Conduct in the South China Sea

Tension continues to grip China-Vietnam ties after China brought a deep-water oil drilling rig early this month into an area near the Paracel Islands, which are under China’s effective control but also claimed by Vietnam. The move triggered violent anti-China demonstrations across Vietnam, while ships from both countries rammed each other around the disputed islands.

Vietnamese demonstrators attacked factories owned by foreign capital. Beijing said two Chinese were killed in the attacks on Chinese businesses in Vietnam, and announced partial suspension of bilateral exchanges, including tourism.

The Vietnamese government should be praised for acting in a coolheaded manner to contain the situation. Fearing a negative effect on its economy, Hanoi clamped down on anti-China demonstrations. Vietnam apparently had no other choice, given its close trade ties with China — the destination of more than 10 percent of Vietnam’s exports and the source of nearly 30 percent of its imports — and the huge gap in the two countries’ military capabilities.

China for its part must exercise self-restraint and make serious efforts to peacefully resolve the dispute in cooperation with the international community. Beijing needs to realize that its drilling activities near the Paracel Islands constitute a unilateral move to change the status quo in the disputed area.

To keep fueling its economic growth, China has pushed to secure its interests in the South China Sea, which abounds in such resources as oil and natural gas, under the slogan of becoming a “great maritime power.” It had adopted a U-shaped “nine-dash line” that encircles a large area of the South China Sea and declared the sea inside the line as its territorial waters. The area inside the nine-dash line includes both the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands, the latter being claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. China has not shown any legal grounds to back up its claims to the whole area — which are not recognized internationally. Still, it continues to push for effective control of the area in an attempt to create a fait accompli.

China’s drilling attempt near the Paracel Islands began after U.S. President Barack Obama wrapped up his visit to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines in late April. The Obama administration tried to emphasize U.S. rebalancing military resources to Asia in support of allies in the region.

There has been speculation that China is trying to keep U.S. policy in check, and attempting to gauge its reactions by taking what Washington has called a “provocative” move near the Paracel Islands.

During his Asia tour, Obama reassured Japan that the Senkaku Islands, the source of a bitter territorial dispute between Tokyo and Beijing, is covered by U.S. defense obligations under the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty. He also concluded a new security pact with the Philippines — which has its own maritime dispute with China — that brings back the U.S. military to the country for the first time in more than two decades.

But the China-Vietnam spat may have highlighted the waning U.S. security influence in Asia. The Obama administration has called for self-restraint on the part of China, but does not appear to have any effective means to control the situation.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, meanwhile, has tried to play an active role in defusing the situation despite differences in its 10 members’ attitudes toward China. At a summit held in the Myanmar capital of Naypyitaw on May 10-11, the ASEAN members issued a statement urging “all parties concerned, in accordance with the universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to exercise self-restraint and avoid actions that could undermine peace and stability in the area; and to resolve disputes by peaceful means without resorting to threat or use of force” — without singling out China.

China should positively respond to the ASEAN call and actively push negotiations with the group to conclude the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. China needs to recognize that as a major power, it has the duty to peacefully resolve disputes in the area.