SINGAPORE – We now know Vietnam’s immediate reaction to China’s recent steps to begin drilling for oil in a part of the South China Sea that both sides claim. More than 20,000 Vietnamese workers spilled out of control at two Singapore-run industrial parks, attacking factories thought to be Chinese-owned.
With reports that dozens have been killed and more hospitalized, other manufacturers have been closing out of precaution. Global supply chains have felt the effects and Hanoi has wisely asserted domestic order.
Will conflict escalate? Must Vietnam be the only one to protest or will others too respond?
History testifies to the real dangers of conflict between China and Vietnam. The two neighbors fought over the Paracel Islands in 1974, when China completed its effective control and Vietnam lost more than 50 personnel. They clashed again along their border in 1979. Anti-China street protests have grown in recent years, showing nationalistic fervor.
Until now, countervailing factors have prevented conflict. Soon after the end of the Cold War, the respective communist parties that run the two countries developed layered dialogue on territorial issues at sea and along their long shared border. While upholding its claims, Hanoi restrained criticism.
Current events may upend this process. Even as angry statements ensue, it is worth watching whether parties can possibly and quietly return to the dialogue process, away from public glare.
In any event, it is not only Vietnam that should respond. Others with competing claims — Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines — must take heed. Manila has already angered Beijing by taking up international arbitration and recently arresting Chinese nationals for fishing in contested waters. Philippine President Benigno Aquino once likened China to Adolf Hitler.
Brunei and Malaysia have been relatively tame in their responses but may now need to steel themselves. Each has recently experienced Chinese vessels assertively venturing into nearby waters.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, as the regional voice, will be pressed to take sides. The group’s ministerial meetings so far have declined to single out China but instead express “serious concerns” about recent developments.
It would be right to urge a peaceful resolution in accordance with international law and speed up discussions on a Code of Conduct that both sides have promised.
If further concerns arise, ASEAN must be expected to speak up. But will China care? There is a sense that China is looking past Vietnam and the region.
Place this action in a broader context of Beijing’s standoff with Tokyo over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, and its declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone. Note that China’s action came soon after U.S. President Barack Obama’s Asian visit that put security reassurance at the top of the agenda. China’s action can be understood as a push back against the Obama administration’s policy to ‘pivot’ or rebalance toward Asia.
Shrewdly China has acted against Vietnam, which is not a U.S. ally. Each step taken, from China’s perspective, is justified and in isolation, may not seem significant. Collectively, however, some will read an orchestrated effort by China to move the status quo in its favor.
It remains unclear if the U.S. sees it this way and how they might respond. So far, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden has said the country does not take sides in the dispute while a State Department spokesman characterized Chinese actions as “provocative and unhelpful.”
In response, a senior Chinese leader, Gen. Fang Fenghui, blamed the U.S. “pivot” for giving neighboring countries a chance to “provoke problems.” This came even as the general visited Washington for a high-level dialogue with U.S. Defense counterparts.
China has put relations with the U.S. on a new plane as a “major power” dialogue partner. This seeks to better manage the complex and interdependent relationship between the current and rising superpowers on global issues. This tests America’s commitment and emphasis in rebalancing to Asia.
If the Obama administration presses too hard, this could jeopardize a range of other interests on which China’s cooperation is needed. Yet, if it does not respond, the president’s security reassurances will mean little. Reversing China’s present action may be asking too much. But it will take more than finger wagging to convince Beijing that there is real cost against a further step.
The Vietnamese reaction has been angry and immediate. No doubt the Philippines will promptly protest out of solidarity. Beyond this, broader implications will ripple through the region and indeed across the Pacific.
Most still wish to cooperate with a rising China while maintaining stability in the region. While no one should demonize Beijing, all have to be wary of mute acquiescence; this will require thoughtful and more measured responses.
Simon Tay and Nicholas Fang are, respectively, chairman and executive director of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. Both were part of the Singapore delegation that attended the Third Singapore-U.S. Strategic Dialogue in Washington last week.
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