The latest China-Vietnam South China Sea clash: How they covered it

CCG 31303 flickr photo by -EZEK shared under a Creative Commons (BY-ND) license

China and Vietnam are at odds after a Vietnamese fishing boat sank near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. Here is how the region’s media covered the fallout following last week’s incident.


There are two sides to every story, and the truth often lies somewhere in between. The latest South China Sea dispute involving China and Vietnam is no different.

What is certain is that a Vietnamese fishing vessel with eight people on board sunk after contact with a Chinese coast guard ship. While China is adamant that the smaller boat rammed the coast guard ship, the Vietnamese government alleges the reverse. Nevertheless, this is the second such incident within a year and has led to claims, counterclaims and allegations from Southeast Asia and much further afield.

Unsurprisingly, the Chinese and Vietnamese press published opposing views in support of their respective governments. In Vietnam Express, Dan Nguyenaccused the Chinese coast guard of the “deliberate ramming and sinking” of their fishing boat. Furthermore, it alleged that the Chinese ship chased away other Vietnamese vessels in the area who were trying to rescue their compatriots.

Meanwhile, Malaysian newspaper The Star reported that Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc spoke on the phone soon after the event. Both stressed the need to boost bilateral relations. The paper added that Chinese state press agency Xinhua reported the phone call without referring to the maritime incident—a sign, perhaps, of Beijing’s guilt?

Other parties supported Vietnam’s position

The Diplomat reported that the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) responded by backing Vietnam’s version of events and warning China that its actions could undermine Sino-ASEAN relations. This comes as a surprise given that Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte has now given China a free pass in the South China Sea while approaching Beijing for economic support.

However, Jim Gomez’s Diplomat article recalled an incident last year when a Filipino boat was involved in a similar collision. He noted that on that occasion, it was a Vietnamese crew that came to the stranded Filipino fishermen’s rescue. “We have not stopped and will not stop thanking Vietnam. It is with that in mind that we issue this statement of solidarity,” read a DFA statement.

Nevertheless, as Cliff Venzon commented in Nikkei Asian Review, this was a “rare public rebuke” of Beijing from Manila and particularly noteworthy given that the Philippines are currently receiving significant aid from China to help them stop the spread of COVID-19.

With the United States’ maritime capabilities in the region reduced due to the coronavirus pandemic, China appears to be taking advantage of others’ weaknesses to bolster its dominant position in the South China Sea. US leaders certainly think so and have already accused China of furthering its “unlawful claims”.

Sofia Tomacruz, writing in Rappler, noted that the DFA called for countries to put aside their differences and unite against their new common enemy. “COVID-19 is a very real threat that demands unity and mutual trust,” the DFA statement continued. “In the face of it, neither fish nor fictional historical claims are worth the fuse that’s lit by such incidents.”

Is Vietnam completely innocent?

The evidence points towards China being the aggressor in this incident but Vietnam has also been guilty of encroaching on others’ territory in the South China Sea. Mimi Lau, in her article for The South China Morning Post, quoted a Peking University-affiliated think tank’s report which registered an increase in Vietnamese illegal activity in Chinese waters.

It claimed 311 Vietnamese vessels were active in Chinese waters in February with that number rising to 569 in March. Some analysts question the validity of those figures but Vietnam has certainly not been sitting idly by. Vietnam’s activities may have prompted the coast guard’s actions; CNN argued that China’s attack could be its way of warning Vietnam about getting any closer to the US.

Furthermore, in The Jakarta Post, Dian Septiari made the point that Indonesia recently seized Vietnamese vessels that were fishing illegally in their waters. COVID-19 is not hampering Vietnam’s maritime activities, no matter who claims the waters where the fishing vessels operate.

A repeating cycle plays out amid the pandemic

COVID-19 has shaken up nearly every aspect of foreign relations. One thing that has not changed, however, is China’s active pursuit of its claims to the South China Sea. “The incident during the past week serves as a tangible reminder that the dynamics of the flashpoint continue to find a way to surface in the headlines even amid COVID-19,” wrote Prashanth Parameswaran in The Diplomat.

James Patterson, writing in The International Business Times, predicted what will happen next: “Both sides will likely stick to their stories…China will likely stay silent on the issue and because Vietnam cannot compete militarily against China, the incident will fade in importance as the rest of the world grapples with COVID-19.”

Until the next flare-up, that is.

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