Vietnam on Wednesday, in a move uncommon in the region, demanded the immediate and unconditional release of nine fishermen that were detained last month by China, near the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.
The statements, which appeared in the Vietnamese media on Oct. 6, come a week before a meeting of regional defense ministers in Hanoi, including Robert Gates and his Chinese counterpart Liang Guanglie.
Representatives of Vietnam's foreign ministry further said China’s seizure of the crew was “irrational,” after meeting Chinese Embassy officials in Hanoi.
The spat bears a close resemblance to the recent Japan-China dispute, where Japan took Chinese fishermen into custody after they rammed two Japanese patrol boats in disputed waters; the Chinese regime loudly and strongly demanded Japan release the fishermen—which they promptly did.
Vietnam’s statements may even be a kind of gambit to at once embarrass China for its bombastic response to Japan, and to keep the issue on the table for the upcoming meeting, according to experts.
Vietnam “watched what happened between China and Japan last month … and perhaps Vietnam knows they can paint China as a hypocrite in a way, maybe bring some pressure to bear on China,” says Michael Mazza, senior research associate with the American Enterprise Institute. “This is a way to keep the issue of conflicting sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, and how China deals with it, on the front burner.”
Both incidents took place in the context of the Chinese Communist Party’s overarching claim, fresh this year, that the South China Sea constitutes part of its “core interests,” like its claims to sovereignty over Taiwan and Tibet.
The United States has advocated the need for a multilateral solution and one based on international law; Secretary of State Hilary Clinton earlier this year spoke against either the use of threats or coercion to back up sovereignty claims. These sentiments were roundly rejected by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
China currently exercises de facto control over the Paracel Islands. Four Vietnamese fishing vessels have been detained by the Chinese navy this year, who says that as long as they pay a fine, the individuals will be immediately released. At least one fisherman, taken into custody in March, however, has stated that his equipment was confiscated and not returned.
In the recent row the CCP claimed that the Vietnamese fishermen were arrested on Sept. 11 because they were using explosives while fishing. This is a dubious claim, according to Vietnam, because it did not feature in the first communication China sent to Vietnam on the matter. According to Vietnamese media reports, the boat was “carrying ordinary fishing instruments such as fishing nets and fishing lamps.”
Mazza doesn’t think the putative explosives are the key factor: “If it’s true that they were using explosives, I think it has little to do with that. I think it has more to do with China trying to assert sovereignty over the islands.”
By continually harassing and deterring fisherman, under the circumstance that Vietnam and other countries are powerless to stop it, China’s presence in the Paracel Islands would become a “kind of visible proof of sovereignty,” according to Mazza.
But Vietnam’s response represents something of a disjuncture from typical regional dynamics.
Dean Cheng, research fellow of the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation, said last week in the context of China’s claims over the South China Sea, that the lack of reaction on the part of China’s neighbors “may be teaching China the wrong lessons.”
“There is a persistent series of non-responses, and China I think is learning, or is being taught that it can push the envelope and it won’t be pushed back,” he said in a recent interview with The Epoch Times.
Now, he says, “Hopefully they’re learning that when they act in a particular fashion, there will be a push back. If they give [the fishermen] back, one might conclude that they’re learning a lesson we would prefer. If they say ‘No’, and that’s the end of it, I would say that they haven’t learned much at all,” he said.
“It depends on what happens next.”