THE sinking on Monday of a Vietnamese fishing boat in disputed waters is a consequence of the dangerous game of cat-and-mouse between fishing vessels from China and Vietnam.
Both sides must bear responsibility for the incident and use this opportunity to back away from further provocations in the contested waters.
Chinese and Vietnamese vessels first clashed on May 7 following a Vietnamese attempt to stop China from installing a deepwater drilling rig near the Paracel islands (Xisha in Chinese). The islands are claimed by both Beijing and Hanoi.
According to news reports, there were at one point more than 60 Vietnamese vessels of various types and around the same number of Chinese vessels at the scene.
Since China placed the US$1 billion (S$1.25 billion) Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil rig on the site on May 2, China has accused Vietnamese vessels of intentionally ramming Chinese ships, and vice versa.
Vietnam has also launched a strong diplomatic and public relations campaign to rally international support for its claims on Paracels and its surrounding waters. Beijing says Vietnam's move is an over-reaction to the situation.
As maritime security expert Sam Bateman points out in a commentary for the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Vietnam appears to be winning the public relations battle "with much global commentary supporting its claim that the rig is illegal and painting the situation as yet another example of China's assertiveness".
He adds that a closer look at the situation suggests that China could be well within its rights in planting the rig in waters near the Paracels.
The move to place an oil rig in the waters near the Paracels was not a decision made this month or even this year. China's Foreign Ministry said on May 16 that the Chinese oil company has been carrying out oil exploration-related activities in the area for over 10 years.
Underwater seismic survey and investigation were conducted in the middle of last year in preparation for the placement of the oil rig and subsequent drilling operations.
Why did Vietnam keep quiet in the past 10 years and react strongly this year? One possible explanation could be that Vietnam was not particularly interested in the sovereignty issue of the Paracels. Its past acquiescence could be seen as a tacit acknowledgement that the disputed maritime area was under China's control.
This time, however, Vietnam is protesting strongly. There are two reasons for this. They are America's strategic rebalancing to the Asia Pacific, and a leadership divide in Vietnam over how to deal with sovereignty disputes.
Solving the South China Sea dispute is not an easy mission. But China and Vietnam need only to look back at their agreement in 2000 on maritime delimitation in the Beibu Gulf. Both sides agreed to jointly develop energy resources in the area south of the Beibu Gulf (Gulf of Tokin). There has been little progress in the past two years on this project, but such an approach is one way to resolve the current stand-off.
Apart from the Paracels, China and Vietnam also have overlapping claims in another part of the sea - the Spratlys.
Four other claimants (Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, and Malaysia) have either carved out oil and gas blocs, set up drilling platforms, or started drilling in the contested waters.
The Haiyang Shiyou 981 is China's first oil rig in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.
Vietnam, which does not have an oil rig in the Paracels, has designated 57 oil and gas blocs in the other disputed waters of the South China Sea, reported Xinhua news agency on May 17, quoting Chinese senior diplomat Ouyang Yujing. Seven of the oil and gas fields are already in production. There are 37 Vietnamese drilling platforms in the area.
Beijing has been exercising great restraint towards Vietnam's activities in the disputed waters. In 1992, China signed a contract with the Creston Energy Corporation of the United States to jointly explore the Vanguard Bank, located in the Spratlys. But China subsequently had to withdraw its survey ships from the site due to harassment from Vietnamese vessels.
In 2008, Vietnam signed a contract with Canadian Talisman Energy to conduct exploration in the same location despite China's objection.
Vietnam's strong reaction this time came as a shock to the Chinese leadership and the Chinese people. The anti-China demonstrations were tolerated, if not encouraged, by Vietnam authorities in order to put pressure on China. Unfortunately they quickly turned violent and resulted in the loss of lives and property.
While the riots have dealt a blow to Vietnam's public relations battle, China's image outside the country also took a beating.
China needs to have a better public relations strategy in communicating its position on the maritime disputes. The tone and tenor of China's rhetoric has alarmed smaller neighbours unnecessarily, and is a subject of ridicule among large powers.
China may have more hard and soft power than in the past, but it lacks smart power. It needs to improve its response - verbal and non-verbal - to provocative actions and criticism by others. It must learn and master the sophistication and nuances of good diplomacy.
Instead of repeating its oft-stated policy of "peaceful development" and its stance of not being a "threat" to the region, China must deliver a strong and clear message about its intentions, a message that is understood by the international community and cannot be misconstrued by Westerners.
Beijing must also adopt a more pro-active approach. The Philippines seized the initiative with its unexpected move to seek international arbitration for its dispute with China.
China must focus its efforts on maritime cooperation and confidence-building measures. These include making better use of the China-Asean Maritime Cooperation Fund. It should also follow up on its call for an effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC) in the South China Sea.
It is in the mutual interests of both Vietnam and China to get back to the negotiation table in order to prevent a miscalculation that could trigger a wider conflict that no one wishes to see.
The writer is director of research at the Centre for Oceans Law and Policy, National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Hainan, and a research fellow with the China Institute, University of Alberta, Canada.