Tiny islets that could explode China-Vietnam relationship

“Belong to Vietnam!” call about 30 schoolchildren, even louder. Their singing echoes through the three-story Paracel Islands The museum in Da Nang, which officials say cost the Vietnamese government $ 1.8 million to build.

Since opening in 2018, approximately half of the 40,000 visitors have been schoolchildren who can explore the exhibits, including documents, maps and photographs, and all curators have crammed one home.

The Paracel Islands belong to Vietnam. Not to China.

Named 16th-century Portuguese maps, Paracels is a collection of 130 small coral islands and reefs in the northwestern part of the South China Sea. They support abundant marine life. But other than being just rich fishing ground, there is speculation that the islands could contain potential energy reserves.

They don’t have an indigenous population to talk about, they’re just Chinese military garrisons of 1,400 people, according to the CIA Factbook.

But there is no certainty who really owns them. Ask one expert, and the answer will be that Vietnam has the strongest claims. Ask another, and the answer will be China.

What is undeniable is that Paraceles have been in Chinese hands for 45 years.

As Peking all claims almost the entire South China Sea since its territory and strives to be the supreme influence on resources and access in this region and beyond, Hanoi is getting tired.

The conflict is rooted deep in history

If anyone in Vietnam knows the significance of the Paracel Islands Museum, it is Tran Duc Anh Son.

One of the leading experts on the South China Sea, he helped nurture the museum’s material, including what he says is the earliest evidence of Vietnam’s sovereignty over the Paracelsus: a 1686 map showing the islands as belonging the Nguyen dynasty, which ruled much of today’s modern Vietnam.

A map was displayed at the Paracel Islands Museum to support Vietnam's claims to sovereignty over China.

In the late 17th century, the Nguyen dynasty sent a fleet of fishermen. Đội Hoàng Sa, “occupy those islands and collect edible bird nests and seafood to return to their masters,” says Anh Son.

These fishermen gave the islands their Vietnamese name: the Hoang Sa archipelago. In 1816, Anh Son of the Nguyen dynasty was officially annexed by King Gia Long to Paracell, establishing the sovereignty of Vietnam.

But China says its claims about the islands can be traced back thousands of years.

“China’s activities in the South China Sea date back more than 2,000 years. China was the first country to discover, name, explore and exploit the resources of the South China Sea and the first to continuously exercise sovereign powers over them,” the country’s foreign ministry said. in the 2014 document.

China calls the Paracels the Xisha Islands.

The $ 1.8 million Paracel Islands Museum opened in Da Nang, Vietnam, in 2018.

Experts say it is more complex than who first named or copied the area.

Mark Hoskin, a researcher at the Center for International Studies and Diplomacy at the University of London, says independent records from 1823 depict Chinese vessels and fishermen in Paracele.

And legally, Hoskin says, Vietnam may have waived any claim to the Paracelsus in 1958, when the then prime minister of North Vietnam wrote a letter to the Chinese government saying Hanoi “recognizes and approves” Beijing’s claims to sovereignty over the South China Sea and its territory.

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But others are claiming the right to Vietnam, including Raul Pedroza, a former professor of international law at the U.S. School of Naval Warfare.

Pedroza argues in a 2014 analysis for the nonprofit research organization CNA that Vietnam showed a clear interest in sovereignty over the Paracels from the early 1700s onwards, and maintained it through French colonial times in the first half of the 20th century and the 1954 partition and subsequent unification. Vietnam in 1975.

China did not show a real interest in sovereignty until 1909, when it sent a small fleet of naval ships to inspect and place markers on some of the islands, Pedroza claims.

Photos in exhibitions inside the Paracel Islands Museum show ships involved in the conflict with China

Even then, the Chinese did not live there until China occupied Woody Island – the largest land mass in the Paracels – in 1956, and the rest of the archipelago in 1974 after a brief but bloody battle with the then South Vietnamese forces. However, China’s actions in both cases violated the prohibition of the United Nations force to endanger the territorial integrity of another nation, Pedroza claims, and is not valid for the assertion of sovereignty.

The Paracels Museum highlights the 1974 battle, in which 53 South Vietnamese troops were killed, and the map details battles, pictures of ships involved and pictures of the dead, and testimonies say they “gave their lives to protect every inch of their Homelands on the high seas. “

Of course, the Chinese version of events is that Beijing has returned what rightfully belongs to China.

Images from DigitalGlobe taken in April 2016 from Woody Island in the South China Sea.
Since ousting the last Vietnamese troops from Paracell in 1974, China has steadily stepped up its demand for islands.. placing military garrisons on them and building an airport and an artificial port on Woody Island. Earlier this summer, China has deployed J-10 fighter jets to the island, a signal to the region that it is their territory and they can place military aircraft there whenever they want, ”said Carl Schuster, former director of operations of the U.S. Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center.

“It also makes a statement that I can expand the reach of my air force over the South China Sea as needed or desired,” Schuster said.

And in Da Nang, just 375 kilometers directly west of Paracell, it’s a place.

Signs that the problem is not going away

Outside the Paracel Island Museum sits a fishing boat 90152 TS.

At first glance, it does not differ much from other ships that are being repaired along the coastal highway. But inside the museum, visitors learn his story.

Fishing boat 90152 sits in front of the Paracel Island Museum in Da Nang, Vietnam. The ship sank in a clash with China in 2014, was rebuilt by Vietnam and sits in front of the museum.
It sank in 2014 during a conflict with a Chinese naval surveillance ship near Paracelas, his crew was later rescued by another Vietnamese ship. But the symbolism of that conflict remains strong.

“90152 TS is evidence of allegations of indecent acts in China,” a museum spokesman explained in an email how a larger Chinese ship with a steel suspension easily overcame a smaller, wooden Vietnamese one.

