• Fri
  • Dec 19, 2014
  • Updated: 8:21pm
CommentInsight & Opinion

South China Sea claimants must steel themselves against a more aggressive China

Simon Tay and Nicholas Fang say Asian states entangled in South China Sea disputes must steel themselves against a more aggressive China, with its eye on wider strategic goals

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 May, 2014, 6:40pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 May, 2014, 4:28am

We now know Vietnam's immediate reaction to China's steps to begin drilling for oil in an area of the South China Sea that both sides claim. More than 20,000 Vietnamese workers ran amok at two Singapore-run industrial parks, attacking factories that they believed to be Chinese-owned.

With reports of deaths and many injuries, other manufacturers have been closing as a precaution. Global supply chains have felt the effects and Hanoi has wisely asserted domestic order.

But will the conflict escalate? Must Vietnam be the only one to protest or should others respond, too?

History testifies to the real dangers of conflict between China and Vietnam. The two neighbours fought over the Paracel Islands in 1974, when China took control and more than 50 Vietnamese were killed. They clashed again along their border in 1979. Anti-China street protests have grown visibly in recent years, demonstrating nationalistic fervour.

Until now, countervailing factors have prevented conflict. Soon after the end of the cold war, the respective communist parties that run the two countries developed layered dialogue on territorial issues at sea and along their shared border. While upholding its claims, Hanoi restrained criticism.

Present events may upend this process. Even as angry statements ensue, it is worth watching to see whether the parties can possibly and quietly return to the dialogue process, away from the public glare.

But it is not, in any event, only Vietnam that should respond.

Others with competing claims - Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines - must take heed. Manila has already angered Beijing by taking up international arbitration and recently arresting Chinese nationals for fishing in contested waters. The Philippine president once likened China to Nazi Germany.

Brunei and Malaysia have been relatively tame in their responses but may now need to steel themselves. Each has recently experienced Chinese vessels assertively venturing into nearby waters.

Asean, as the regional voice, will be pressed to take sides. The group's ministerial meetings have so far declined to single out China but instead expressed "serious concerns" about recent developments. It would be right to urge a peaceful resolution in accordance with international law and speed up discussions on a code of conduct that both sides have promised. If further concerns arise, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations must be expected to speak up.

But will China care? There is a sense that China is looking past Vietnam and the region.

We should place this action in a broader context of Beijing's stand-off with Tokyo over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, and its declaration of an air defence identification zone, and also note that China's action came soon after US President Barack Obama's Asian visit that put security reassurance at the top of the agenda. China's action can be understood as a pushback against the Obama administration's policy to "pivot", or rebalance, towards Asia. Shrewdly, it has acted against Vietnam, which is not an American ally. Each step taken, from China's perspective, is justified and, in isolation, may not seem significant. Collectively, however, some will see an orchestrated, step-by-step effort by China to move the status quo in its favour.

It remains unclear at present whether the US sees it this way and how it might respond. So far, US Vice-President Joe Biden has said the country does not take sides in the dispute while a State Department spokeswomen has characterised Chinese actions as being "provocative and unhelpful".

In response, senior Chinese leader General Fang Fenghui blamed the US "pivot" for giving neighbouring countries a chance to "provoke problems". This came even as the general visited Washington for a high-level dialogue with US defence counterparts.

China has put relations with the US on a new plane as a "major power" dialogue partner, seeking to better manage the complex and interdependent relationship between the current and rising superpowers on global issues.

This will test America's commitment, and emphasis in rebalancing, to Asia. If the Obama administration presses too hard, this could jeopardise a range of other interests on which China's cooperation is needed. Yet, if it does not respond, Obama's security reassurances will mean little. Reversing China's present action may be asking too much. But it will take more than finger-wagging to convince Beijing that there are real costs against a further step.

The Vietnamese reaction has been angry and immediate. No doubt, the Philippines will show solidarity through prompt protests. Beyond this, broader implications will ripple through the region and indeed across the Pacific.

Most still want to cooperate with a rising China while maintaining stability in the region. But while no one should demonise Beijing, all have to be wary of mute acquiescence. This will require thoughtful and measured responses.

