By Thi Lam, Pacific News Service

A recent negotiation between Vietnam and China over the strategic Gulf of Tonkin shows China’s regional ambitions.


August 3, 2004 – On Jan. 19, 1974, as Acting Commander of I Corps of the South Vietnamese Army in Danang during the Vietnam War, I sent a patrol of F-5 jet fighters to destroy a Chinese Naval Task Force that attacked our patrol boats on a routine supply mission in the Paracel Islands, approximately 400 kilometers east of Danang. Unfortunately, by the time they reached the islands, the F-5s ran low on fuel and had to return to base without engaging the enemy.

Unknown to me at the time, the Chinese had every intention of controlling the Eastern Sea, with its huge oil reserve estimated at tens of billions of barrels. In fact, in a letter to the Chinese government dated Sept. 14, 1958, Phan Van Dong, then prime minister of North Vietnam, officially confirmed China’s territorial rights on the Paracel Islands, despite the fact that these islands had been historically considered an integral part of Vietnam.

The Chinese missile that sent one of our naval patrol boats to the bottom of the sea that fateful day in 1974 turned out to be the opening salvo for the conquest of the Paracels and — much later — of the Spratly archipelagoes and other internationally contested islands in the South China Sea. In particular, China’s claims on the rich gas field near the Natuma Islands, 400 miles northeast of Sumatra, Indonesia, and its dispute with Japan over the Senskaku Islands in the East China Sea almost sparked a regional crisis in the late 1990s.

Today, recent territorial concessions from Hanoi — the Vinh Bac Bo (Gulf of Tonkin) Treaty and the Letter of Resolution on Fishing Collaboration — show China’s southern expansionism has not relented.

The Vinh Bac Bo Pact effectively revoked the Peking Treaty, signed by France and China in 1887. That treaty, using Greenwich Meridian 108 East as the demarcation line, provided Vietnam and China, respectively, with 63 percent and 37 percent of territorial rights to the Vinh Bac Bo.

The new treaty, ratified without debate by Vietnam’s rubber-stamp National Assembly last June, replaced Meridian 108 E. with a central meridian located west of the original line of demarcation, thus reducing Vietnam territorial waters to about 53 percent. As a result, Vietnam lost approximately 12,000 square kilometers of territorial waters. Considering usual geographical criteria such as population density, number of islands owned, length of coastline, number of cities of 100,000 people or more located on the edge of the gulf, Vietnam, in the view of top international experts on the Law of the Sea, should be allocated at least 70 percent of the Vinh Bac Bo.

In addition to the Vinh Bac Bo Pact, Vietnam and China also signed a fishing agreement that provided for a 60-nautical-mile-wide central common fishing area. However, as Chinese boats are bigger and better equipped, they will dominate the “shared” area. Furthermore, with fishing nets that can extend up to 50 nautical miles, Chinese boats need not leave the common area to catch with impunity fish, shrimp and other marine products in close proximity to the Vietnamese coast.

Some experts estimate that most of the marine fauna in the Vinh Bac Bo will be extinct within a few years and as a result, millions of fishermen from Ninh Binh, Thanh Hoa, Nghe An, Ha Tinh, Quang Binh and Quang Tri provinces will be deprived of their traditional means of subsistence. Thousands might flock to big cities looking for work, creating a social and political crisis with incalculable consequences for the communist regime.

To generate new sources of energy, China has completed the construction of one hydroelectric dam and plans to build six more on the Mekong River, in Yunnan Province. Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, tributary countries of the Mekong, are concerned about the long-term economical and ecological impacts of these dams on the entire region. On the economic front, Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries, instead of benefiting from China’s blooming economy, have been complaining about the latter’s practice of flooding their markets with low-quality and cheap products, making it hard for local producers to compete.

The recent U.S.-Vietnam rapprochement — as evidenced by a U.S. naval vessel dogging in Saigon harbor and the Vietnam Minister of Defense visiting the Pentagon last year — obviously has not deterred China’s new assertiveness, because the United States has its hands full in Iraq and the Middle East and has no time nor the means to face the new Asian threat.

History has a curious way of repeating itself. In ancient times, Vietnamese kings periodically sent ambassadorial delegations to the Peking Imperial Court to pay tributes to their powerful masters to the north. This practice obviously is alive and well today, with two major differences: The old kings and emperors have been replaced by authoritarian rulers, and precious stones and ivories have been replaced by territorial concessions.

Only a strong and prosperous Vietnam, enjoying popular support and the support of the community of free and democratic nations, can preserve its territorial integrity. If the Taiwan and South Korea experiences are any indication, it is clear that only by implementing genuine political and economic reforms can Vietnam stand up to Chinese bullying and break this cycle of humiliating concessions that has plagued it for so long.


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PNS contributor Thi Q. Lam is author of the memoir The 25-Year Century: A South Vietnamese General Remembers the Vietnam War. He resides in Milpitas, Calif., where he teaches high school.

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