One of Asia’s most important trade routes passes through the South China Sea. But despite its name, it is not regarded as Chinese by everyone in Asia, as Stephen Nagy reports from Vietnam
The tense atmosphere in the South China Sea was evident in May when two US warships entered the region. The Chinese army sent fighter planes and boats to intercept them and called it an act of provocation. It claimed the vessels had ‘seriously infringed upon Chinese sovereignty’ and contravened international law because they had entered territorial waters without permission.
The US ships were in a sensitive area, 12 nautical miles from the Paracel Islands, also known as the Woody islands. The confrontation served as a reminder of the tussle for influence in the region between the US and China – a rivalry which has profound implications for ASEAN nations and for the rest of Asia.
Chinese activity in the South China Sea has elicited criticism by the international community. The United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in July 2016 that China has no valid legal claim over much of the waters and formations in the South China Sea. Nevertheless, this landmark decision appears to have had little impact upon China’s actions in the region. Indeed, China has been incrementally re-enforcing its claims through the installation of cruise missiles and anti-aircraft batteries on artificial islands. China has also deployed bombers on the Paracels.
In parallel with this military activity, China has been courting several ASEAN countries: firstly the Cambodians, and then pulling the Philippines into its political orbit, following the election of President Duterte in 2016. This was despite the ruling at the UN that China’s ‘historic’ claim to territory owned by the Philippines was without legal basis. The result of China’s diplomatic efforts has been to split the ASEAN bloc, leaving it unable to push back against Chinese expansionism.
The view from Vietnam
On a trip to Hanoi, I met with experts who expressed deep concerns over Chinese activities in what Vietnam regards as its backyard. Viet Hoang – a legal expert in Ho Chi Minh City who has conducted many studies on the South China Sea – told me that Hanoi is watching helplessly as Beijing increases its military dominance. Elsewhere, some journalists claimed that Vietnam has been unable to challenge Chinese expansionism because of its own lack of resources. They said that as a result, Beijing has firmly consolidated its position in the South China Sea at Hanoi’s expense.
Not surprisingly, there is a largely benign view of developments within China itself. A scholar I interviewed in Beijing expressed a typically positive view of the gains achieved through diplomacy. His opinion is that China has helped to stabilise the region and has brought benefits to ASEAN countries through increased economic cooperation. He cited the example of the Philippines, where people are now receiving Chinese economic aid and have been granted the right to fish in Chinese territory. I was assured that Sino-Philippines relations are the best they have been in years.
On the legal front, China has pressed scholars to challenge the verdict from the Court of Arbitration. The Chinese International Law Society recently published a substantial report citing its objections to the verdict.
Another contentious issue is access to natural resources in the South China Sea. China has prevented some international oil and gas companies from operating in the Vanguard Bank area, although under the UN ruling, the oil blocks are entirely within Vietnam’s territory.
All this leaves America and its allies in a quandary on how to balance China’s increasing dominance. The US and Japan have stepped up their naval activities in the region. Some people in Vietnam welcome this counterbalance to Chinese influence. However, for historic reasons Vietnam has an aversion to alliances so some diplomats suggested to me that it does not expect any other countries to defend its sovereignty or interests.
There could still be an important role for the ASEAN bloc to manage territorial disputes. The ultimate goal is to prevent the use of force by any parties and to avoid dangerous confrontations.