At the start of the 70’s—when the US bombarding was very massive—Vietnam had an unusual ally. The fishermen’s boats that sailed the South China Sea were equipped with Soviet radars to detect the first B52 flights that took off from U.S. bases in the Philippines. The alarm launched by radio to Hanoi allowed evacuations for shelters and ultimately for saving human lives.
At a distance of four decades, the situation has completely changed and the spectacular switch of allies is now newly set up. In that same sea, the tension surrounding a handful of little islands has now become dangerous. Two archipelagos, Paracelsus and Spratly, are disputed between China and several south-east Asian countries . They are located offshore, with limited access and virtually uninhabited. The first is essentially claimed by China and Vietnam; the second- more important one— is claimed by the same two countries with the addition of the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. The interest towards these islands grew with the success of East Asia. Their nations are now powerful enough to make a political statement. No longer solely focused on growth, their ambitions have crossed their frontiers. The reasons are classically sought in politics, economics and military.
The waters surrounding the two archipelagos are immense, and probably rich with fish, natural gas and oil. The history and geography have kept them out of commercial trading, but now their domain is considered crucial for the protection of the coasts. Each country tends to have their enemies as far as possible from their cities. Finally, the islands are located at the heart of oil route transportation that serves the countries of northeast Asia, the largest GDPs of the Far East: China, Japan, and South Korea. Tanks full of energy go up north after rounding Singapore and the Strait of Malacca.
Although these tension points are not new, what is striking is the animosity of the contrast and the international involvement. China and Vietnam are at the heart of the dispute. Each press release of their respective Foreign Ministers underlines their inalienable rights to the islands, the sovereignty proved by history, the preconceived hostility of the other country. The skirmishes are so far limited to arrests of fishermen accused of violating territorial waters or to a formal protest when a lighthouse is built on an island. But now the frictions are more palpable. Vietnam has advanced its willingness to explore some marine platforms to discover oil deposits.
ExxonMobil and Shell have offered technical assistance. China has stepped in and cut the cables positioned on the Vietnamese seabed because they considered them an intrusion into their territorial waters. In an escalation whose tones seemed taken from the past, Hanoi’s Minister of Defence has issued rules of conduct for population’s mobilization in case of war. The last time this measure was taken was in 1982. It describes procedures, resources, and exemptions, such as those reserved for martyrs’ sons of the war against the U.S. Paradoxically, support for Vietnam comes from Washington. During the last ASEAN meeting, Hillary Clinton affirmed that these tensions should be resolved in a multilateral forum and that the U.S. is prepared to make a contribution.
Hanoi applauded; Beijing was strongly opposed. It does not consider the U.S. as a contender but fears a military presence. The same country that Hanoi was fighting against, now believes as being a factor of stability and guaranteed balance.