China walks tightrope over troubled waters
By Brendan O’Reilly
Geopolitical shifts are upsetting the waters of the South China Sea, as both China and Vietnam take a three-pronged approach to strengthen their claims over the Spratly Islands.
Military posturing, legal maneuvers, and economic strategies are being used by both sides to shore up their respective assertions of sovereignty over the contested islands. The intensification of the struggle for the Spratly Islands comes at a politically crucial time for the region. This quarrel over minor islands could have major global ramifications.
The recent escalation of the long-standing dispute began on June 15, when the Vietnamese air force conducted a patrol over the
Spratly Islands (called the “Truong Sa” by Vietnam and the “Nansha” by China). Senior Vietnamese lieutenant colonel Ngo Vinh Phuc claimed that such patrols would become a routine occurrence, saying:
“The regiment decided that after the first flight to Truong Sa, it will be our regular duty, and we are always ready for it once we receive orders…With the flight, we want to reiterate once again that we will be always ready to protect the country’s sacred sovereignty over seas and islands.” 
China (along with Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines) disputes Vietnam’s claims of sovereignty over the Spratlys. In response to the perceived Vietnamese provocation, Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng announced the deployment of armed Chinese patrols in the disputed maritime region:
“In order to protect national sovereignty and our security and development interests, the Chinese military has already set up a normal, combat-ready patrol system in seas under our control…”
Vietnam and China are inching closer to a possible armed confrontation, with neither side willing to back down. Both governments are utilizing political tactics to complement their military maneuvers.
On June 21, the Vietnamese National Assembly passed the long-considered “Vietnamese Law of the Sea”. This decree stipulates that the entirety of both the Spratly and the Paracel Islands are integral territories of Vietnam. After the passage of this law, the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced, “China strongly protests and firmly opposes such a move by Vietnam.” China’s Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun further condemned the Vietnamese move as “illegal, invalid and detrimental to peace and stability in the South China Sea.”
Within hours of the passage of the “Vietnamese Law of the Sea”, China’s State Council approved plans for the establishment of a new prefecture-level city, Sansha, with jurisdiction over the contested area. The Spratly Islands, the Paracel Islands, and Macclesfield Bank now constitute “Sansha” (literally “Thee Sands”), officially the largest and southernmost city in the People’s Republic of China, although it has no permanent residents.
The establishment of Sansha is a significant legal tactic to solidify China’s claims over the islands. The move was described by a Ministry of Civil Affairs spokesman as an important step to “further strengthen China’s administration and development” of the disputed region.  The Chinese government is discussing the possibility of setting up a permanent military presence in order to protect its newest “city”.
There is also a strong economic component to the current standoff. The state-run China National Offshore Oil Cooperation (CNOOC) recently offered tenders to foreign companies to jointly develop extraction capabilities in the contested region. Vietnam claims that some of these zones lie in the undisputed continental shelf of Vietnam. The Vietnamese government has already has been jointly exploring some of these areas with Exxon Mobil, as well as Russia’s Gazprom and Indian ONGC Videh.
Passions are running high in Vietnam, as authorities allowed a rare unofficial protest in central Hanoi. Hundreds of demonstrators marched through the rain to the Chinese embassy on Sunday. Many were chanting “Down with China” as local police blocked traffic and cordoned off the embassy. 
The Strategic background
The timing of the ongoing military, economic, and political posturing of China and Vietnam is significant for several reasons. First, the escalation of tensions between China and Vietnam comes at the same time as an easing of frictions between China and the Philippines. The Chinese and Filipino governments have reached a verbal agreement for both nations to pull back their naval forces from within the lagoon of the disputed Scarborough Shoal. Filipino Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario has confirmed that Chinese warships have withdrawn from the area. On the Chinese side, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei confirmed that the trend in the disputed region is “is overall toward peace.”
That tensions between Vietnam and China are heating up while the rift between the Philippines and China seems to be cooling off is noteworthy. China has been accused by some observers of attempting “divide and rule” tactics towards its neighbors in the South China Sea. Regardless of semantics, it seems prudent for Beijing to focus on one disputant at a time. Taken individually, rival claimants in the South China Sea cannot hope to come close to countering Beijing’s political, economic, and military prowess.
Furthermore, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) Foreign Minister Meeting is scheduled to being July 9 in Cambodia. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to attend the meeting. Disputes over the South China Sea are sure to dominate the discussion.
The upcoming ASEAN meeting provides added motivation for both China and Vietnam to solidify their legal claims over the Spratly Islands. Both sides are jockeying for position in order to strengthen their case before the ASEAN conference takes place. China has specifically claimed that the Vietnamese moves are “illegal” in the context of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. This Declaration, agreed upon by ASEAN members and China, explicitly states “The Parties concerned undertake to resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force…” China considers the Vietnamese air force flights and unilateral claims of sovereignty as a violation of this agreement.
Thirdly, India, Japan, and the Republic of Korea (ROK) held their first trilateral “dialogue” in New Delhi on June 29. Although disputes in the South China Sea were not specifically mentioned, Indian External Affairs Secretary Sanjay Singh stressed: “There is common commitment to maintaining freedom of the seas, combating terrorism and promoting inclusive economic growth. India, Japan and ROK depend heavily on the Sea Lanes of Communications (SLOCs) for their energy security.” Clearly the reference to “maintaining freedom of the seas” is a reference to concerns over conflicting claims of sovereignty in the South China Sea.
