Vietnam’s ‘Soft Diplomacy’ in the South China Sea
Image Credit: James Borton

Vietnam’s ‘Soft Diplomacy’ in the South China Sea


The sea breeze found us on a fast boat bound for Ly Son Island, located about 15 nautical miles off Vietnam’s Central Coast. For centuries, the island has served as a base for their fishermen to venture into the dangerous Paracels Archipelago.

On board, marine scientist Dr. Chu Manh Trinh described to me the urgent need for a clarion call to all South China Sea claimants to join forces in tackling environmental offshore degradation and the depletion of natural resources through ecological science and cooperation.

“The healthy coral reefs in Cu Lao Cham are protected and are key centers in distributing nutrition into the sea and act as breeding grounds for fish species, and we need more marine protected areas,” he said.

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A Fulbright scholar, Trinh intends to adopt the same conservation model in Ly Son. He plans on working in partnership with the private sector in creating a geopark that encompasses a marine protected area. Since the island’s bedrock represents many changes in the Earth’s crust, including basalt layers formed from a 10-million-year-old volcano, there’s hope that that it may be recognized as a global geopark by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The Quang Ngai authorities assigned the Doan Anh Duong company to survey the Ly Son area. The chairman, Mr. Doan Sung, presents himself as a cultural environmentalist, who strongly supports “the protection of the environment and to build upon the cultural heritage of the area after his company had earlier salvaged shipwrecks.”

The geopark’s aim is to protect the marine environment, shipwrecks, and cultural heritage. Over the past several years, archaeologists have discovered fragments of 18th century ceramic ware and stone statuary about 3 kilometers from Ly Son.

As Professor Edyta Roszko, an anthropologist from Durham University, argues in a recent book chapter on Ly Son, due to China’s repeated confiscation of Ly Son’s fishing vessels and harassment of their nearly 3,000 fishermen, this volcanic island has become an historic symbol for “defending sovereignty” and “a destination for (Vietnamese) tourists eager to show their solidarity with the islanders who bore the brunt of the defense of the nation’s sovereignty” in historic battles.

China’s unilateral sovereignty claims on more than 80 percent of the international sea and massive military build-up on artificial islands over the past two years has sparked a sea change in Vietnam’s identity, from a Red River delta rice producing culture to a maritime nation. As Roszko points out, these shifts in the nation’s narrative are now marked by stories about Vietnam’s ancestral fishing grounds and its identity as a “sea-oriented country.”

Vietnam’s S-shaped long coral reef surrounded coastline runs along the eastern border down to the south, stretching more than 3,500 kilometers. About 80 percent of the population lives by the shore.

Out at sea, thousands of coral reefs, sea grass beds, and other shallow-water ecosystems are rapidly being destroyed and buried as China rushes to stake claim to the region. Beijing’s land reclamation project is undermining the ecological connection between the Spratly Islands and the South China Sea, choking off the supply of nutrients upon which these ecosystems depend.

In a recent interview in Hanoi with Dr. Nguyen Linh Ngoc, deputy minister of natural resources and environment, we discussed the importance of enhancing cooperation for sustainable development, especially in climate change adaptation, food security, energy security, and water resources security. These are both urgent demands and generators of significant momentum for sustainable development in every country and throughout the region.

“The coral reefs in Truong Sa (Spratlys) archipelagos play a very important role in maintaining biodiversity and marine fishery sources. It’s disappointing that the ongoing dredging and construction activities by China have been destroying the most important marine habitats of the sea, accelerating the environmental degradation of the area,” says Ngoc.

What is clear is that the deeply rooted history of Ly Son is not entirely about the more prominently argued issues of atolls, exclusive economic zones (EEZs), freedom of navigation, military surveillance, or unexplored vast oil and gas reserves. It may actually be more about accessing fishing grounds, restating cultural heritage, and memorializing history and sacrifice in the Paracels.

In the context of tensions with Beijing and their competing claims over the potentially energy-rich South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year, the Vietnamese are asserting their so-called “historic rights” to maritime resources through the stories of their sailors of the Hoang Sa and Truong Sa navies, who had sacrificed their lives at sea.

The 20,000 residents on Ly Son Island have two main occupations, fishing and garlic cultivation. Ly Son has a long tradition of fishing. The island’s harbor floats close to 400 fishing boats many with a large capacity for offshore fishing. Each day these fishermen know that their livelihood is under attack. It’s no wonder that families with increasing regularity visit the island’s Hoang Sa Kiem Bac Hai flotilla memorial, since their husbands, fathers, and sons’ traditional wooden trawlers are rammed and sunk by Chinese naval or coast guard vessels.

Fourth generation fisherman Pham Quang Tinh faces down the threats each time he leaves his protected harbor. However, he believes the sea is for all and that the Paracels have been part of his ancestral fishing grounds.

Not long after the founding of the Nguyen Dynasty, the feudal rulers made every effort from the 17th century to consolidate Vietnam’s sovereignty over the Paracels and the Spratly islands. More recently, Vietnam has chosen to frame its sovereignty claims by citing historical documents, poems, and colorful stories of patriotic Vietnamese sailors who are projected as defenders of the islands, as Roszko notes in her chapter.

This story is commemorated through the annual Hoang Sa (Paracels) flotilla, established with 70 sailors selected from An Vinh commune (Ly Son). In the third month of every year, they sailed for about three days to the Paracels, where they collected goods, measured sea routes, and affirmed Vietnam’s sovereignty.

Poet, scholar, and national treasure Vo Hien Dat, now 86 years old, has meticulously studied details about Ly Son’s maritime history and territorial claims on the Paracels and Spratlys. Dat writes, “the merit of the ancestors of Ly Son islanders is boundless/ The progeny needs to continue sailing.”

