Vietnam and China: A Dangerous Incident


In early January 2014, video of a recent CCTV4 documentary “Blue Frontiers Guard” appeared online, providing a detailed history of the China Marine Surveillance (CMS) spanning from roughly 2007 up until the present. The documentary, in Chinese with English subtitles, begins with footage of an incident that occurred on June 30, 2007 between various government vessels from Vietnam and China in the disputed waters off the Paracel islands in the South China Sea. The incident, having previously gone largely unreported, is covered in tremendous detail, providing a new frame of reference for analyzing wider debates over Chinese assertiveness and the U.S. “rebalance” to the region. In addition, the video also provides a number of new insights into organizations such as CMS and its parent organization, the State Oceanic Administration (SOA), including the tactics and command and control arrangements of their vessels when out at sea.

The 2007 incident apparently resulted from an attempt by a China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) survey vessel to conduct what the documentary termed “normal operations” in the waters off the Western Paracel islands beginning on June 26 of that year. Such operations are seen as anything but normal by the Vietnamese, who continue to claim the islands despite China having forcefully occupied them since 1974. Hanoi dispatched a fleet consisting largely of naval auxiliary vessels to prevent the Chinese from surveying the waters. A tense standoff ensued, culminating in reckless maneuvers by Chinese CMS vessels that led to a number of serious collisions, threatening the safety of all crews.

The Vietnamese vessels initially expelled the CNPC survey vessel from the area, and the China State Oceanic Administration (SOA) responded by promptly organizing a “rights safeguarding and law enforcement” campaign, dubbed Enforcement Action Code 626. According to the documentary, such operations exist outside the scope of regular enforcement patrols, and in addition to CMS ships already in the vicinity, SOA dispatched CMS vessels numbered 83 and 51 to the area as part of the campaign. They arrived on June 29 and formed up in “alert order,” with two ships both fore and aft on either side of the CNPC vessel, attempting to escort it back into the area for the second time.

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