That India, Japan, and South Korea have jointly reaffirmed their commitment to the free flow of maritime traffic as tensions mount between China and Vietnam is extremely relevant. China increasingly views India as a strategic factor in the South China Sea. Furthermore, South Korea and Japan (as well as China itself) are both enormously reliant on the imported energy that goes through the disputed maritime region. Clearly, India, Japan, and the ROK have an interest in keeping the South China Sea from becoming a Chinese lake, while at the same time avoiding open conflict.
Finally, the ratcheting up of tensions between China and Vietnam is taking place at the same time as the annual Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval exercises off the coast of Hawaii. Twenty-two nations are participating in this year’s RIMPAC, including regional US allies such as Australia, Japan, and South Korea. Even Russia is sending a vessel to join in the massive coordinated training mission. China is notably absent, while Vietnam is conspicuously present as an observer of the exercises.
The 2012 RIMPAC exercises brought together a host of Pacific powers, which are to various degrees wary of a rising China. The United States and its allies are keeping a close eye on the potential flashpoint of the South China Sea. For years the US has been trying to “internationalize” the South China Sea dispute by offering to help negotiations. In 2010, Clinton announced in Vietnam “The United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons and respect for international law in the South China Sea.” One can expect further expressions of concern over the issue from Clinton at the upcoming ASEAN meeting.
Cold War in warm waters?
Despite the ongoing tensions, it is in both China and Vietnam’s interest to avoid open conflict over the Spratly Islands. China has little to gain from starting a military struggle that could threaten its spectacular economic rise, and Vietnam can’t rely on external intervention to sufficiently balance China’s military edge. Neither country wants a repeat of their bloody 1979 border war. Although tough talk on both sides has international implications, such rhetoric is meant primarily for domestic consumption.
It should be noted that military forces from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Taiwan-based Republic of China (ROC), Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia have been stationed in the Spratly Islands for some years, without a single combat-related casualty.
There does remain the possibility of a miscalculation or a miscommunication leading to a major military clash. In this eventuality, the geopolitical ramifications could be enormous.
Washington views the South China Sea impasse as an important lever from which to extract geopolitical leverage from Beijing. The US government is examining all contingencies for how to handle or possibly thwart the rising clout of China. The United States has strong military, economic, and political ties with the Philippines, and is keen on developing closer relations with Vietnam. For their part, the Philippines and Vietnam see American power as a possible counterbalance to China’s regional superiority.
The United States is seeking to win international sympathy and prestige by portraying itself as an honest broker seeking to establish a “rule-based mechanism” for dealing with the South China Sea disputes. The American government is also trying to shore up alliances with regional countries uneasy of China’s profound and continuing rise. Furthermore, a cornerstone of the much-discussed US “pivot” towards Asia is a plan to base 60% of the US navy in the Pacific.
Meanwhile, the Chinese government is engaged in a difficult balancing act. On the one hand, the People’s Republic of China must play a strong hand in order to solidify its claims over the resource-rich South China Sea. Domestic politics are important – the Communist Party of China cannot appear weak, especially regarding perceived provocations from smaller nations. It should be noted that the governments of both the People’s Republic of China and the Taiwan-based Republic of China have long asserted total Chinese sovereignty over the disputed area.
On the other hand, it is in China’s long-term interests to avoid a military clash for two important reasons. First, China’s economic rise could be threatened by the unpredictable effects of open military conflict, especially in the vicinity of vital shipping lanes. Second, China does not want to frighten its neighbors into the open arms of the United States.
It should be noted that China did not initiate the latest round of tensions with Vietnam. Rather, China retaliated for each Vietnamese move, both militarily and politically. This policy of retaliation, rather than instigation, is indicative of the Chinese balancing act in the region.
Chinese state media often complains of a “Cold War mentality” polluting the political landscape in the United States. Indeed, despite claims to the contrary, the US strategic pivot towards Asia is almost certainly aimed primarily at containing China. Sixty percent of the US fleet is rather overkill for containing the regional ambitions of a half-starving North Korea.
The problem with a “Cold War mentality” is that such thinking is profoundly outdated. The United States may be the longstanding strategic ally of Japan and South Korea, but China is their largest trading partner. Even India, the much-touted “lynchpin” of the United States’ Asia-Pacific strategy, does more trade with the People’s Republic than it does with Uncle Sam. America’s Asian allies are increasingly moving into China’s ever-growing economic orbit. Furthermore, the United States and China are so economically mutually dependent as to render open conflict profoundly unwise.
The Chinese government is unlikely to risk their long-term strategic interests with overly aggressive military adventurism. China will retaliate in kind for any military, political, or economic moves by other disputant states in the South China Sea. However, China will not initiate an unpredictable conflict that could threaten the Middle Kingdom’s ongoing economic rise and encourage her trading partners to seek a greater American presence in the region. China knows that, in the long term, economic development and trade will have greater geopolitical weight in the region than 60% of the American fleet.
Notes: 1. Vietnam to conduct regular air patrols over archipelago, Thanh Nien News, Jun 20, 2012.
2. China starts ‘combat ready’ patrols in disputed South China Sea, Christian Science Monitor, Jun 28, 2012.
3. China opposed Vietnamese maritime law over sovereignty claim, Xinhua, Jun 21, 2012.
4. Vietnam Law on Contested Islands draws China’s Ire, New York Times, Jun 22, 2012.
5. Vietnamese protest over islands dispute with China, Sacramento Bee, Jun 30, 2012.
6. Philippines: Chinese boats leave disputed region, CBS News, Jun 26, 2012.
7. With China on mind, India, Japan, South Korea hold trilateral, New York Daily News, Jun 29, 2012.
8. Offering to Aid Talks, US Challenges China on Disputed Islands, New York Times, Jul 24, 2012.
Brendan P O’Reilly is a China-based writer and educator from Seattle. He is author of The Transcendent Harmony.
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