• Thu
  • Sep 18, 2014
  • Updated: 5:12am
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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dunndavid
An alternative foreign policy for China would be to emphasize magnanimity and work to compromise with it's near-abroad neighbors. Rather China emphasizes bullying and provocation. Little carrot, lots of stick. This policy is likely to be ineffective and seems to be dictated by the bully's extraordinaire of China, the PLA, who Xi Jinping seems to be beholden for obtaining and keeping his job.
baysidedweller
"An alternative foreign policy for China ... neighbors."
I think that was the intention of China until US played hardball and teamed up with Abe.
IMO, Xi was "forced" into the situation when US pivots to Asia and Abe nationalized the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. i.e. Xi is playing defense to counter US and Japan's offensive acts.
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.
baysidedweller
321manu:
Not quite true, rain is a natural phenomenon, unless US is doing cloud seeding with silver iodide. Asia pivot is a deliberate act by a nation called United States of America.
We are not "falsely" putting blame on US and she will have to accept consequences from her decisions as time evolves.
I don't think there is much logic in your statement.
321manu
Sure, the "pivot" is a deliberate act. But why would the US deserve "blame" for any such pivot? If the US sees benefit for the US in pivoting to Asia, that is her prerogative. After all, nations act in their own best interests.
Note however that the pivot doesn't necessarily amount to much unless SE Asian countries choose to reciprocate, and pivot towards the US. That is also their prerogative. Of course, that seems to be what they are doing.
All of this does disadvantage China. But the blame is on China for not making herself a sufficiently attractive regional partner, such that her neighbours choose instead to cooperate with a partner from afar.
Blaming the US for China's own inability to manage her regional relationships to her own benefit is a ridiculous and cowardly proposition.
baysidedweller
"Sure, the "pivot" ........... nations act in their own best interests."
True, but Asia should be governed by Asians and US should not be poking his hands in this part of the world. The US got used to being the 800# gorilla and thinks they can do whatever they want, including inventing WMD to invade Iraq and NSA's spying of anyone and everyone around the world. Do you think Iraq invited US to invade and Huawei invited NSA to spy on them? Not to mention Merkel and Petrobras.
"Note however that the pivot ......... what they are doing."
True, but so far only Vietnam (a communist country) and the Philippines asked for help from Japan and US. They asked for help because US and Japan encourage them to do so.
In your opinion, do you think US's alliance with the nationalistic revisionist double talker Abe is a wise choice? i.e. teaming up with the devil to contain China? Who do you think is the "rightful" owner of Diaoyu/Senkaku islands?
"Blaming the US for China's own inability.... is a ridiculous and cowardly proposition."
IMO, US and Japan is fanning the fire and if only US and Japan did not do what they did, the situation would have been different and China would have negotiated with their respective countries in a calmer way.
We have to go to the chronological timeline to figure out who did what and when before deciding who is at fault.
IMO, the fault lies with US when it decided to pivot to Asia to contain China.

321manu
What you are asking, in effect, is whether SE Asian countries would ask for help if the US did not first make it clear they were willing to offer it. But let's take that further. In the absence of an option for outside help, does that mean SE Asian countries wouldn't hope for some nonetheless? Or want any?
Let's put it another way. If SE Asian countries didn't feel they needed any outside help, would they accept US assistance simply because it was being offered?
If China did her part as a reasonable regional partner, there would be no takers for the US "pivot". The reason why the US "pivot" is being received with open arms in some nations is because those nations have no trust in China. The blame for China being unable to secure the trust of her regional neighbours rests solely with China.
I have no idea who "owns" these various rock piles. And if people were honest and not blinded by nationalism, I think most would admit they couldn't care less. Let's face it: if there wasn't the prospect of natural resource spoils under the sea floor, who would really care about some uninhabitable rocks? I don't think the "ownership" nonsense will ever be settled, but hopefully, sanity will prevail and resource development will occur in a cooperative fashion so everyone benefits in the region. But China with her oil rig is certainly not helping. You need look no further than that to find who is most deserving of blame.
How About
Very reluctant to say this- if USA is capable of making rain, I'll say! You sounded like a rational chap- look at the headlines, read up the histories and connect the dots. You came across this for example: www.thereformedbroker.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Economic-Consequences-of-War.pdf ?
baysidedweller
Thanks for the link
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.

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