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An aerial view of Sanha, a city created to assert China’s claims over the disputed waters. Photo: AFP

Vietnam accuses Beijing of ‘seriously violating’ sovereignty in South China Sea

  • Move to create administrative units for disputed Paracel and Spratly Islands angers Hanoi
  • China has been engaged in a series of stand-offs with rival claimants recently

China’s latest activities in the South China Sea have triggered a strong protest from rival claimant Vietnam, which said the move “seriously violated” its sovereignty.

The complaint came after China announced on Sunday that it had set up two new administrative districts on the Paracel and Spratly Islands.

The two districts – which China referred to as Xisha and Nansha – will be under the control of Sansha, a city the Chinese government created in 2012 to assert its claims over the South China Sea.

Vietnam’s foreign ministry spokesperson Le Thi Thu Hang issued a statement of protest on Sunday, and said the move would further complicate the situation in the South China Sea.

“These acts are not conducive to the development of the friendly relations between countries and further complicate the situation in the East Sea [Vietnam’s name for the South China Sea], the region and the world,” she said.

“Vietnam demands that China respect Vietnam’s sovereignty and annul its wrongful decisions and not repeat similar activities in the future.”

Under the new plan, the new district of Xisha will be in charge of Paracel Islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan. The Nansha district will manage the Spratly Islands, where there are also multiple competing claims.

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Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said on Monday that the establishment of the new districts was in line with China’s normal administrative rules.

“China has been resolutely opposing Vietnam’s words and deeds that undermine China’s sovereignty and rights and interests in the South China Sea, and will continue to take necessary measures to firmly safeguard China’s sovereignty and rights and interests.” he said in a press conference

Vietnam is the only claimant which has publicly protested about the move so far. But Zhang Mingliang, an specialist in Southeast Asian politics with Jinan University, said it was likely to have alarmed other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

“Setting up such districts will not have much use or actual benefit, and it will cause opposition among the Asean states, many of which have long been suspicious of China’s intentions over the South China Sea,” said Zhang.

“The coronavirus outbreak has already caused some grievances among them towards China, even though they have not been as vocal as the Western countries,” he said.

Richard Heydarian, an academic and former Philippine government adviser, described the move as China taking advantage of a “strategic vacuum” created by the Covid-19 crisis.

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“On the one hand it’s engaging in face mask diplomacy [providing medical supplies to other countries] … but on the other hand it’s on the offensive,” he said.

“All of them should be seen as part of one package in which China seizes the strategic opportunity of not only its neighbouring countries scrambling to deal with the coronavirus outbreak, but also the US Navy’s suspension of overseas appointments.”

China has recently become involved in a series of stand-off with other claimants in the contested waters.

A Chinese government survey ship reportedly tagged an exploration vessel operated by Malaysia's state oil company Petronas in the area, and remained off the Malaysian coastline as of late Sunday.

Earlier this month, Vietnam lodged an official protest with China after a Vietnamese fishing boat sunk after a collision in the Paracel Islands.