Vietnam has repeatedly said it wants to settle the Spratly Islands dispute using peaceful means while pressing for a multi-national approach to settling the dispute. Conversely China insists the dispute should be resolved through bilateral negotiations. Vietnam has been strengthening its navy, which includes the deployment of a submarine fleet, and forging stronger relations with the United States, India and other countries. Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines also claim all or part of the potentially oil-rich Spratlys. All claimants except Brunei have troops based on the archipelago of more than 100 islets, reefs and atolls, which have a total land mass of less than five square kilometers.

Issues involving the Spratly Islands and the South China Sea: 1) The decade-long demarcation of the China-Vietnam land boundary was completed in 2009. 2) China occupies the Paracel Islands also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan; 3) the 2002 "Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea" has eased tensions but falls short of a legally binding "code of conduct" desired by several of the disputants. 4) Vietnam continues to expand construction of facilities in the Spratly Islands. 5) in March 2005, the national oil companies of China, the Philippines, and Vietnam signed a joint accord to conduct marine seismic activities in the Spratly Islands. 6) Economic Exclusion Zone negotiations with Indonesia are ongoing, and the two countries in Fall 2011 agreed to work together to reduce illegal fishing along their maritime boundary. 7) Brunei claims a maritime boundary extending beyond as far as a median with Vietnam, thus asserting an implicit claim to Lousia Reef. **

Robert D. Kaplan wrote in The Atlantic, “Now that the land-border questions that helped to feed those conflicts are largely settled, nationalist competition in much of Asia has moved to the maritime domain, namely to the South China Sea. With nearly 2,000 miles of its coastline making up the western rim of the South China Sea, Vietnam suddenly finds itself in the midst of a historic and geographic drama that might come to equal the epic quality of its land wars in the latter 20th century. The South China Sea links the Indian Ocean with the western Pacific, connecting global sea routes through the Malacca, Sunda, Lombok, and Makassar Straits. These choke points see the passage of more than half of the world’s annual merchant-fleet tonnage and a third of all maritime traffic worldwide. The oil transported through the Malacca Strait from the Indian Ocean, en route to East Asia by way of the South China Sea, is triple the amount that passes through the Suez Canal and 15 times the amount that passes through the Panama Canal. Some two-thirds of South Korea’s energy supplies, nearly 60 percent of Japan’s and Taiwan’s energy supplies, and about 80 percent of China’s crude-oil imports come through the South China Sea. The sea also has proven oil reserves of 7 billion barrels and an estimated 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. If Chinese calculations that the South China Sea will ultimately yield 130 billion barrels of oil are correct, then the South China Sea contains more oil than any other area of the globe except Saudi Arabia. [Source: Robert D. Kaplan, The Atlantic, May 21 2012 *]

“The South China Sea’s more than 200 small islands, rocks, and coral reefs—only about three dozen of which are permanently above water—are the subject of fierce, arcane, and increasingly geostrategic territorial disputes. Brunei claims a southern reef of the Spratly Islands. Malaysia claims three islands in the Spratlys. The Philippines claims eight islands in the Spratlys and significant portions of the South China Sea. But Taiwan, China, and finally Vietnam each claim all or most of the South China Sea, as well as all of the Spratly and Paracel island groups. In the middle of 2010, China created a stir when it was said to have called the South China Sea a “core interest.” It turns out that Chinese officials never quite said that; no matter, though. Beijing claims everything inside what it labels a “historic line” and marks on its maps with nine dashes: a grand loop called the “cow’s tongue” completely surrounding the island groups, from China’s Hainan Island south 1,200 miles to near Singapore and Malaysia—that is, the heart of the entire South China Sea. The net result of this expansive claim is that all of these littoral states are more or less arrayed against China. They are also increasingly turning to the United States for diplomatic and military backing. *

“Land-border issues are no longer important to us compared to the South China Sea,” says Nguyen Duy Chien, the vice chairman of the National Boundary Commission. When we meet in his bare and humble office, Chien, dressed in a drab suit, provides me with a typical Vietnamese performance recalling the Singaporean statesman Lee Kuan Yew’s 1970s impression of the Vietnamese leadership as deadly serious and “Confucianist.” The meeting starts and concludes exactly on time, and Chien fills the hour with a relentlessly detailed PowerPoint presentation that attacks the Chinese position from every conceivable point of view. *

