How will China deal with region's distrust?

Greg Torode says distrust of China's intentions is pushing others in the region to find common cause, whatever Beijing may say

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 April, 2013, 3:51am


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If there has been a running theme of this column, it has been the way countries across the region have been discreetly but actively co-operating to deal with the challenges of China's rise. It is not simply a case of a nervous neighbour of China's reaching out to a re-engaged US, but of nations big and small finding sudden shared interests in their mutual suspicions - a certain safety in numbers, if you like.

Those suspicions emerged into plain view last week with reports from Tokyo that Japanese and Vietnamese officials will meet in Hanoi next month for their first formal discussions on maritime security.

There will be plenty to interest a Beijing ever wary of anything that might suggest containment. Both Tokyo and Hanoi are, of course, locked in their own increasingly complex territorial disputes with China in the East China and South China seas respectively.

And on the agenda is likely to be not just hardware - what Japan can do to help Vietnam further develop its coastguard and maritime policing capabilities - but also software; intelligence from shared experiences of dealing with an assertive China at sea.

Tokyo has been reaching out to Manila in a similar fashion, and the latter is in turn reaching out to Hanoi. Indonesia is also active in co-operation that reaches beyond the troubled framework of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

While the Philippines and Vietnam have never been close, their disputes with China have pushed them much closer together. "We swap notes and we strategise in how to handle China," said one Philippine official recently. "Vietnam's old secrecy is breaking down and a strong relationship is developing."

Then, of course, there is the Vietnam-US relationship - an intricate tango between former enemies. At times the ardour cools and the tempo slows, usually when Hanoi turns half an eye to the north and misses a few steps. At other moments, though, the band seems to be flying and the dancers' passion stirs anew.

That seems the case now as Washington and Hanoi quietly resume stalled discussions over a future strategic partnership.

For all the shared strategic interests, human rights has proved a sticking point with Washington, but both sides are showing fresh desire to talk - a desire apparently stoked by Hanoi's recent, unprecedented decision to allow an Amnesty International delegation to visit. Two dissidents have also been released.

Australia-based Vietnam scholar Carl Thayer has also noted the importance of Hanoi's historic move to contribute to UN peacekeeping efforts to keeping Washington happy.

Vietnam, meanwhile, is eager not only for a visit from US Secretary of State John Kerry - a prominent Vietnam war veteran - but also President Barack Obama later in the year.

China may preach the harmonious diplomacy of non-interference and say it is not an expansionist power, but the actions of its neighbours show Beijing is far from trusted. How that gap is narrowed will define the region's future.

This is chief Asia correspondent Greg Torode's last column for the Post