Spratleys: where does the tourism end and the provocation begin?

The author is with the Asian Center, UP Diliman. This piece was published in the Yellow Pad column of Business World, 10 May 2004 edition.

It was finally no big deal, but the Vietnamese tourists’ visit to the
Spratleys right on the eve of the 50th anniversary of Dien Bien Phu
sent more red flags flying than was intended.

Who could fail to see that there was more than a coincidence between
the timing of the commemoration of the Viet Minh victory over the
French on 7 May 1954 and that of the Vietnamese navy ship’s weeklong
sortie last 12 April, into the disputed waters of the South China Sea?
That “sightseeing” visit to the military strongholds dispersed over
what they call the Truong Sa chain was a fitting reminder of their
self-confidence, convincingly demonstrated fifty years ago in the
mountain redoubt of Dien Bien Phu.

More than the Chinese revolution, the Vietnamese communists’ triumph
over French colonial power was a clear-cut demonstration of an
underdeveloped, agrarian-based Asian people’s determination to boot out
the industrialized Western power that had occupied their country. The
same lesson would be put across, even more spectacularly, in the
drubbing that the Vietnamese dealt to the American and allied forces in
April 1975. But as recent history proved, the triumphant socialism that
ensued was of short duration.

Vietnam nevertheless forged ahead with its doi moi (“change for the
new”) project, impelled by the need to catch up with its capitalist
neighbors. By all accounts it is succeeding; and for some time now
well-meaning Filipino opinion makers have been sounding the alarm about
our own lagging performance. It may very well be that the Vietnamese
are on to something we don’t know. Perhaps it’s their Confucian
background, or their familiarity with authoritarian rule, or their
acute sense of nationalism, or all of the above.

In any event, the Vietnamese have made their point: the islands are
theirs, and they have every right to show them to tourists. They also
knew very well the consequences of their act, since Vietnam and the
Philippines were the drafters of the ASEAN Code of Conduct governing
the Spratleys and the Paracels back in the late 1990s.

Vietnam got away with nothing but mild warnings for its alleged
provocation, and it’s no wonder. The pertinent clause of the ASEAN
document only states that the signatories commit themselves “to
exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would
complicate or escalate disputes that would affect regional peace and
stability”. The idea of self-restraint includes “refraining from
inhabiting presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals and cays and
other features”, and signatories are bound to “handle their differences
in a constructive manner”. Well, as the Vietnamese might say,
sight-seeing is not the same as occupying, much less inhabiting the
islands, reefs, etc.

The problem is that these pieces of maritime real estate stand for
infinitely more than their surface area. In the South China Sea, the
tiniest toehold of terra firma jutting above water level is literally
priceless, as long as a flag announcing national ownership can be
planted on it. There was this unforgettable picture in an Asian
magazine, some years ago, showing the Chinese banner flying proudly
above a flimsy wooden structure, its short posts fixed on a miniscule
rock outcropping that barely cleared the water, daring the world to
mock its audacity. Where national and nationalist interests are
concerned, no territorial imperative can be too over-the-top.

For their part, the Vietnamese have the advantage of closer proximity
to the Spratleys as compared to the Chinese – just look at the map –
but don’t present a very persuasive case for their proprietary rights.
One hopes that the History Museum in Hanoi has discarded or otherwise
improved on the exhibit it had, in the late 1980s, purporting to
“prove” the veracity of the Vietnamese claim to both the Truong Sa and
the Hoang Sa (the Paracels). This was put up rather carelessly in a
separate wing on the second floor of the museum, with nothing to
indicate that it was the logical conclusion to the other,
chronologically-organized displays. There were a few grainy photographs
and “artifacts” consisting of broken stone steles, but what proof was
there that these came from the islands?

Even the official brief for Vietnamese ownership of the Spratleys (Than
Huy, The Hoang Sa and Truong Sa Archipelagos Dossier, 1981) sounds
hollow in parts. For example, it is alleged that starting in the 18th
century, for five to six months Vietnamese work gangs would go to these
uninhabited islands to fish, salvage materiel from shipwrecks, and
“collect taxes and customs duties.” Collect from whom – from
themselves? Another argument is that in the early 1930s, the French
colonial navy occupied Truong Sa. But why should the land-grabbing act
of a hated colonizing power be enshrined by the ex-colonized country?

As for the formal written position of the Socialist Republic of
Vietnam, it is a seven-point statement which preempts the question of
territoriality by simply declaring that the “Vietnamese offshore
islands” (unnamed, and incidentally “offshore island” sounds like an
oxymoron) have “their own territorial seas, contiguous zones, exclusive
economic zones and continental shelves.” The statement studiously
avoids mentioning the South China Sea, and for good reason. The
Vietnamese government has always preferred the term “Eastern Sea” with
its less politically-loaded connotation, but the rest of Southeast Asia
uses “South China Sea” as if it were the most natural thing in the

There was a time in the early 1990s when the Ramos administration made
statements to the effect that it also favored “Eastern Sea,” but did
not follow up in a serious way. It’s all for the better, because
otherwise the much-vaunted ASEAN spirit of mutual accommodation would
have been seriously compromised. “Let sleeping dogs lie” is an idée
reçue that may not be of Asian provenance but its wisdom goes largely
unchallenged in these parts.

Though it is not a member of ASEAN, China is a signatory to the Code of
Conduct, and may take comfort at least from the fact that the code is
formally entitled “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South
China Sea.” And its pint-sized rival, Taiwan, another claimant to the
Spratleys, is not a signatory, not having been invited to the talks in
the first place.

Beijing is thus well placed to play the regional-power game, and a good
sign is its tone of moral indignation over the Vietnamese tour. For as
long as Vietnam takes all the heat from ASEAN, on this issue at least,
China can brush off all accusations against its own presence in the
island chain. A presence, it might add, made before the signing of the
code of conduct.

But it seems that parts of the code are written on water, and Vietnam
is already on record as stating that future trips, this time for
foreign tourists as well, are scheduled. The Philippines, the other
drafter of the code, might as well join them if it can’t beat them.
Kalayaan could be the next Boracay, after all. The Marines stationed
there could stand some company.

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