Importance of the South China Sea to Vietnam

Robert D. Kaplan wrote in The Atlantic, “One-third of Vietnam’s population lives along the coast, Chien tells me, and the marine sector accounts for 50 percent of the country’s GDP. Vietnam claims a line 200 nautical miles straight out over its continental shelf into the South China Sea (which Vietnamese call the “East Sea”). This complies with the exclusive economic zones defined in the United Nations’ Law of the Sea Convention. But, as Chien admits, it “overlaps” with maritime areas claimed by China and Malaysia, and with those of Cambodia and Thailand in the adjacent Gulf of Thailand. Chien explains that Vietnam and China have largely settled the problems created by the Gulf of Tonkin—in which China’s Hainan Island largely blocks the northern Vietnamese coastline from the open sea—by dividing the energy-rich gulf in half. “But we cannot accept the cow’s tongue,” he said, meaning China’s historic nine-dashed line in the South China Sea. “China says the area is in dispute. We say no. The cow’s tongue violates the claims of five countries.” [Source: Robert D. Kaplan, The Atlantic, May 21 2012 *]

“Vietnamese tell me again and again that the South China Sea signifies more than just a system of territorial disputes: it is the crossroads of global maritime commerce, vital to the energy needs of South Korea and Japan, and the place where China could one day check the power of the U.S. in Asia. Vietnam truly lies at the historical and cultural heart of what Obama-administration policy makers and others increasingly label the “Indo-Pacific”—India plus East Asia. *

Vietnam’s Claim to the Paracel Islands

Nguyen Duy Chien, the vice chairman of the National Boundary Commission, told The Atlantic: “When the Ming emperors occupied Vietnam for a time in the 15th century, they didn’t occupy the Paracels and Spratlys. If these island groups belonged to China, why didn’t the Ming emperors include them in their maps? In the early 20th century, why did the maps of the Qing emperors ignore the Paracels and Spratlys if they belonged to China?” In 1933, France sent troops to the Paracels and Spratlys, he tells me, implying that because the islands were part of French Indochina, they now belong to Vietnam. He adds that in 1956 and 1988, China used “military force” to capture rocks in the Paracels. Finally, he displays a slide of the Santa Maria del Monte church, in Italy, which holds a geographical manuscript from 1850, with one and a half pages explaining how the Paracels belong to Vietnam. His obsession with such details has a purpose: another map in his PowerPoint shows much of the South China Sea, including the Paracels and Spratlys, divided into tiny blocks signifying oil concessions Vietnam might in the future award to international companies. [Source: Robert D. Kaplan, The Atlantic, May 21 2012 *]

Vietnam Sends Monks to Disputed Spratly Islands

In 2012, AFP reported: Vietnam will send six Buddhist monks to the disputed Spratly islands, a senior monk ahead of the anniversary of a bloody battle with China over the hotly contested archipelago. The monks will reestablish three temples, which were abandoned by Vietnam in 1975 but have been recently renovated as part of the communist country's drive to assert its territorial claims over islands."Our plan to go to Truong Sa (Spratly) Islands was approved earlier this month by Khanh Hoa province officials and we will depart as soon as the navy can take us there," Venerable Thich Giac Nghia told AFP. [Source: AFP, March 14, 2012 ]

“The six monks, who all volunteered for the posting, intend to stay for up to a year on one of the larger islands following a request from its Vietnamese community — mostly military staff and small-scale farmers and fishermen, he said. "Most of the (Vietnamese) people there are Buddhist. We will try to improve their spiritual lives and encourage them to overcome daily hardships," he said The announcement came the day before the 24th anniversary of a March 14, 1988 Chinese attack on Gac Ma Island — another of the larger Spratly Islands under Vietnamese military control — which killed 64 Vietnamese soldiers.

Vietnam Says Archaeology Proves its Spratlys Claim

In 2001, Reuters reported: “Vietnam’s official media said there was extensive archaeological proof of Hanoi's claim to the disputed islands. A front-page article in Friday's Lao Dong (Labor) newspaper said the Vietnam Archaeological Institute had discovered many Vietnamese ceramics from the 13th -14th and 17th -18th centuries on Truong Sa Lon (Big Spratly) island during excavations from 1996-2000. [Source: Reuters, February 16, 2001 -]

"This confirms the early and continuous presence of the Vietnamese on the (Spratly) archipelago," the article said. The paper went on to quote the institute director Ha Van Tan as saying: "We have found clear scientific evidence of maritime activity of Vietnamese residents in early times. "This is clear evidence contributing to the defense and protection of national sovereignty in the land and water territories." -

“The day before China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao said Beijing was "seriously concerned" over news reports saying Vietnam should set up governmental bodies on Spratlys and had demanded clarification. "Any other country's unilateral actions on the Nansha Islands constitute an infringement upon China's sovereignty and are illegal and void," he said. -

Chinese Police Kills Nine Vietnamese Accused of Robbing Chinese Fishing Boats

In January 2005, Chinese police fired at Vietnamese fishing boats in the Gulf of Tonkin, killing nine men. China claimed the sailors on three Vietnamese boats robbed Chinese fishermen and fired on public security boats and police returned fire killing several Vietnamese and seized one of the ships, along with eight sailors. Vietnamese state media said the Chinese ships opened fire on the two fishing boats without warning.