Ly Son Island is considered a living museum for Hoang Sa artifacts. The museum displays more than 1,000 documents, photos, and artifacts associated with the heroic Hoang Sa and Truong Sa troops.

Roszko writes that The current conflict with China over the South China Sea evokes strong emotions in Vietnam, where many people assert feelings of affection for the ‘ancestral’ grounds of the — largely uninhabited and uninhabitable — islands and islets of the Hoang Sa (Paracels) and Truong Sa (Spratlys).” The museum’s youthful director, Minh Tuan Vo, bears this out, as he proudly points to a 400-year-old festival linked to his family, which he says demonstrates that “the Paracels and Spratlys belong to Vietnam.”

In publicizing the festival, he adds,“I want to contribute a small voice to contribute to sovereignty over the Paracels and Spratlys by our Vietnam.”

Vietnam exercises its soft diplomacy by incorporating documents and narratives to demonstrate their historical footprint in the Paracels. In many conversations with Ly Son residents, they proudly reveal their ancestors’ adventurous explorations in the Paracel Islands, dating back as far back as the 18th century.

The conflicts over fishing rights to the Paracels accelerated in 2001, when China first denied Ly Son fishermen access to what they regard as their own ancestral fishing grounds and imposed a seasonal fishing ban.

Roszko writes, “In Ly Son people’s highly localized perception of the nation’s territory, the modern border line shifted from the island to the Paracels and Spratlys, expanding and making Ly Son a virtual center of Vietnam’s territory, now comprised of both land and sea.”

Her scholarship begs for more answers about how these islanders deal with coastal and environmental damage of marine areas and the growing impact of competition associated with overfishing and other unsustainable forms of development. What’s clear is that declining marine resources translate as natural capital. China and Vietnam both consider the sea as a national interest.

In their efforts to whip up nationwide support for sovereignty claims, Hanoi has also promulgated a patriotic campaign among the population about protecting their “ancestral lands” in the East Sea. For that matter, in 2014, Roszko points out that the Vietnamese Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism selected Ly Son Island “to host the national exhibition of Vietnam and China’s historical maps, under the slogan, ‘Paracel and Spratly Islands belong to Vietnam — legal and historical evidence.’”

Over the past two years, Vietnam has especially introduced its own sovereignty campaign, complete with slogans: “Vietnam is a maritime country,” “The island is a home, and the sea is a homeland,” “Stay strong. Keep safe the rights of the oceans and islands of Vietnam,” and “Each Vietnamese citizen is a citizen of the sea.”

In conversations with young Vietnamese, many claimed that they are seeing more of these slogans, with the government invoking the term “bien dao,” the Vietnamese expression for “oceans and islands.”

Roszko notes these slogans adorn the walls outside the Ly Son museum. According to museum historian Vo, the citizens believe that they are a maritime nation with a long history in the Paracels and Spratlys. “That’s why we use the slogans to raise awareness among our population on our rights in the East Sea,” says Vo.

Meanwhile, Hanoi’s Center for Environment Training and Propaganda has also just announced their 6th National Contest on Environmental Films. The competition honors organizations and individuals, who have produced valuable and qualified environmental films that educate and encourage citizens in environmental protection.

All this attention on conservation and protection of the environment is particularly telling since around 85 percent of the world’s fishers are concentrated in Asia, particularly in the South China Sea, a rise from 77 percent in 1970, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. China has the largest number of fishermen, followed by Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines. In total, at least 31 million people are engaged in the fisheries and aquaculture sector and related industries in the region.

Furthermore, nearly one billion people rely on the world’s oceans as their primary source of animal protein. What we are witnessing is a systematic depletion of fish stocks. According to Johan Bergenas, a senior associate at the Stimson Center, in his recent ocean study, “Secure Oceans: Collaborative Policy and Technology Recommendations for the World’s Largest Crime Scene,” recent estimates indicate that local and commercial populations have been cut in half since 1970, and countries like China worry that a shortage of available fish could trigger instability among its growing population.

Ancient history, books, documents, maps and slogans may all point to some evidence that Vietnam has legitimate sovereignty claims in the East Sea, but what’s clear is that the Vietnamese turn to the sea (cả nuoc Việt Nam hướng về biển Dong) for life, especially on Ly Son Island.

Those life-sustaining resources are under threat. Vu Thanh Ca from the Vietnam Institute for Sea and Island Research confirms that the environment is seriously degraded due to unregulated use and exploitation of natural resources. “Territorial disputes also worsen the problem and China’s U-shaped [line] also cause[s] more fishing competition for a declining number of marine resources,” he says.

Marine scientists, including those from Taiwan, believe that a carefully managed marine park will safeguard the declining number of fish species protect valuable coral reefs and reduce the deepening ecological shadow.

Dr. John McManus, along with Dr. Kwang-Tsaou Shao and Dr. Szu-Yin Lin of the Biodiversity Research Center from Academia Sinica, Taiwan, co-authored a 2010 paper advocating the establishment of an international peace park in the South China Sea, which would “manage the area’s natural resources and alleviate regional tensions via a freeze on claims and supportive actions.”

Environmental scientists say the dangers are increasing as the conflicting sovereignty claims heat up between China and other Asian nations bordering one of the world’s most strategic maritime routes, which boasts an irreplaceable ecological harvest of atolls, submerged banks, islands, reefs, rock formations, and 3,000 species of fish.

The protection of the marine ecological environment is a global issue. The ocean’s sustainability is vital for all life. The challenges in this fragile and interconnected marine web are profound, including climate change, destruction and damage to marine ecosystems, loss of biodiversity, and the degradation of the natural environment through overfishing.

James Borton is an ocean steward and a Faculty Associate at the Walker Institute at the University of South Carolina. He edited The South China Sea: Challenges and Promises.

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