Questions over boat ramming by Vietnam
Greg Torode and Minnie Chan
It may be fuelling online rage and diplomatic intrigue, but recently released YouTube footage showing a Vietnamese ship harassing a Chinese Marine Surveillance vessel in the South China Sea is raising more questions than answers.
As nationalists in each country trade fierce barbs online, regional envoys and military analysts are trying to confirm key details about the incident. So far, Hanoi and Beijing are saying nothing.
'We've been hearing for a while from the Vietnamese side that there've been more cases of collisions and harassment than have been reported,' said one Hanoi-based Asian military attach? 'But we can't be sure when this actually happened. From the vessels on each side, it does appear to be very recent.'
The footage shows a ship from Vietnam's recently formed Marine Police chasing and catching up to a vessel from China's expanding Marine Surveillance fleet. The Vietnamese ship then rams the Chinese vessel and remains alongside but there are no apparent exchanges between the crew.
The footage comes amid a flurry of recent Sino-Vietnamese diplomacy to ease tensions over the disputed South China Sea. A series of anti-China protests in Hanoi and several stand-offs over oil exploration off southern Vietnam earlier this year saw the relationship - fraternal yet plagued by historical suspicion - plunge to its lowest point in 20 years.
A senior US naval official warned in Hong Kong this week he feared 'brush-ups' over regional disputes could trigger dangerous 'tactical miscalculations'.
Singapore-based strategic scholar Ian Storey warned that the footage 'raises important questions about the Sino-Vietnamese dispute in the South China Sea'.
'Why was the video released now? Where did the incident take place? Why didn't China protest it? And most importantly, when did the incident occur? Was it after the bilateral meeting in September in which both sides agreed to tamp down tensions?' Storey, of the Institute of South East Asian Studies, said. 'Unfortunately at present there are no clear answers to these questions.'
A report by London-based private intelligence firm Exclusive Analysis noted the video was released via Vietnamese social media on October 28 and was widely picked up on various Chinese social media sites, fuelling 'much nationalistic outcry'.
Chinese specialists questioned the credibility of the footage and the thinking behind its release.
Dr Zhang Mingliang, from Jinan University's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, said Vietnamese media had released another story about three Chinese navy ships firing warning shots to stop four Vietnamese fishing boats in a disputed area of the South China Sea on May 31. That led to criticism of China at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting a month later. The East Asia Summit will be held in Bali, Indonesia, this week.
'The footage obviously was shot and released by Vietnamese authorities this time,' he said. 'Vietnam is very good at creating opportunities to increase its bargaining chips before some big events, I suspect it is playing the same tactics before the EAS.'
Professor Wang Hanling, a Singapore-based scholar and director of the centre for ocean affairs at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing said that the Chinese State Oceanic Administration told him that it 'had not been informed' of any collision.
Exclusive Analysis PLA watcher Gary Li said he was surprised at the boldness shown by the Vietnamese in the video.