Associated Press reported: “ China has detained eight Vietnamese after a shooting incident between boats from the two countries left several Vietnamese dead and injured Chinese maritime police, the government said. The incident in the Gulf of Tonkin was sparked when three Vietnamese boats robbed and shot at a Chinese fleet from the island province of Hainan, the official Xinhua News Agency said, citing Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan. Kong said the Chinese boats were in China's waters when they were attacked. Maritime police rushed to the site and "were forced to take necessary actions" when the Vietnamese boats opened fire, Kong said. "They shot dead several robbers and seized one ship and eight robbers," he said. "They also confiscated some weapons and ammunition." The Xinhua report did not say how many Vietnamese were killed. [Source: AP, January 15, 2005 ~~]

“Vietnamese officials, however, have said Chinese coast guards fired on two Vietnamese fishing boats in separate attacks, killing nine Vietnamese and wounding six others. They have asked that the Chinese maritime authorities be punished for their "wrongful acts," saying that the Vietnamese boats were in waters shared by the two sides. Kong said the Vietnamese "confessed they had carried out four other armed robberies aimed at Chinese fishing boats in the gulf." ~~

According to a Vietnamese blogger: “On 8 January 2005, China's naval forces carried out one of the bloodiest attacks on Vietnamese fishermen ever in the South China Sea. The victims came from Thanh Hoa, one of the poorer provinces in Vietnam. On 8 January 2005, our family members were fishing in Vietnamese waters, where for hundreds of years, generations of our forefathers have gone to fish for a living. Suddenly many boats belonging to China’s naval forces illegally entered the territorial waters and shot at two of our fishing boats causing 9 people to die, and 8 others injured. In addition, they took 8 more back to China with them. According to the investigation by the border patrol of Thanh Hoa province, the boats were inside Vietnamese territorial waters when they were attacked. The boats at that time were located at 18’16’’ N and 107’6" E, which is 10 nautical miles from the border mark of the common fishing water between Vietnam and China. The victims captured were very ill treated; for example, they were not given good, were severely beaten, were forced to give depositions through harsh interrogations as criminals day and night without a translator, and were given medical care as if they were little more than animals… Death certificates given by both China and Vietnam left blank the "cause of death". [Source:]

There have been other reports of Vietnamese robbing Chinese fishing boats. In January 2007, Wang Hongjiang of Xinhua wrote: “China has asked Vietnam to seriously investigate a recent robbery of some of its fishing vessels by Vietnamese fishermen in the Beibu Gulf. "China is highly concerned about the case, and has made representations to Vietnam and required the Vietnamese side to seriously investigate and handle the case, and at the same time, take effective measures to avoid further cases," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu. According to Jiang, on January 7, some fishing vessels from south China's Hainan Province were robbed by armed Vietnamese fishermen amid normal operations in the Beibu Gulf, situated in the northern part of the South China Sea, leading to lost property. She said Vietnam promised to coordinate with China in the investigation into the robbery. "We are ready to make joint efforts with the Vietnamese side to safeguard stability in the Beibu Gulf and the immediate interests of the fishermen living along the gulf." [Source: Wang Hongjiang, Xinhua, January 17, 2007]

China Imposes Fishing Ban in “Vietnamese Waters”

In June 2009, Nga Pham of the BBC wrote: “Vietnam has called on China to stop preventing Vietnamese fishermen from working in what Hanoi says are its territorial waters. China's ban on fishing in the South China Sea was "interfering" with Vietnamese fishermen, Hanoi said. This is the second time in three weeks that Vietnam has spoken out over the fishing ban and the increase in arrests and fines by Chinese naval patrols. [Source: Nga Pham, BBC, June 8, 2009]

China has been enforcing an annual fishing moratorium since 1999 in order to conserve stocks, but this year's has been seen by many as extremely tough. The increased Chinese naval patrols "have caused indignation among the public, bringing no benefits to bilateral relations", Vietnam's Deputy Foreign Minister Ho Xuan Son told Chinese ambassador Sun Guoxiang, according to the Vietnamese foreign ministry's website. Mr Son also asked the Chinese authorities to "stop operations that prevent Vietnamese fishermen from going about their daily business" in areas that Vietnam claimed as under its sovereignty.

