China’s efforts to head off a united Southeast Asia bloc against its pursuit of control of the South China Sea faces a backlash as President Xi Jinping considers how to respond to Vietnam’s fury over Chinese moves.
Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung called for support from neighboring nations in his country’s attempt to force China to withdraw an oil rig it placed in waters claimed by both nations. Vietnamese ire over the issue spurred attacks on Chinese workers in the country that left two dead.
The tensions with Vietnam risk undermining the policy Xi has crafted since consolidating power last year -- of tightening ties with some Southeast Asian countries while taking a tough stance with those challenging China’s maritime claims. Any spiral of violence may enhance the incentive of the region aligning, and deepening relations with the U.S. or Japan.
“If they continue to antagonize the smaller countries they are in for trouble because it is going to create hard feelings about being trampled by a giant,” Sreeram Chaulia, professor and dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs in India, said by phone. “The Chinese don’t want the Americans to interfere but their actions are inviting the smaller countries to call in the Americans for help.”
The positioning of the rig near the islands has sparked confrontations between coast guard vessels from the two countries, with water cannon deployed and accusations of ships being rammed. Dozens of ships are in the area as tensions escalate. In Vietnam, anti-China protests have erupted in several provinces, damaging factories owned by companies from Taiwan and Singapore.
China says that the rig is in its territory, and the attacks in Vietnam prompted Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying yesterday to accuse the Vietnamese government of “indulgence and connivance towards domestic anti-China forces and criminals.”
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh to voice “strong condemnation” of the violence, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
The rig’s presence off Vietnam’s coast “is a very normal behavior,” General Fang Fenghui, chief of staff of China’s People’s Liberation Army, said in a Pentagon news conference after meeting his U.S. counterpart, Army General Martin Dempsey. The U.S. asked China to consider the second- and third-order effects of starting confrontations at sea over disputed islands, Dempsey said, pointing to the violence in Vietnam.
Fang said Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan have stirred trouble over territory in the South and East China Seas, either by drilling for oil or stationing ships. The islands are “territories passed on by our ancestors to our current generation, and we cannot afford to lose an inch.”
Vice President Joe Biden in a separate meeting with Fang said the U.S. has serious concerns about China’s actions in the waters, according to a White House statement. Biden and Fang affirmed the need to develop U.S.-China military ties, it said.
The confrontation off Vietnam’s coast is the most serious between the two countries since 2007, when Chinese naval patrol vessels fired on a Vietnamese fishing boat, killing one sailor. In 1988, a Chinese naval attack in the Spratlys, which Vietnam also claims, killed 64 Vietnamese border guards as China seized seven atolls. The two countries fought a war after China invaded in 1979, and it took the Paracel Islands by force in 1974.
With tensions rising with Vietnam, China’s Wang held a telephone conversation with his counterpart Marty Natalegawa from Indonesia, China’s Foreign Ministry said May 14. Wang briefed him on the situation with Vietnam and said he hoped the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations could “clearly understand the basic facts of the incident,” it said.
Indonesia takes no side on sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea and is willing to work with China and other parties to safeguard regional peace, Natalegawa responded, according to the Chinese statement. China has always been very careful not to put pressure on Indonesia over territorial matters, to prevent it from strongly supporting the Southeast Asian claimants, said Hugh White, a professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University in Canberra.
That is part of a policy that seeks to divide Asean countries, he said. A statement by Asean after a summit in Myanmar that ended May 11 only expressed “serious concerns” over developments in the South China Sea and didn’t mention China by name.
Even so, Hua from China’s foreign ministry said the country opposed “one or two countries’ attempts” to use the South China Sea issue to harm cooperation between China and Asean.
“China’s leadership is demonstrating a pattern of accepting risk by using tailored coercion to assert its control over its maritime periphery,” Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security said. “Xi Jinping wants neighbors to make a choice between cooperation on Chinese terms or pressure tactics for those who impede its rise.”
The Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei also claim parts of the South China Sea, with the Philippines in March challenging China’s territorial actions at a United Nations tribunal. Indonesia wants an explanation of a map outlining China’s claims, Natalegawa said in an interview on April 7, after an Indonesian official said on March 12 that China’s so-called nine-dash line map included part of the Natuna Island waters in the Indonesian province of Riau.
Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen will next week attend a security conference in Shanghai hosted by Xi, while Vietnam will only send a vice chairman of its National Assembly, Cheng Guoping, vice foreign minister, said in Beijing yesterday. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Afghan President Hamid Karzai will join the event, intended to show China’s leadership of an alternate Asia security forum.
Dung will visit the Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally, from May 21 to 23, Vietnam Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh said yesterday.
Asean countries want the U.S. to balance China yet don’t want to become too allied to the U.S., according to Zhou Qi, a researcher at the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The U.S. only became concerned with China’s actions in the South China Sea after 2010 when its strategic focus shifted to Asia, she said.
“Asean countries each have their own interests,” she said. “Economically they have a very close relationship with China and want to improve that. Yet on the other hand they worry what actions China will take if it becomes too strong.”
China continues to use water cannons in the oil rig area, causing damage to Vietnamese vessels and hurting crew members, Binh said. Vietnamese staff at a Taiwanese steel mill in central Ha Tinh province looted the site, leaving 90 Chinese injured, the owner Formosa Plastics Group (1301) said in a statement yesterday. One Chinese worker died of heat stroke, it said.
A Chinese technician at Taiwan’s DDK Group, which makes bike parts, choked to death as one of the company’s plants was set on fire.
“In principle the Chinese government wants to have very good relations with neighboring countries as you can see from Xi and Li’s visits to Southeast Asia,” Jia Qingguo, professor at the School of International Studies at Peking University, said by phone. “But the risk of conflicts is quite big. Because after nationalist feelings appear, people are not rational.”
Still, China’s role as the region’s largest economy with companies that are seeking to “go global” and invest overseas means it holds considerable leverage, White of the Australian National University said. China is Asean’s biggest trading partner and economically China wants the area to be united.
“China does understand that it has a fair bit of latitude to put pressure on countries on territorial issues without damaging their capacity to maintain a broadly positive overall relationship,” he said. “Because none of the countries can afford to walk away from their economic dependency on China.”
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