Xinhua News Agency (China) on February 25th reported that the 8th Chinese naval escort fleet had on February 24th conducted counter-piracy drills in Truong Sa Archipelago.
On March 2nd representatives of the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry met with representatives of the Chinese Embassy in Viet Nam to protest the Chinese drills. The Vietnamese side clearly stated that by conducting the drills in Truong Sa Archipelago, China had violated Vietnamese sovereignty over the Truong Sa Archipelago and completely run counter to the Declaration on Conducts of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) signed between ASEAN and China in 2002. The Vietnamese representatives reiterated Vietnamese sovereignty over Hoang Sa (Paracel) and Truong Sa Archipelagos and asked that China should refrain from activities that would further complicate the situation and, along with other ASEAN countries, strictly comply with DOC, contributing to peace in the East Sea.
According to Xinhua, the fleet (a pair of missile frigates) had set out on February 21st to join other Chinese vessels off Somalia. Later in the week, another missile frigate already in Somali waters was dispatched to cover the Chinese evacuation from Libya.
The Economist recently described the South China Sea’s tangled web of territorial disputes:
Part of the difficulty is that the dispute has so many aspects—or rather there are so many separate disputes. The territorial issue that receives so much attention is itself a plethora of different and overlapping claims. China and Vietnam claim sovereignty over the Paracel island chain, from which China evicted Vietnam in 1974, in the dying days of the Vietnam war. Taiwan—because it is the “Republic of China”—mirrors China’s claim, so that huge unresolved dispute also has a bearing on this one. The same three parties also claim the Spratly archipelago, to the south. But in the south, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei also have partial claims ….
There is a huge amount at stake. Besides fisheries, the sea, particularly around the Spratlys, is believed to be enormously rich in hydrocarbons. The lure of such riches ought to make it attractive to devise joint-development mechanisms so that all could benefit. In practice, the resources potentially available make it even harder for any country to moderate its claim.
The sea is also a vital shipping route, accounting for a big chunk of world trade. It is the importance of the freedom of navigation and of overflight that has given America its pretext for louder involvement. This was initially welcomed by the members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations when voiced at a regional forum in Hanoi in July last year, So fiercely did China object to America’s rather disingenuous offer of “mediation”, however, that some countries may now be ruing it.