Psychological warfare in the South China Sea
HANOI - Maritime disputes between China and Vietnam have entered a dangerous new realm: psychological warfare. Tit-for-tat provocations, including marine patrol deployments in disputed areas in the South China Sea and Beijing's decision to include territories it claims on maps printed in its national passports, have intensified in recent months, adding new destabilizing variables to an already volatile situation.
While both sides have repeatedly stated their intention to achieve a peaceful solution through negotiations, including through a joint statement issued in 2011, at present there is little or no direct dialogue between the two governments. Beijing and Hanoi must now also face rising nationalism among their citizens, including periodic anti-China street protests in Vietnam and widespread anti-Vietnam rhetoric on Chinese citizens' private blogs and Facebook pages related to the South China Sea disputes.
Rather than dialogue, China and Vietnam seem to be increasingly engaged in a thorny game of psychological warfare, with the apparent aim to undermine the other sides' ability to conduct potential combat operations in the disputed areas. While Vietnam's reactions to China's moves have appeared more defensive than offensive, China's actions have more clearly aimed at deterring and demoralizing Vietnam's smaller and comparatively poorly equipped military and navy.
When an annual fishing ban imposed by China over northern areas of the South China Sea was lifted last August, more than 14,000 fishing boats registered in China's Guangdong province and another 9,000 ships carrying over 35,000 fishermen from nearby Hainan Island overwhelmed contested maritime areas. Vietnamese officials suggested at the time that the intention behind the seemingly coordinated dispatchment of such a large number of vessels "was not to fish''.
The Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in a report entitled "Stirring up the South China Sea II: Regional Responses" that the large number of fishing boats "also provide a pretext for increased civilian patrols in the South China Sea and rally nationalist sentiment''.
In late January, Vietnam reacted by establishing a new fishery bureau to patrol waters it claims in the South China Sea. According to the enabling executive decree, members of the new ''Vietnam Fisheries Patrol'' will have authority to impose penalties on local and foreign fishing organizations and individuals that operate within Vietnam's claimed maritime areas.
The patrol group will also be involved in disaster prevention and control, as well as search and rescue missions, according to the decree. The bureau's creation follows on a Law of the Sea passed last year by Vietnam's General Assembly. China vigorously protested on the grounds the new law violated its sovereign territory. The government-influenced CCTV commented similarly that the new bureau's creation represented a violation of China's "sovereignty and maritime rights''.
In apparent tit-for-tat response, Chinese officials announced plans in early March to establish a new village on Mischief Reef, a large reef in the Spratly archipelago. On March 7, Hanoi reaffirmed its sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos, prompting China for the first time to deploy a marine surveillance unit outfitted with helicopters to carry out patrol and observation missions near the contested islands.
On March 10, three China Marine Surveillance (CMS) ships departed with fanfare from the port of the newly created Sansha City on Hainan Island. Three days later, China's official news agency Xinhua reported that two Vietnam-registered fishing ships were driven out of China's territorial waters by one of the CMS vessels. The report said the Vietnamese boats were suspected of illegal fishing within China's territorial waters.
Position of weakness
Hanoi did not issue an official statement in response to the incident, which significantly occurred while Vietnam commemorated a 1988 sea battle in the contested Spratly Islands in which China routed Vietnamese forces, killing 64 soldiers. Vietnamese state-controlled media, which reported widely on the anniversary, continues to assert that Gac Ma island in the same archipelago is illegally occupied by China - a notion that activists rallied around at anti-China protests held last month in Hanoi.
Days later, on March 25, Hanoi strongly protested when a Chinese boat shot flares at a Vietnamese fishing vessel in the contested Paracel archipelago. Vietnamese officials demanded that Beijing investigate and take action against the perpetrators for what Hanoi viewed as a "wrongful and inhumane" act. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei responded that the action was "legitimate and necessary" because it occurred in what Beijing views as Chinese territory.
Militarily, China can afford to take such a hard line. According to official statistics, China's military budget of US$91.5 billion was more than 40 times greater than Vietnam's $2.6 billion in 2011. Beijing also dominates on the economic front, with Vietnam's trade deficit with China rising to $16.4 billion in 2012 from $9 billion in 2007.
Some analysts suggest that the next phase of China's psychological warfare campaign could be to impose trade bans on Vietnam, similar to the ones it imposed on rare earth exports to Japan in 2010 and last year's ban on banana imports from the Philippines. Both Japan and the Philippines are also embroiled in maritime disputes with China. Such tactics, however, risk undermining over two decades of diplomacy aimed at building confidence and economic linkages with Southeast Asia.
Vietnam has increasingly pointed to international law and the non-binding "Declaration on Conduct of the Parties in the East Sea" reached between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to defend its position. While China reaffirmed its commitment to the declaration earlier this month at the 19th ASEAN-China Senior Official Meeting in Beijing, it has worked behind the scenes to prevent ASEAN from developing a unified position on the disputes.
Beijing's undefined position, including over how many of the features included its wide-reaching nine-dash map of the South China Sea it actually claims, has played into its psychological warfare with Vietnam. "Big powers have advantages in maintaining strategic ambiguity," said Huang Jing, director of the Center on Asia and Globalization at the National University of Singapore. He suggests that China has learned how the United States often makes use of strategic ambiguity in its international relations.
The situation has also been complicated by China's leadership transition from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping. According to academic Jing, under Xi South China Sea issues can no longer be perceived as solely an international issue but rather also a domestic one. "Public opinion does matter in decision making. [China's] new leaders have no choice - they have to play tougher in [the] South China Sea," said Jing.
Writer Roberto Tofani who is a freelance journalist and analyst covering Southeast Asia. He is also the co-founder of PlanetNext (www.planetnext.net), an association of journalists committed to the concept of "information for change".
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