A major standoff between Vietnamese and Chinese paramilitary vessels is underway off Vanguard Bank, situated southeast of Vietnam, in the South China Sea (SCS). The confrontation follows earlier reports of China Coast Guard (CCG) ships harassing Vietnamese and Malaysian vessels, which were carrying out gas and oil prospecting missions in the area.
Tensions rose on July 10, when the Chinese Geographical Survey vessel Haiying Dizhi 8 arrived at the bank, and, according to reports from US Navy sources, commenced executing grid search patterns.
Subsequent reports said that two CCG patrol ships, the 12,000 -tonne , well- armed, helicopter-equipped Hai Jin 3901, and the 2,200 tonne Hai Jin 3711, and four Vietnam Coast Guard (VCG) vessels, including Nam Yet 207008, have been in confrontation since the arrival of Haiying Dizhi 8.
Also reported in the area are China Maritime Militia “fishing vessels”, including one of the biggest such ships, Qiongsanhayu 00114.
The situation around Vanguard Bank offers further confirmation that, despite the publicity being given to freedom of navigation operations by US, and allied, warships, and the shadowing by PLA Navy vessels of these ships, it is, in the main, paramilitary maritime forces which support sovereignty claims. Both the VCG and the CCG are large, and expanding, organisations.
The VCG operates a growing range of new and second-hand foreign, and locally built, vessels, including a former US Coast Guard cutter while the CCG continues to commission numbers of new, indigenously- built dedicated patrol assets.
It is worth noting, in this context, that Washington has recently deployed two US Coast Guard cutters, Bertholf and Stratton, to Yokosuka to add an additional dimension to regional operations by American maritime assets.
China, incidentally has also recently radically enhanced its presence around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which are subject to a sovereignty tussle between Beijing, Taipei and Tokyo. On July 15 four CCG ships were spotted operating very near the islands, and were ushered out of the area by Japan Coast Guard vessels.
Some analysts believe that the recent surge in Chinese activity in support of maritime sovereignty claims is probably being driven, at least in part, by a desire in Beijing to create a distraction from domestic problems, including the current serious disorder in Hong Kong. Another factor might a response to Vietnam’s increasingly proactive stance in the SCS. Reports indicate that, in recent years, Hanoi has fortified, and garrisoned, some 10 islets in the sea.
Maritime security expert and columnist, Trevor Hollingsbee was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, Senior Superintendent with the Hong Kong Marine Police, Assistant Secretary for Security in the British Hong Kong Government Security Branch, and Intelligence Analyst in the UK Ministry of Defence. As an independent defence and security analyst he has had some 1,500 articles on maritime security, and geopolitical topics, published in a range of international journals and newspapers. He is an Associate Fellow of the Nautical Institute, and a past Vice-Chairman of the Institute’s Hong Kong branch.