Checking China

Print edition : July 15, 2011

Neighbours dispute China's exclusive sovereignty over the South China Sea.

in Singapore

At an anti-China demonstration in Hanoi on June 19. Several Vietnamese protested in front of the Chinese embassy and marched through the streets after Beijing sent one of its biggest maritime patrol ships into the South China Sea.-JOHN RUWITCH/REUTERS

THE cross-currents of two distinctive political paradoxes have caused a new surge in tensions over sovereign and maritime rights along the South China Sea.

A major paradox is that China, which has frequently pledged to eschew a hegemonic rise, is just as frequently accused of tracing a hegemonic path to superpower status. Surely, this can be partially explained by the sense of resentment among China's neighbours over its dramatically rapid rise as an economic powerhouse with an enormous military potential.

The second paradox in the region is the diplomatic ease with which Vietnam is courting the United States in a bid to keep China in check in the South China Sea region. In the process, the highly chronicled story of Vietnam being subjected to imperial pressures from the U.S. just a few decades ago looks like a non-event of recent history. The dramatic turnaround in Hanoi's equation with Washington should rank very high among the early-21st century examples of the old adage that global politics is all about the interplay of national interests and not about any permanence of friends or foes in inter-state relations.

In prime focus on the diplomatic scene in East Asia, by June 20, were the dissonant notes, independent of each other, from Vietnam and the Philippines on one side and from China on the other. Both Vietnam and the Philippines accused China of being domineering in its attitude towards the freedom of navigation and natural-resource exploration along the South China Sea. China's responses, somewhat nuanced in respect of these two neighbours, bear similarity in substantive terms.

Amid this latest flare-up of tensions, Hanoi has started referring to the South China Sea as the East Sea. Manila, with a deeply chequered history as a U.S. ally, now refers to the South China Sea as the West Philippine Sea. Unfazed, Beijing has asserted that South China Sea is a name well recognised by the international community.

At the same time, the international community has, in recent years, come to express routine concerns over the inter-state disputes about sovereignty in regard to the Spratly and the Paracel Islands that dot the South China Sea.

On June 7, the Chinese Foreign Ministry was emphatic in stating once again that China has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea Islands and adjacent waters. In a follow-up comment on Vietnam's assertions of sovereign and jurisdictional rights in the same waters, China reaffirmed its position.

While Vietnam challenges China's sovereignty rights over the Paracel Islands, Hanoi is not alone in disputing Beijing's claims to the Spratlys on the basis of historical and traditional realities. The Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, a non-sovereign and non-state actor, are the other claimants.

Also well-chronicled is the shared belief of all these players, based on some scientific surveys as also speculation, that the South China Sea waters are rich in natural resources, especially oil and gas, besides being a premier maritime domain for international trade in goods and services.

The latest round of tensions began on May 26 when Hanoi alleged that a Chinese maritime-surveillance vessel cut the exploration cables of Binh Minh 02 seismic vessel of Vietnam National Oil and Gas Group (PVN). Beijing was quick to respond, saying that Vietnam's oil and gas explorations had undermined China's interests and jurisdictional rights in the South China Sea area.

In the same breath, Beijing reaffirmed its commitment to safeguarding peace and stability in that maritime domain. However, Beijing was no less emphatic in saying that the relevant Chinese authorities had only acted in accordance with normal marine law-enforcement and surveillance activities in China's jurisdictional sea areas.

It was in this climate of tensions that Vietnam utilised the Asia Security Summit in Singapore in early June to demand that China respect the jurisdictional rights of its neighbours in the South China Sea area. The Philippines followed suit at that summit. The diplomatic row, aired publicly by the Defence Ministers of these countries, showed no sign of abating. On June 9, Hanoi said the cables of a 3-D seismic exploration vessel, charted by Vietnam's PVN, were cut by a Chinese fishing vessel. As before, the PVN vessel was operating within the maritime limits of Vietnam's continental shelf and exclusive economic zone, Hanoi asserted. Going a step further, Hanoi said the objective behind these systematic acts by the Chinese side was to raise a dispute over an undisputed area.

Hanoi also argued that Beijing's goal now, unacceptable to Vietnam, was to gain international recognition for the Chinese claim to the nine-dotted line' in South China Sea. Hanoi's follow-up argument was that the line, as illustrated in a map said to have been presented by China to the United Nations Secretary-General on May 7, 2009, was totally illegal. Cited in support of this dim view was Hanoi's interpretation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Dismissing Hanoi's June 9 version and arguments, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said: As is known to all, China has indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha Islands and the adjacent waters. Chinese fishing boats have been operating in the waters off [the relevant] Vanguard Bank for generations. While conducting normal operations in the above waters on the morning of June 9, the Chinese fishing boats were illegally chased away by armed Vietnamese ships. Amid the chase, the fishing net of one of the Chinese fishing boats tangled with the cables of a Vietnamese oil and gas exploration vessel, which was operating illegally in the same waters. Regardless of the safety of the Chinese fishermen, the Vietnamese vessel dragged the Chinese fishing boat for more than one hour. The Chinese fishermen were forced to take the initiative to cut off the fishing net.

Beijing urged Hanoi to stop all actions that violate China's sovereignty, endanger Chinese fishermen's lives and properties, and complicate and expand disputes.

Kindred soul

In the shadow of such a new showdown, Vietnam found a kindred soul in the U.S. during their prearranged annual Political, Security and Defence Dialogue, which took place in Washington on June 17. Hanoi expressed satisfaction that the U.S. disfavoured coercion or the use of force the code Vietnam uses for its perception of China's options for an assertive rise.

Matching the new mood in the Hanoi-Washington entente, the Philippines President Benigno Aquino expressed satisfaction over the U.S. assurance of support for the position of the Philippines on the South China Sea disputes. And, Manila began rallying support among the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for a common stance in facing China.

Four ASEAN countries dispute the idea of Beijing's exclusive sovereignty over the South China Sea. The ASEAN now wants to engage China for converting their nearly decade-old joint declaration on South China Sea issues into a binding code of conduct.

It is in this situation that Manila has now floated the idea of a rules-based system of ensuring peace and stability across the South China Sea. And, with the U.S. having identified, about a year ago, this very same maritime domain as a vital area of America's national interest, Beijing and Washington may soon face a litmus test of leadership in this zone.

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