“The broad Pacific Ocean is vast enough to embrace both China and the United States,” said Chinese President Xi Jinping platitudinously, in a meeting Sunday with John Kerry. Xi met with Kerry as part of the Secretary of State’s trip around Asia in preparation for June’s U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, and they talked primarily about the fraught situation in the South China Sea. The discussions yielded a host of chestnuts like Xi’s words above; he also mentioned that “in my view the China-U.S. relationship has remained stable.”
But behind the façade of platitudes, tension is rising. In a big development in U.S.-China relations last week, Washington announced that it would deploy its ships and aircraft to ensure freedom of navigation in the critical sea lanes of the South China Sea. American sources specified that vessels would in principle not avoid entering 12 mile exclusion zones and an ADIZ that China claims around its new man-made islands.
Then, even while the meetings between Kerry and Xi were going on, Beijing continued to stir up trouble with its neighbors. Over the weekend, China declared a ban on fishing in the Gulf of Tonkin. China says the ban, which it has introduced annually, is merely a matter of resource preservation, but it also sets the precedent that China has authority over the area. Vietnam, which claims that territory as its own, is predictably furious. Reuters reports:
China’s May 16-Aug. 1 fishing ban violated international law and Vietnam’s sovereignty and jurisdictional rights, Vietnam’s foreign ministry said in a statement on its website. […].
A Vietnamese industry representative said China’s ban was part of an effort to take over Vietnam’s exclusive maritime zone in the Gulf of Tonkin, despite fishing and delimitation agreements signed in 2000.
“They know it’s illegal, violating Vietnamese and international laws but still do it, mostly to turn someone else’s thing into theirs or into a disputed thing,” said Nguyen Viet Thang, chairman of the Vietnam Association of Fisheries.
Thang said the association was encouraging fishermen to keep sailing while calling for more government protection for them.
The fight over fishing rights may seem like small fry, but in the argument over exclusive economics zones, everyone has more than just tuna and national pride in mind. Below the seabed, the contested waters are thought to hold enormous oil and gas reserves.
What China and Vietnam are doing in the Gulf of Tonkin is dangerous. With Chinese ships trying to enforce the ban and Vietnamese fishing vessels ignoring it, violent clashes become more likely. We don’t know whether the addition of U.S. warships to the regional mix will make things more or less stable, but in the wake of Kerry’s trip one thing remains clear. Even as the U.S. makes substantially stronger moves in the South China Sea, Beijing continues to establish effective control over as much of the coveted waters as possible, regardless of other nations’ claims to sovereignty.