Simon Tay and Nicholas Fang are, respectively, chairman and executive director of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. Both were part of a Singapore delegation that attended the 3rd Singapore-US strategic dialogue in Washington last week

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This article is now closed to comments

321manu
It is rather disingenuous for a CCP talking head to accuse the US of "provoking problems" when it is China that went out and unilaterally placed an oil rig in contested waters. As usual, China is the petulant child that only knows to blame others but is reticent and too immature to self-reflect.
A US "pivot" to Asia is meaningless unless Asian states welcome them, and the reason why the US might be welcomed is because those states distrust China. And once again, such distrust is based on China's actions, not American ones.
China would do well to remember that trust is earned, and right now she is not deserving of much.
impala
Yes, yes. And Japan cannot be trusted either. Nor Vietnam, or any other Southeast Asian nation. And of course China cannot trust India, let alone the Europeans.

Is there any country or non-Chinese person in the world that the PRC does trust? Or is the PRC as far as foreign policy is concerned perhaps a paranoid nation, stuck in a history-inspired inferiority complex with illusions of (missed) grandeur?
321manu
And that's fine. But if China is going to do what the strong can do, then please can we dispense with the BS of her trying to foster the spirit of cooperation in the region. And if the weak need to suffer what they must, then can we also dispense with Chinese whining when "the weak" seek and welcome the assistance of a strong friend.
If China could at least be intellectually consistent, that would at least be commendable and respectable even if one disagrees with her position. But the double-speak gets rather nauseating after a while.
321manu
Umm, it is China that's asking for her regional neighbours to trust her. Whether China trusts the US or not is entirely irrelevant. And if China has learned not to trust the US, that is her prerogative. But it is also entirely irrelevant insofar as whether other SE Asian countries choose to trust the US or not.
Mikado
The rioting, looting, killing, arson in Vietnam is because of the South Vietnamese agents with US support doing their best to provoke China and rob Chinese while at the same time giving the Hanoi regime a black eye. Vietnamese PM Nguyen Tan Dung is a South Vietnamese and is actually an agent of the US. Nguyen Tan Dung certainly have an agenda different from his communist colleagues in the north. He will certainly be purged for his betrayal of Vietnam. The US pivot anywhere always brings violence and war.
baysidedweller
IMO, you have to get to the sequence of events that lead to today's situation:
It all started when US "pivots" to Asia, euphemism for China containment.
Japan got the message and nationalized Diaoyu/Senkaku islands when it should have been left alone as agreed between the 2 governments. Then the nationalistic revisionist double talker Abe became prime minister and started doing his damage in China-Japan and Japan-
South Korea relations.
With the encouragement of Obama's speech in Tokyo affirming the islands fall under article 5 of the US-Japan security treaty and Abe's fanning the fire in the region with his collective self defense initiative,i.e. Japan will be US's henchman and will send troops to Vietnam and the Philippines and spare US's involvement, Vietnam and the Philippines are emboldened to take the cue and started their "revolt" against China.
In the mean time, US-Japan-South Korea alliance is getting weaker due to Abe's fault and China and Russia are getting closer.
The situation will get more complex if Russia starts "pivoting" to the region more and South Korea gets closer to China.
If only US and Japan had not put their hands in this mess, China would have been less confrontational and resolve the issues peacefully with their respective government.
Therefore I blame the Obama administration and Abe for creating today's mess.
Tim Zone
Comments scream of China bullying Vietnam bringing her oil rig inside Vietnam’s EEZ. Where are the news when Vietnam drill in disputed waters also claimed by China off south Vietnam coast over a year ago? Vietnam had already drill thousands of oil wells, so why the fuss?
All South China Sea claimants must know themselves in international politics “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”
baysidedweller
"impala"
Are you naive enough to think countries "trust" each other?
Why do you think US with all their "trusting" allies spied on everyone, domestically, internationally, friends and foes?
"stuck in a history-inspired inferiority complex with illusions of (missed) grandeur?" Are you referring to Japan that has been stuck in an economic doldrums for over 20 years?
FYI, if you read anything that is intellectually worth reading, China will overtake US in GDP (PPP) terms sometime this year. This is NOT "illusions of (missed) grandeur.
This is call progress through sheer hard work.
The "inferiority complex" you referred to might be applicable during the late Ching Dynasty, but you knowledge of Chinese history is way behind and lacking. I suggest you read more to open up your horizon.
321manu
For some people, if it rains later today, or if they trip and fall, it will be the US's fault. Just the way they're conditioned, I guess.
dienw
Do you know what "schadenfreude" means? Can't see the relevance of it to this article or the comments here.

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