The ship is a symbol of Vietnam’s “determination” to protect its sovereignty over the islands, a spokesman added.

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The Beijing version of the story from 90152 is different.

According to China’s state-run Xinhua news agency, the Vietnamese vessel “disturbed” a Chinese fishing boat in waters near Paracel. Xinhua reported at the time that a Vietnamese boat capsized after “stumbling” with a Chinese fishing boat.

A Vietnamese fishing boat is anchored along the beach in Da Nang, Vietnam, across the highway from the Paracel Island Museum.

It’s the kind of incident that points out how quickly things can explode in the South China Sea.

As China pushed back its demands for maritime territory, it built and fortified islands in the Spratly chain – claimed by Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines – while sailing boats and ships around the Philippines under the control of Thitu Island earlier this year.

And in an incident similar to the 2014 case, a Philippine fishing boat sank after colliding with a larger Chinese boat in early June. Chinese state media reports say a Chinese boat hit a Philippine boat as it moved quickly out of the area because its crew felt threatened by the seven or eight Philippine boats that “surrounded” it while fishing.

But the Philippine media denied this, saying a larger Chinese ship tried to intimidate the Filipinos.

Said Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist Richard Heydarian it was an indicator of “the rise of China as an increasingly courageous regional hegemon.”

He called China’s fishing fleet “the tip of the dagger of Beijing’s efforts to dominate neighboring waters.”

Meanwhile, the South China Sea clash between Vietnam and China flared up again this summer, when a Chinese research ship and its entourage stormed Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone – an area 200 kilometers off the coast of the country where it has exclusive mineral rights – in Spratlys.

The area is believed to have significant gas and oil deposits, which Vietnam is trying to develop.

Leaders in Hanoi made their views clear, and on July 19, the Foreign Ministry called on all Chinese ships to leave Vietnamese waters.

Analysts say China’s actions are worrying.

“Beijing is testing not only Vietnam, but the United States and the international community.” It was written by Huong Le Thu, a senior analyst at the Australian Institute for Strategic Policy in an analysis this month.

The Chinese aggressions in the South China Sea are Beijing’s tests to see how far all countries will go in supporting “rules-based order,” she wrote.

What can Vietnam Island push?

China, with its superior military and financial resources, seems to be leading the fight for the South China Sea. Hanoi’s search for Paracelsus may be more quixotic than practical.

“It’s a bit of a mystery to me,” said Bill Hayton, an associate in the Asia-Pacific program at Chatham House in London. “Does the Vietnamese Communist Party really expect the island to return? Do they expect the population to remain indefinitely on the brink of nationalist hysteria?”

Ben Bland, director of research in Southeast Asia at Australia’s Lowy Institute, says the “use it or lose it” practice is used in Vietnam. “Governments want to show how they manage those territories as a way to support or build a deeper framework around their territorial claims,” Bland says.

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And there are more complex ways to build requirements, he said. Such as a museum.

Activists are planting chrysanthemums and praying during a rally marking the 42nd anniversary of the 1974 naval battle between China and then-Vietnamese troops over the Paracel Islands, in Hanoi, on January 19, 2017.

But there seems to be little room for subtlety in the Paracel Islands.

“The real situation is that China has occupied the entire Paracel group for 40 years and, a brief military action by Vietnam to rebuild the archipelago, will never go away,” wrote CNA senior colleague Michael McDevitt.

And that limits the possibilities of Hanoi.

“Neither side is willing to risk war to force the issue to a conclusion. The territorial demand is a never-ending journey,” Hayton said.

Anh Son, a Vietnamese expert, agrees.

“We cannot start a war with China because it would be absolutely disastrous for our people,” he said. “I know that China will not give in easily, but currently initiating proceedings against the Tribunal is the only solution.”

Street view

Vietnam does not limit its propaganda campaign to the Paracel Island Museum alone.

Imperial City in Hue, one of Vietnam’s most popular tourist attractions in the historic capital, a few hours drive north of Da Nang, shows what Vietnam calls “China’s oldest map of modern times”.

At the Hue Citadel is a map of what Vietnam calls it

“This shows that in the early 20th century the southernmost point on Chinese territory was Hainan Island and nowhere is there any mention of the Xisha and Nansha archipelagos, which are actually the Vietnamese archipelagos of Hoang Sa (Paracel) and Truong Sa (Spratly),” the inscription on the large wall screen reads. .

Meanwhile, on Da Nang beach the road is busy. Visitors cross its higher traffic lanes, unregulated by traffic lights, in a ballet in which cars and scooters barely slow down as pedestrians tirelessly dig across the highway intact.

The sign says the beach is called My Khe, but some tourist maps and guides call it “China Beach”.

These nicknames were given to him by American soldiers, for whom it was a station for rest and recreation.

But the Vietnamese government is based on the term i threatens to shut down domestic sites that use it.
Locals gather for tai chi and swimming at My Khe beach in Da Nang, Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, the Americans called this Chinese beach.

Many locals do not accept this well either.

On TripAdvisor, a Vietnamese user answers the question “where to find Chinese beach?”

“There are no Vietnamese beaches in China!” he writes, telling the examiner if they want to find a Chinese beach, they should go to China.

The feeling is transferred to the beach itself in July morning.

“Don’t call it that,” says one local, who asked not to be named, when asked about the money. This only “encourages” the violation of Beijing on the territory of Vietnam.

He acknowledges the effect of these maps, the museum a few miles along the beach, the unwavering attitude of the Vietnamese government towards the Paracelsus.

They are part of Vietnam and eventually need to get back to them in some way.

“Today we keep the peace,” he says. “Tomorrow, who knows?”

CNN’s Dan Tham contributed to this report.

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