Vietnamese newspapers in recent weeks have been running campaigns against what they call the "Chinese starvation of Vietnam's fishing industry". They have described how thousands of fishermen in central provinces have stayed in port for fear of being arrested, fined or even shot at by Chinese patrol boats. Witnesses have been quoted as saying that their boats were chased and attacked by foreign vessels. The latest incident reportedly took place two weeks ago when a Vietnamese fishing boat was hit and sunk, but the fishermen escaped. Nguyen Viet Thang, chairman of Vietnam's Fisheries Association, said: "Our people have always been in those areas but the Chinese now use the moratorium to arrest them."

Vietnamese Fishermen Detained by China

In June 2009, Associated Press reported: “China has released 25 Vietnamese fishermen after holding them 10 days for allegedly violating its fishing ban, but 12 others are still being held until they pay a fine, a Vietnam official said. The 25 arrived safely on their two fishing boats in central Quang Ngai province, said provincial coast guard command spokesman Ha Thanh Ca. All 37 fishermen were operating near the disputed Paracel islands, Ca said. The largely uninhabited islands in the South China Sea, claimed by both Vietnam and China, straddle busy sea lanes and are believed to have large oil and natural gas reserves. [Source: Associated Press, June 26 2009]

China last month imposed a fishing ban on some parts of the South China Sea, saying it was to prevent seafood resources exhaustion. The ban lasts until Aug. 1. In March, China dispatched a converted naval vessel to patrol fishing grounds surrounding the disputed islands, about 400 miles (640 kilometers) south of Hong Kong.The fishermen were intercepted by Chinese navy on June 16 and were detained on the Paracels, Ca said. He said the Chinese navy decided to fine the fishermen a total of 210,000 Chinese yuan ($31,000). The fishermen did not have the money, so the Chinese navy continues to hold 12 "as hostage" and will only release them when fines are paid, he said. Ca said the Chinese navy has detained other Vietnamese fishermen in the past. "China claimed that the fishermen violated their sovereignty and fishing ban," Ca said by telephone from Quang Ngai. "But these sea areas are under Vietnamese sovereignty. Vietnamese fishermen have been operating in these areas for many generations."

In March 2012, AFP reported: “Chinese authorities are holding two Vietnamese boats and 21 crew who were detained while fishing near the disputed Paracel Islands, an official said. They were picked up March 3 and have been held in custody since, Pham Thi Huong of the People's Committee of Ly Son island in Vietnam's Quang Ngai province told AFP. "The captain spoke to his family and told them the Chinese are demanding 70,000 yuan ($11,000) for their release," she said, adding it was not clear whether this amount was for one or both boats. Officials advised the family not to pay and have asked Hanoi to press for their release, she said. The incident is the latest in a string of diplomatic skirmishes between the neighbours over islands in the South China Sea. In late February, Vietnam claimed China had prevented 11 Vietnamese fishermen from approaching the Paracel Islands to avoid strong winds. [Source: AFP, March 20, 2012]

See China

In April 2012, five Vietnamese Buddhist monks traveled to the Spratlys to teach Buddhism and defend their nation's territorial claim.

Tensions between Vietnam and China hit a low point in the summer of 2011 after Hanoi accused Beijing of interfering with its maritime oil exploration activities. Beijing denied the charge.

Beijing has named the South China Sea one of its "core interests," meaning it could potentially go to war to protect it.

The U.S. has said it has a national interest in ensuring freedom of navigation in the sea, and analysts say Washington is expanding its military presence in Asia to counter China's rising influence.

Hanoi's foreign ministry said China had "seriously violated" Vietnam's sovereignty by allowing a Chinese oil company to open bidding for oil exploration near the Paracel islands.

China 'Fires Flares' at and Rams Vietnamese Boats in South China Sea

In March 2013, the BBC reported: “China says it fired flares, not weapons, at a Vietnamese fishing boat in the South China Sea. The defence ministry said the flares were fired after four boats near the disputed Paracel islands did not heed warnings to leave, Xinhua reports. Vietnam on Monday said a Chinese boat had set one of its fishing boats alight after firing on it. [Source: BBC, March 27, 2013 ]

A Xinhua news agency report — carried on the defence ministry website — quoted an unidentified Chinese navy official as calling the firing allegations "sheer fabrication". "After the dissuasion by means of whistle-blowing, shouting and hand-flag guiding was of no avail, the Chinese naval vessels fired two red signal shells into the sky as a warning, and the signal shells burned out and extinguished in the air," Xinhua quoted the official as saying. "There is no such things that Chinese vessels fired with weapons or the Vietnamese fishing boats caught fire." China says the Vietnamese boats were illegally fishing in what it says is its territory when the incident occurred on 20 March.

