By Benjamin Cost
In the wake of China’s saber-rattling in the South China Sea and the fact that the last few Vietnam-China naval run-ins heavily favored the latter, Vietnam has adopted a new strategy to secure disputed sea territory: send buddhist monks to reclaim derelict shrines on the Spratly Islands.
The BBC reports:
The monks’ delegation is being organised by the local authorities in the southern province of Khanh Hoa, which exercises administrative responsibility for the islands on behalf of Vietnam.
It has also paid for the refurbishment of the island shrines [last inhabited in 1975]. They include three larger temples and several smaller ones.
There, the monks will oversee temple operations and lead prayers in an effort to instill a region scattered with military and industrial buildings (and no indigenous people) with some spiritual life.
Vietnam reportedly boasts historical ties to the region, as three Vietnamese mariners were slain in a 1988 maritime scuffle with Chinese forces near the Islands.
One of the monks, Thich Giac Nghia, who was inspired to partake in the mission by the deaths of his fellow countrymen, stated, “I will offer prayers for them [Vietnamese sailors] to empower their souls to reach peace and relieve their sufferings.”
It’s a noble story, but one with strong economic/political undercurrents. China, Vietnam, and four other nations currently claim areas of the virtually desolate archipelago, but Vietnam’s resurrection of the region’s dormant culture may lend it some leverage in the land dispute.
Vietnam’s establishment of culture and religion in the region could possibly garner sympathy from the same international community that supports other religious figures’ quests to reclaim land and political sympathy from their oppressors, with Tibetan monks self-immolating being the most prominent recent example.
Recounting the deaths of Vietnamese sailors in the aforementioned naval skirmish will certainly paint the Vietnamese as the victims. However, Vietnam does not hold longstanding cultural ties to the region, no more than any of the other countries squabbling over the region, which include the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan in addition to Vietnam and China.
Pulling the culture/religion card might also help throw the scent off the money trail as the Spratly Islands abound with oil and gas – riches Vietnam will not be able to tap if it goes tete-a-tete with an ever-growing Chinese navy.