision process has also angered the confused population. Gerhard Will for his part does not think Hanoi's see-saw policy is contributing much to political stability in the South China Sea and warns that it would not take much to tip the very fragile balance in the region.
Author: Rodion Ebbighausen / act
Editor: Manasi Gopalakrishnan