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, 19 April, 2017, 6:16am

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