A day later Associated Press reported: “Vietnam has accused China of damaging a fishing boat in the latest escalation of tension in the disputed South China Sea.The Foreign Ministry said a Chinese vessel slammed into a Vietnamese fishing boat while it was operating in Vietnamese waters on May 20. It damaged the ship's hull and risked the lives of 15 crew members, it said. Ministry spokesman Luong Thanh Nghi said the Chinese action violated Vietnam's sovereignty and demanded that China severely punish the violators, compensate the fishermen and make sure similar incidents do not occur. [Source: Associated Press, May 28, 2013 +=+]

Chinese Foreign Ministry rejected the charges. "Vietnam's accusations against China are totally untrue. The Vietnamese fishing boat entered waters around China's Xisha islands and fished illegally in violation of China's sovereignty and laws," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said, referring to the Paracel islands. "There is nothing to dispute about China's relevant authorities carrying out normal law enforcement. We demand that Vietnam take concrete measures to educate fishermen to stop fishing illegally." Vietnam said in March that a Chinese naval vessel fired flares that damaging a fishing boat's cabin near the islands. +=+

Protesters Detained at Anti-China Protest in Hanoi

In June 2013, DPA reported: “Dozens of protesters were arrested when around 150 people demonstrated against China in Hanoi. Witnesses said between 30 and 50 people were detained when the crowd started to march around the central Hoan Kiem lake.Protesters were wearing T-shirts and carried placards calling for an end to Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. [Source: DPA, June 2, 2013]

“We are protecting our country so we’re not afraid of anything,” Nguyen Anh Dung said shortly before he was taken away by police. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs accused Chinese boats of colliding with Vietnamese fishing vessels near the disputed Paracel Islands the previous week. China called the accusations “totally untrue,” saying a Vietnamese fishing boat had entered Chinese waters illegally.

Vietnam and China Work Towards Warmer Ties

Kor Kian Beng wrote in The Straits Times, “A 21-gun salute, a guard of honour and even a group of cheery children waving flags — China clearly spared no efforts in welcoming Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang for his three-day state visit. Beijing's welcome ceremony, and Hanoi’s decision to send its president — the first Vietnamese leader to visit China since President Xi Jinping took office in March — reflect a mutual desire to improve the close, but complex and often-strained ties between the communist allies and one-time war foes, say observers. [Source: Kor Kian Beng, The Straits Times, June 21, 2013]

"The pomp and ceremony reveals Xi's personal endorsement for warmer ties," said Singapore-based analyst Euan Graham. He added that Truong's visit also reflects a high-level effort by both sides to "isolate the points of friction" from their relationship.

Ha Noi is worried over Beijing's military assertiveness in the resource-rich sea, which includes the Paracel and Spratly island groups both sides lay claim to. Incidents involving Chinese patrol ships firing at Vietnamese fishermen, most recently last month, have sparked anti-Beijing street protests in Vietnam. In response, Vietnam has triggered worries in China by walking closer with countries like Japan and the United States — not the best of friends with the Chinese.

Said regional security expert Carl Thayer: "Beijing is suspicious that Vietnam is encouraging the US to balance China. Vietnam is ever suspicious about Chinese influence in Vietnam and Chinese actions that challenge Vietnam's claims in the South China Sea." Both sides are thus using Truong's visit to improve the low level of "strategic trust", said Jinan University analyst Zhang Mingliang, a Sino-Asean expert.

But each is doing so for largely different reasons, said analysts. Vietnam is seeking economic gains from China — the world's No. 2 economy — to boost its beleaguered economy. It is aiming to grow 5.5 per cent this year, its third consecutive year of sub-6 per cent growth since 1988. China, in turn, is aiming largely for political benefits, said Xu Liping, a Southeast Asian expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "China wants to show the Sino-Vietnamese way of resolving the South China Sea disputes is a model for others too." Xi urged both sides to seek a "political solution" on the South China Sea and not internationalise it, during talks with Truong.

Some are optimistic that China and Vietnam can improve ties. They have a joint steering committee at the deputy prime minister level that oversees all aspects of their "comprehensive strategic partnership", including inter-party ties. Land borders are demarcated, and a joint fishing area in the Gulf of Tonkin has been set up. Several agreements inked during Truong's visit, like a new naval hotline to resolve fishing incidents in disputed waters, also gives rise to optimism.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

Last updated May 2014

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