South China Sea stand-off is just storm in a teacup
Escalating tensions over the disputed South China Sea in recent weeks are showing little sign of abating and have begun to generate worries among some analysts that the confrontations could lead to armed conflicts, which would bring about disastrous consequences for the region.
Yesterday, several hundred Vietnamese protested in front of the Chinese Embassy and marched through Hanoi for the third consecutive Sunday, chanting slogans such as 'Down with China'. Like Beijing, Hanoi disapproves of public protests, so the fact the demonstrations have not been stopped is significant.
Next month, Vietnam will hold a joint naval drill with the United States, in a move that could further stoke tensions.
Recent weeks have seen reports of live-fire drills by Vietnam, beach-landing exercises by the Chinese Marine Corps, and plans by the Philippines to send in its biggest warship. Meanwhile, China is sending in one of its biggest maritime patrol ships.
Worrisome indeed, but there are also good reasons to believe that those developments are nothing more than a storm in a teacup.
First of all, any sort of armed conflict between China and Vietnam, or with the other key players, is very much unlikely, with all sides clearly realising that violence will not solve anything, given the highly complex nature of the issue.
Secondly, judging from the mainland's official reaction and media reports, Beijing's rhetoric is far less arrogant and belligerent than has been portrayed by some overseas media and analysts.
Except for a few media outlets such as the China Daily, PLA Daily and the Global Times, the mainland's tightly controlled media have consistently played down reports of manoeuvres by key players in the dispute. In fact, even those media reports that touched upon the disputed waters usually quoted the mainland analysts as calling for calm and restraint.
Moreover, one newspaper last week quoted a PLA air force general, Qiao Liang, as saying that China needed to clarify its thinking over the disputed waters because of a changing environment, adding that its territorial claims should be in line with international laws. This suggests that even within the PLA, there are differences of opinions over how to deal with the issue.
Thirdly, the mainland leadership has fully realised that worsening relations with Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries will push them further into the arms of the United States. This is not good news for Beijing. Since July, when Hillary Rodham Clinton announced that it was in the interests of the United States to ensure the freedom of navigation and peace in the South China Sea, Beijing has remained wary. So far, Washington has remained neutral publicly, urging all disputes to be resolved through diplomatic means, but many mainland analysts have suggested a conspiracy, with Washington playing a hand in the recent developments.
So what next? There is no doubt that recent developments have prompted the mainland leadership to rethink its strategy towards the South China Sea. A few mainland analysts have urged those leaders to clearly draw a red line over the issue and say that crossing it would trigger a forceful response from the government. But this is unnecessary.
The mainland leadership must realise the issue of Taiwan should always remain the priority. Regarding the disputed territorial claims over the Diaoyu Islands and the South China Sea, the long-standing mainland policy of setting aside disputes and of joint development should still be the way forward. After all, the recent flare-up in the South China Sea is mainly because of economic reasons, as the oil and gas from the disputed waters has become a major source of hard currency for Vietnam.
For the long term, Beijing should jettison its 'big brother' mentality and try hard to promote viable security alliances with the Southeast Asian countries. This is not as unthinkable as it looks. The example is the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation which celebrated its 10th anniversary at a summit in Kazakhstan's capital, Astana. The regional security group, very much a creation by Beijing, has successfully become a counterweight to American influence in Central Asia and, equally important, it has made China more secure along its more than 3,000 kilometres of borders with Central Asian states.