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It's not often you get a chance to see one of the most dangerous flashpoints in Asia.
We went on a boat to the South China Sea to check out the latest standoff between Vietnam and China.
Hanoi believes that the waters near the Paracel Islands are part of Vietnam's own economic zone. The Chinese, who control the Paracels, claim the waters. To make their point, in May, Chinese state oil company CNOOC put an oil rig in the disputed waters, sparking a tense standoff.
The Vietnamese government, which is on a PR offensive against Beijing, organized the trip for a handful of other journalists. We were told it would take about one week and require that we transfer boats.
We cast off from the port city of Da Nang with the Vietnamese coast guard, traveled overnight, and by morning got a glimpse of the conflict. When we got up to the deck, we saw a Chinese warship.
As we drew nearer to the rig we switched boats. Our hosts said a bigger boat would better outrun the numerous Chinese vessels they expected we would face.
After jumping into a dingy, we sped across the open ocean to CSB-8003 – a 1,600 ton vessel – ordered by the Vietnamese authorities to patrol the area near the rig.
There, I met the crew of CSB-8003 led by Captain Hung Nguyen Van.
Every day, Captain Hung and his some 30 crewmen attempt to get their vessel close to the rig – and remind the Chinese that Vietnam still claims these waters. I was told that day the Chinese ships outmanned Vietnam's 110 to 5 though the odds didn't seem to deter Captain Hung.
"The rig is clearly inside Vietnam's waters, Vietnam's exclusive economic zone, and Vietnam's continental shelf," he said.
We headed towards the rig.
The HD-981 oil drilling platform is one football field long, 40 stories high and is said to be worth $1 billion according to CNOOC.
The lookout warned us that eight Chinese ships were headed towards CSB-8003.
We were eight nautical miles – 15 kilometers – from the rig when a Chinese coast guard vessel blocked our path. Another charged towards us.
The Vietnamese coast guard vessel blasted its recorded broadcast in English, Chinese and Vietnamese, warning the Chinese to cease drilling activities and leave the disputed waters. The broadcast had the opposite effect, making the Vietnamese a target.
On the horizon, Chinese reinforcements moved in. We soon found ourselves surrounded and were forced to fall back.
The next day, we watched a ceremony where the crew salutes Vietnam in front of local reporters who will broadcast the event across the country. Vietnam is facing its worst confrontation with China since the two countries went to war in 1979. Their government wants its people to know that Vietnam is prepared to stand up to China.
Many countries with coastlines along the South China Sea fear that as China gets wealthier and more powerful, the fight will become more unequal. They worry China wants to dominate the sea, its rich fishing, shipping lanes and potential energy resources. So they are all willing players in the endless cat and mouse game at sea.
Minutes later, duty calls and our vessel headed back to the rig.
A Chinese coast guard boat came hurtling towards us. The Vietnamese counted that it was one of nine Chinese ships suddenly on our tail. It was agile and moving fast – ready to collide at any moment. It got about 100 meters behind us before drifting back the further we sped away.
The smaller fishing surveillance ships are particularly vulnerable to ramming and water cannons, I was told.
One of the crew members, Colonel Tran Van Hau, told me that in early June, the Chinese attacked a ship he was on.
"At first, there was only one Chinese ship chasing after us, then there were two more ships on both sides of our boat. One Chinese ship accelerated with very high speed and hit the right side of the back of our boat directly. Then it sped up again and kept ramming our boat leaving four holes," he explained.
But, to the Chinese, there is no question who the aggressor is at sea.
The view from China
Only a short flight from Vietnam, I find people in China have a completely different view of the standoff.
On Hainan Island, Chinese fishing communities thrive. The southern island is a launch pad for seafarers and naval forces heading into the South China Sea.
Veteran maritime scholar Dr. Wu Shicun of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies took me into the archives to show me numerous maps including a collection with U-shaped lines – often referred to as a "nine-dash line" – which Beijing believes outlines China's territory in the South China Sea.
Dr. Wu said this is why China feels it has the right to place its oil rig close to the Paracels Islands and why they're so angry Vietnam's vessels have rammed their ships, they claim, more than one thousand times.
"What China is doing is to react to the ramming activities conducted by the Vietnamese," he said. "What China is doing is to protect our oil rig."
Currently the Paracels are in Chinese hands. China gained full control after defeating what was then South Vietnam in a battle in 1974. However, Vietnam, now unified, still claims the islands. And both countries have competing evidence to support their arguments.
Wu said Beijing believes the current standoff is Hanoi's attempt at a land grab - by seeking sympathy from an international community adjusting to a rising China.
"The fact is that China now is becoming an influential power," he said. "So China has [its] own interest to safeguard."
Beijing sounds in
Over in Beijing, one of the government's top maritime authorities said China feels it's the victim. In a rare interview, a senior China diplomat on maritime affairs, Yi Xianliang, told us, China has been taken aback by Vietnam.
Beijing blames the U.S. for stirring up trouble at sea with its pivot to Asia - by emboldening neighbors like the Philippines and Vietnam to stand up to China.
Yi says Washington isn't playing by the rules of an honest broker.
"The U.S. would like to be coach for some countries. [On] the other side, the U.S. would like to be a referee or a judge and sometimes the U.S. [is] like a sportsman or a player. So this gives us some confusion," Yi said.
The U.S. has called on China to remove the rig and for all countries to withdraw their drops and resolve the tensions diplomatically.
Yi insists China will keep the rig where it is but hopes to negotiate a peaceful settlement.
"Of course, we will not push our Vietnam friends in the corner because this is not China's style," Yi said.