Vietnamese sailors patrol one of the Spratly Islands. The country's… (Vietnam News Agency, AFP/Getty…)
Reporting in Beijing — The Chinese navy conducted three days of exercises — including live fire drills — in the disputed waters of the South China Sea this week, escalating tensions over a potentially resource-rich area also claimed by some neighboring countries in Southeast Asia.
The display of naval might hundreds of miles from China's southernmost border was widely seen as a warning to Vietnam, which this week conducted its own live fire drills near the Spratly Islands. Several countries claim sovereignty over the string of uninhabited volcanic rocks, which are ringed by jagged reefs and crusted with bird droppings but rendered attractive by virtue of the surrounding waters that are fertile fishing grounds and may cover significant reserves of oil and natural gas.
Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei all claim jurisdiction over some of the territory. But China contends its sovereignty dates from ancient national maps that show the islands to be an integral part of its territory.
On Friday, state television showed video of Chinese patrol boats firing repeated rounds at a target on what looked like an uninhabited island, as twin fighter jets streaked in tandem overhead. The report said 14 vessels participated in the maneuvers, staging antisubmarine and beach landing drills aimed at "defending atolls and protecting sea lanes.''
China has pressed its claim to the outcrops in the South China Sea more assertively in the last two years. Chinese civilian vessels have increasingly confronted fishing and oil-exploration ships from other countries operating in those waters.
The latest spike in tension began late last month when Vietnam accused a Chinese fishing boat, escorted by two patrol boats, of deliberately severing a cable of a seismic survey ship owned by PetroVietnam, the national oil and gas company. Relations between the two countries are fraught: They waged a border war in 1979, and have since clashed occasionally at sea over the Spratlys as well as another island chain, the Paracels.
The Vietnamese government is under pressure from its own intensely nationalist media and its citizenry to stand up to China. The sea skirmish in May sparked an anti-Chinese outpouring in Vietnam, and the government has permitted rare public demonstrations to allow a mostly youthful crowd to vent anger.
Social media are also fueling anti-Chinese sentiments, including an online petition to change the name of the South China Sea to the Southeast Asia Sea.
"Vietnam has always been in a bad position to have such a large and powerful neighbor as China, but we are also angry that the Vietnamese government takes such a subservient attitude toward China," said Thuc Vy Huynh, a 27-year-old activist and blogger.
Chinese officials say they are merely protecting their national economic interests.
"We cannot avoid dealing with this issue. The Vietnamese are collecting gas and encroaching on our territory," said Xu Guangyu, a retired Chinese military officer and analyst with the China Arms Control and Disarmament Assn.
China has also dispatched its largest civilian vessel to pass through the region, sending the 3,000-ton, helicopter-equipped Haixun to dock in Singapore. And an unidentified Oceanic Administration official was quoted in China's state news media as saying that the civilian maritime surveillance force would be increased to 15,000 from 9,000 personnel by 2020.
With Vietnam and the Philippines issuing sharp warnings against further Chinese encroachment on their commercial ventures, observers say the potential for violence is there.
"The highly charged situation in which vessels with paramilitary capabilities ignore each other's signals and engage in provocative actions could easily devolve into a shooting incident," said Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt of the International Crisis Group's Beijing office. "If bullets fly, we could really see things escalate."
The dispute also has implications for the United States, which is the largest naval power in Southeast Asia and has declared freedom of navigation in the waters to be a U.S. national interest. The Obama administration has called for the competing claims to be resolved through an international diplomatic process involving all countries with a stake in the issue.
China rejects that approach, contending that differences should be resolved with each country individually.
As China adopts a more forceful posture in its international relations, nervous neighbors have become more receptive to U.S. involvement, pushing countries like Vietnam to seek an American counterweight to Chinese power.
But the Vietnamese government is also mindful of the risks of disrupting its growing economic ties with China. It has been careful, so far, to avoid overly provoking Beijing. Its live-fire drill conducted Monday appeared to be an anticlimactic affair, conducted close to land without the firing of anti-ship missiles.
"The cable-cutting incident was like the work of hooligans," said Carl Thayer, a Vietnam scholar teaching at the Australian Defense Force Academy. "But it is not something Vietnam is going to war over."