South China Sea Disputes Are Intractable, Thayer Says

South China Sea sovereignty disputes are “intractable,” worsened by China’s increased capacity to enforce claims and attempts to stop Vietnam’s efforts to form a united front, said Carlyle Thayer, a politics professor.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered to mediate between China and Japan last month after a collision of boats from the two nations sparked a war of words. Also in October, Vietnam demanded that China release a fishing vessel seized in or near disputed waters and last week protested a Chinese map’s depiction of areas in what Vietnam calls “the Eastern Sea.”

Disputed regional areas include the Spratlys, a collection of reefs, islands and atolls that the U.S. Energy Information Administration this month described as “potentially hydrocarbon rich.” Growing rhetoric over disputed areas may hinder plans to study a location’s potential fuel resources and create threats to international shipping routes.

“Sovereignty claims will remain intractable,” Thayer, a professor at the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra who has written about Vietnam for three decades and focuses on the country’s politics and military, said today at a conference in Ho Chi Minh City. “China’s lack of transparency has raised legitimate questions about its strategic intentions.”

Code of Conduct

Vietnam tried to accelerate diplomatic efforts this year to agree to a more binding code of conduct in the South China Sea, Thayer said. A 2002 declaration signed by all members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China commits the parties to resolve territorial disputes peacefully.

The Chinese government has “attempted to thwart efforts by Vietnam, the current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, to forge a united front against China on the South China Sea,” Thayer said.

Clinton’s call in July for a multilateral approach to resolve South China Sea disputes resulted in a “sharp rebuke” from her Chinese counterpart, according to Thayer.

Nguyen Phuong Nga, a Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said on Nov. 5 that China should “refrain from complicating or expanding” disputes about areas in the sea.

China has carried out “repeated seizures of Vietnamese fishing boats” and imposed fishing bans, and it’s unclear whether China has elevated the South China Sea to a so-called “core interest” on par with Taiwan or Tibet that would imply willingness to use force to defend claims, Thayer said.

‘Strategic Uncertainty’

“China is developing even greater capability to enforce its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea through the production of more Fishery Administration vessels,” Thayer said. “China’s rise and military modernization and transformation continue to reinforce strategic uncertainty in the minds of regional defense planners.”

China needs a peaceful environment to develop economically and is behaving responsibly, Su Hao, a professor at the China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing, said at the conference.

“Regarding ‘core interests’ and the South China Sea, Professor Su Hao said China has never used that term in any of its official documents,” according to a press release summarizing today’s discussions. “Professor Su Hao said China hasn’t threatened anyone; it has only reacted to some new developments in the region.”

U.S. interests in Vietnam include concern over China’s growing strength, the Congressional Research Service said in a report last year.

“One key question is the staying power of the United States and its willingness to maintain the balance of power in the maritime domain,” Thayer said. “Southeast Asia will continue to be affected by great power rivalry.”

(Updates with professor’s comment in 11th-12th paragraphs.)
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