HANOI (AFP) – Vietnam on Monday held live-fire naval drills in the tense South China Sea, a move that analysts see as raising the risk of a “showdown” with Beijing in a deepening territorial rift.
A long-standing dispute between the communist neighbours over sovereignty of two potentially oil-rich archipelagos has erupted again following recent sea confrontations that have sunk relations to their lowest point in years.
A first barrage of live gunfire, lasting about four hours, took place in the morning near Hon Ong island, said a naval officer based in the central city of Danang who asked not to be named.
“Similar firing is planned this evening in the same place but the Vietnamese Navy will change the method of firing,” said the officer, who declined to say how many ships have been mobilised.
The drill, about 40 kilometres (25 miles) off Quang Nam province in central Vietnam, involves gunfire and not missiles, he said.
Although Vietnam’s foreign ministry described it as routine annual training, the exercise has raised temperatures in the South China Sea, said David Koh, a Vietnam analyst from the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
“But I do not think there is much of a choice right now,” Koh said, adding that ultimately he foresees “a showdown on the seas”.
The drills are inside the area Vietnam claims as its 200 nautical mile economic zone. Hanoi last month accused Chinese surveillance vessels of cutting the exploration cables of an oil survey ship inside the area.
On Thursday, Vietnam alleged a similar incident in the zone, saying a Chinese fishing boat rammed the cables of another oil survey ship in a “premeditated” attack.
Beijing countered by warning Vietnam to halt all activities that it says violate China’s sovereignty in the disputed area.
The United States said it was “troubled” by tensions triggered by the maritime dispute and called for a “peaceful resolution”.
The live-fire exercise zone is about 250 kilometres from the Paracels and almost 1,000 kilometres from the Spratlys, the two archipelagos which are claimed by both nations and which straddle strategic shipping lanes.
Vietnam has said it wants to see peaceful resolution and adherence to international laws.
Beijing, too, says it is committed to peace in the South China Sea, but its more assertive maritime posture has caused concern among regional nations and beyond.
Tensions have risen this year between China and the Philippines, another claimant to the Spratlys, where Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also say they have a stake.
“No one wants a war but the possibility of some shots being fired in anger or of some ships running into other ships has increased,” said Ralph Cossa, president of Pacific Forum CSIS, the Asia-Pacific arm of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Despite that possibility, Cossa said all sides will ensure that any escalation will “not get out of control”.
Vietnamese bitterly recall 1,000 years of Chinese occupation and, more recently, a 1979 border war. More than 70 Vietnamese sailors were killed in 1988 when the two sides battled off the Spratlys.
In the same area, in July 2007, China’s navy reportedly fired at a Vietnamese fishing boat, killing one sailor.
About 300 people in Ho Chi Minh City and in Hanoi held anti-China rallies on Sunday to proclaim Vietnam’s maritime sovereignty. Demonstrations are rarely allowed in Vietnam but this was the second weekend in a row that protesters have criticised China.
In interviews, protesters voiced support for the naval drill. “It shows to China and to the world that we will do everything to protect our land and our sea,” said Tran Bao, 36.