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What’s ASEAN to do as tension rises in Paracels?

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Water cannon fight in ParacelsBy ELLEN T. TORDESILLAS

While we continue to be engrossed with Napolist (she has submitted an expanded list naming 120 lawmakers as alleged beneficiaries of her largesse including her contributions to their election campaign), things are heating up in the South China Sea between China and Vietnam that could destabilize Southeast Asia.

News reports yesterday said a Chinese boat sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel 17 nautical miles from the oil rig of China National Offshore Oil Corporation near the China- occupied Paracel islands. The rig is 240 km (150 miles) off Vietnam’s coast and 330 km (206 miles) from the southern coast of China’s Hainan island.

According to reports, Hanoi said the sinking happened after some 40 Chinese fishing boats had surrounded the Vietnamese vessel, and one of them rammed it. Other Vietnamese fishing boats rescued the 10 crew members of the boat.

China’s version is the Vietnamese boat capsized after “harassing and colliding with” a Chinese fishing boat.

The boat sinking raises the tension in the area triggered by the drilling by CNOOC starting three weeks ago which Vietnam vehemently protested saying the area is within their 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone. They sent their own ships and engaged Chinese ships in a water cannon fight.

Vietnam said last week there were 86 Chinese vessels protecting the oil rig as against their 50 vessels preventing China from proceeding their operation which Beijing said will only be up to August 15.

Vietnam said China’s Paracels flotilla includes military vessels, marine police vessels, marine surveillance ships, naval ships, fishery administrative boats, salvage tugs, cargo ships, tankers and fishing vessels with iron hulls.

Protest rallies against the Chinese were staged, which in the beginning were apparently encouraged by the government. The rallies, however, turned into riots which resulted in deaths and injuries not only to Chinese businessmen and workers but also to Taiwanese and Japanese, who were mistaken as Chinese.

China has since evacuated thousands of its nationals from Vietnam, whose officials called for calm and moved to contain the anti-Chinese rampage.

Tuesday’s sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat recalls the bloody battle for control of the Parcels that includes 30 islets, sandbanks and reefs over a maritime area in the South China Sea, between China and then Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) January 19, 1974 which resulted in the sinking of the latter’s warship and death of 53 of its soldiers.

Another China-Vietnam battle happened in South Johnson Reef in March 1988 which resulted in the death of 70 Vietnamese and control of China. It is also claimed by the Philippines, which it calls Mabini Reef.

Last month, the Philippines protested reclamation and construction by China of what looks like an airport in Johnson South/ Mabini Reef. Strangely, Vietnam was quiet in China’s development in the reef which is near islands occupied by them, the nearest of which is Collins Reef, just four miles away.

In a tense environment which South China Sea is described today, the possibility of miscalculations is high.

The situation is a challenge to the Association of Southeast Asia Nations. It concerns one of its members (Vietnam) and one of its major dialogue partners (China) and threatens the stability of the region.