That China is an emerging power gives its no right to impose its bogus sovereignty claims. Yet that is precisely what Beijing is doing in the South China Sea, or the Southeast Asian Sea, if one prefers a politically-neutral designation free of colonial or imperial connotations. For those like me, who have observed China’s development with hope and enthusiasm, Beijing’s recent pattern of obdurate expansionism is massively disappointing and reason for true alarm.
Towing a one-billion dollar piece of drilling infrastructure to a remote location well within another country’s exclusive economic zone requires not only capital and technical know-how, but also political arrogance and a patent disregard for international norms. Only in Beijing’s imagination is sovereignty over the waters where its oil rig is positioned indisputable. Dreamt up by a Taiwanese bureaucrat with too much time on his hands in the 1940s the once-11, now nine-dotted line Beijing uses to claim sovereignty over eighty percent of the Southeast Asian Sea has zero legal or historical basis.
Illegal encroachments of the sort we are now observing are nothing new. Beijing’s bloody and illegal seizures of islands in the Paracels in 1974 and in the Spratleys in 1988 resulted in the deaths of scores of Vietnamese and remain fresh in the Vietnamese psyche. These incidents, which followed a long history of tense relations between the two countries, have themselves been followed by two decades of unremitting harassment and abuse of innumerable Vietnamese fisherman. While political extremism is never helpful, is it any wonder that Vietnamese around the world view Beijing with suspicion and mistrust?
Across Vietnam, Beijing’s oil rig actions are being viewed as a blatant violation of and direct challenge to Vietnam’s sovereignty, which it is indeed. How will Hanoi respond? In the Philippines, similarly aggressive behavior has led Manila to re-embrace military cooperation with the United States and other countries. For its part, Hanoi has signaled that it will continue with efforts to resolve the dispute by diplomatic and other peaceful means, perhaps through secret negotiations such as those held in Chengdu in 1990. If diplomacy fails to yield results and Beijing remains aggressive all bets are off.
While Vietnamese do not desire conflict their determination in the face of external threats is well known. What if talks go nowhere? While Vietnam has formidable military assets, Hanoi has stated they would be used in self-defense. And yet the risk of an incident triggering self-defensive actions is dangerously high. In the coming months and years, Hanoi’s effectiveness in managing its relation with its aggressive neighbor are likely to depend on its effectiveness in combining deterrence with soft power. With respect to the latter, worldwide solidarity among Vietnamese and a deepening of strategic alliances will be essential. Undertaking long sought-after institutional reforms and improving human rights would be helpful in these regards. Where possible, negotiations with Beijing must continue.
Relations between China and Vietnam have and will always be complex. The two nations’ history and destiny are intertwined and sooner or later some resolution of the current tensions will obtain. Whether that future equilibrium will be achieved more or less sensibly remains to be seen.
Speculation about the depths to which the current tensions might plunge is depressing enough to remind one of the senselessness of it all. In economic terms, relations between Vietnam and China have considerable potential. Relations between the countries should be comprehensive and mutually beneficial. The challenge now – for Hanoi and the region – is addressing a neighbor whose aggressive behavior threatens the entire community. I for one hope Beijing will soon realize that good neighborliness is in its own self-interest.