Beijing faces fresh challenges over its South China Sea claims

China may have had a small win at Asean forum, but tensions have flared with Vietnam and ties are strained with Singapore

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 August, 2017, 1:00pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 August, 2017, 10:42pm

Beijing might have got its way over the language used in last week’s communique from Asean foreign ministers, but observers say its sweeping claims to the South China Sea are facing fresh challenges.

At the gathering in Manila, Association of Southeast Asian Nations members avoided using any expressions that might displease Beijing in their statement regarding the territorial disputes.

But Beijing is facing a more vocal rival claimant in Hanoi, and ties are strained with Singapore, which is edging closer to the United States and will take over as chair of Asean next year.

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And in a move that could challenge Beijing’s interests in the world’s busiest and most strategic shipping lanes, defence ministers from the US and Vietnam have pledged to deepen military ties for their common interests in the South China Sea.

US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and his Vietnamese counterpart Ngo Xuan Lich agreed to allow a US aircraft carrier to visit Vietnam next year – for the first time since the Vietnam war ended in 1975. The agreement also includes expanded cooperation between their two navies and intelligence sharing.

Tensions between Hanoi and Beijing flared at the Asean forum last week after Vietnam tried to persuade the bloc to state in the communique that a code of conduct with China over the disputed waters should be legally binding, and that it should express concern about “extended construction” in the area. It failed to win support from the other members.

Later, a scheduled bilateral meeting between the two countries’ foreign ministers – China’s Wang Yi and Vietnam’s Pham Binh Minh – was abruptly cancelled on the sidelines of the gathering.

“Compared with the Philippines, which has territorial disputes with China over the Spratly Islands, Vietnam and China’s dispute involves a wider region, in both the Spratly and the Paracel islands,” said Zhang Baohui, professor of international affairs at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.

“If the fundamentals of these disputes remain unchanged, the tensions between China and Vietnam could escalate given that Vietnam has been tough on territorial issues,” Zhang said.

Analysts see territorial disputes between China and Vietnam – another Communist nation – as potential flashpoints for a confrontation that would set Beijing against a neighbour that is closer to its rivals, including the US, Australia, Japan and even India.

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“If Vietnam thinks China is pushing it too hard, it will push back,” said Ian Storey, senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, a think tank based in Singapore.

“To maintain the legitimacy of the Communist Party of Vietnam, the country’s leaders cannot be perceived to be buckling under pressure from China,” he said. “Yet at the same time they cannot risk a major confrontation with their much more powerful northern neighbour.”

Beijing has been sensitive to any further engagement by what it calls “outside parties” in the South China Sea, especially after a ruling by an arbitration court in The Hague last year that invalidated Beijing’s claims to sovereignty over most of the South China Sea.

Such concerns have even strained its relations with Singapore. Although the city state is not a rival claimant, its support of the tribunal ruling and freedom of navigation missions in region, along with its close defence ties with Washington, have dismayed Beijing.

Consensus-based decision-making applies within Asean and it is unlikely that all 10 members of the bloc would unite against Beijing, but China will be closely watching to see whether Singapore will try to “internationalise” the maritime disputes.

“Even though Singapore is not a direct claimant, it has interests in the South China Sea,” said Kang Lin, a researcher with the National Institute for South China Sea Studies. “It doesn’t want one nation to become dominant in the dispute and it wants more checks and balances in the region – that’s why it is actively cooperating with the US.”

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Zhang from Lingnan University said there could be more pressure applied by other rivals such as the US, Australia and Japan, which have previously voiced opposition to land reclamation and militarisation in the disputed waters, upsetting Beijing.

“But Singapore’s strategy to keep the power balanced is unlikely to change. And the behaviour of the US, Japan and Australia is unlikely to change either, no matter how cordial relations between China and the other Asean members become,” Zhang said.

And with China putting pressure on Singapore to downplay the South China Sea issue, Storey said the city state would have its work cut out trying to keep everyone happy.

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“Singapore will strive to maintain its neutrality, ensure that the views of the other claimants are properly represented while at the same time trying to avoid upsetting China,” he said. “It will require all of Singapore’s deft diplomatic skills.”