China's claim this week of jurisdiction over waters claimed by Vietnam has met so far with official silence in Hanoi, which had earlier demanded that Beijing withdraw an oil survey ship and other vessels from what Vietnam calls its own exclusive economic zone.
Speaking at a press conference on Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang rejected Vietnam's demands that it leave the EEZ, saying that China has sovereignty over the area and calling its survey operations there "legal, reasonable, and beyond reproach."
Vietnam's own explorations for resources in the Vanguard Bank, an area it claims as sovereign territory, meanwhile infringe on China's interests and violate international law, Geng said, quoted in a Sept. 18 article in China's Global Times.
China's survey ship the Haiyang Dizhi 8 first entered Vietnam's exclusive economic zone in early July to conduct seismic surveys, triggering a tense standoff between military and coast guard vessels from Vietnam and China.
It moved out of Vietnam's EEZ on Aug. 7 and toward Fiery Cross Reef, a militarized reef occupied by China farther out in the South China Sea, but later returned under escort, prompting new demands from Vietnam that it leave.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, called the East Sea by Vietnam. The Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam also have overlapping territorial claims to the sea, which is vital to international shipping and trade.
A delicate balance
Speaking to RFA's Vietnamese Service on Friday, Vietnamese scholars and researchers said that Hanoi is reluctant to take a stronger stand to defend its rights, citing fears it may disrupt a delicate balance in its relations with its powerful northern neighbor.
"In my opinion, this is China's first warning directly targeting Vietnam," said East Sea researcher Dinh Kim Phuc.
"On the issue of the South China Sea, Vietnam's government has a very funny attitude," he said. "They talk a lot, but they don't act, and this has created doubts among Vietnam's citizens over the state's determination to protect the country's [territory]."
"I think that Geng Shuang's declaration will be the last chance for high-ranking leaders in Vietnam to speak up, and to show the people that they are ready to defend our sovereignty," Phuc said.
Also speaking to RFA, independent researcher Ha Hoang Hop agreed that if Vietnam gives in now, Beijing will continue to push, especially as China approaches the Oct. 1 National Day celebrations of the founding of the Communist Chinese state.
"And they won't be afraid to take stronger actions this week or next week," he said. "They won't even have to wait for National Day."
Meanwhile, a seminar scheduled this weekend in Hanoi to discuss international law and sovereignty over the Vanguard Bank has been postponed until October 5, with Vietnam's sponsoring Union of Science and Technology Associations saying it needs more time to plan and prepare.
Commenting on the postponement, Dinh Kim Puc said that authorities may have been concerned that the discussions were scheduled to be held before China's National Day celebrations, adding, "They may be afraid they will lose China's friendship and that relations will be harmed."
The Vanguard Bank, in which Chinese ships now freely move, lies entirely and undisputedly within Vietnam's own exclusive economic zone, said Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Ngoc Gia, also speaking to RFA.
"But the Vietnamese Communist Party is now completely paralyzed-helpless to resist China's actions," he said.
Reported by RFA's Vietnamese Service. Translated by Channhu Hoang. Written in English by Richard Finney.
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