Last update 7/23/2011 10:00:00 AM (GMT+7)

The dilemma of Vietnam, Philippines and new opportunities

VietNamNet Bridge – The following analysis by Dr. Le Hong Nhat, from the HCM City National University, is a profound angle of the nature of the East Sea disputes, China’s plot and recommendations of policies for Vietnam. The articles show the author’s personal viewpoint.

The East Sea: Seizing opportunity, getting out of danger

China’s game in the East Sea

Multilateral cooperation among small countries against the bully of big countries in the region is natural but difficult to implement. For example, China harassed ships of the Philippines near the Reed Bank but it does not directly affect the interests of Vietnam, which wants to maintain friendship and good neighborhood with China. On the contrary, China cutting the cables of Vietnamese seismic survey ships does not directly touch the interests of the Philippines, which still has commercial and diplomatic interests with China.

For that reason, at the ASEAN security forum in Shangri-La Dialogue, Singapore this June, observers saw the protest of both Vietnam and the Philippines against China’s provoking acts. But this was not the combination in a “united front”, as US Senator McCain mentioned in Washington later, on June 20.

Thus, the nature of China’s bilateral bullying game keeps unchanged. Along with it the bilateral loss of sovereignty of Vietnam/the Philippines does not change positively. For example, immediately after the Shangri-La Dialogue, Chinese ships cut cables of Vietnam’s Viking 2 ship.

It is important that how Vietnam/the Philippines cooperate with each other in the so-called “prisoner’s dilemma”; in which if “you” are not willing to protect “me” when “I” am bullied, “I” will not protect “you” when you are bullied. The formation of a united front in the region requires agreement and broad and strict cooperation in many fields.

Positive changes

At this point, the participation of the US, Japan, Russia and India as counterpoises to China to maintain regional security, not military confrontation, is extremely important.

After US Senator Jim Webb called the US Senate to make appropriate moves against China’s acts in the East Sea, cooperation of countries in the region and the world has made positive moves. The developments at the conference on the East Sea in Washington on June 20-21 proved that positive move.

From this conference, a multilateral security and cooperation mechanism to peacefully settle the East Sea disputes has been taken shape. That mechanism aims at promoting: 1) related parties to restrain, do not use forces on air and at sea to solve disputes; 2) taking shape an united front to maintain stability in the region; 3) the US needs to take action appropriately, timely to prevent potential clashes. The US’ cooperation may including joint military exercises to maintain maritime security and assisting countries in the region to implement early warning systems, to build defense systems against armed invasion; 4) improving the US’ commitments to protect regional security and international maritime order.

It is necessary to repeat that protecting regional security and freedom of navigation in the East Sea is one kind of public goods. Without the super-state role of the US and Japan, there will have little guarantee for regional stability and maritime security.

Specifically, when the Philippines pulled up China’s poles on this country’s bank or when Malaysian aircraft drove away Chinese fishing boats that intruded into Malaysian waters, these countries actually supplied public goods, in the meaning that their actions prevent China’s intrusion into their territories and these actions deter China’s intrusion into the waters of other countries in the region.

In addition, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s statement, which is considered the toughest so far, at the Sea and Islands Festival in Nha Trang city after the Binh Minh 02 incident, as well as the response of Vietnamese newspaper “Dai Doan Ket” (Great Unity) against China’s threat of using forces on its Global Times newspaper, dated June 21, 2011, are encouraging signals for the Philippines to show its resolute attitude in sovereign defense.

However, small countries’ supply of public goods unilaterally or self-defense actions are never enough to prevent bully. Other countries in the region can do nothing to benefit from “front-line” countries’ unilateral defense of sovereignty if these countries are successful. On the contrary, if these countries weaken, the remaining countries will be in a new order, without losses.

The dilemma in regional cooperation and the above motivation (free-ridding) makes the roles of the US, Japan, Russia and India indispensable. After the conference on the East Sea disputes in Washington, the region can expect a higher commitment of the US and its alliance in protecting interests of the Philippines, as well as the timely and effective assistance of the US, Japan and others to Vietnam to confront China’s warlike statement on the Global Times. Particularly, the US, Japan and Russia can help improve Vietnam’s defense and warning capability on the air, at sea and on the mainland.

It is needed to emphasize that the role of the US, Japan and the international community is not to increase military confrontation, but take timely and appropriate actions to prevent regional crisis and promote cooperation.

In the context of the difference in awareness and ability to defend sovereignty between countries in the region, plus economic difficulties after the economic crisis in the US, Japan and West Europe, besides a rising China, whether a multilateral security mechanism can take shape? To answer this question, we have to look deeper into possible changes of China’s game, when the third party – the US, Japan, Russia and India – join it.

China and two joint games

In China’s bilateral bullying game, as being described above, the forte of Vietnam/the Philippines is that they have justice on their side. The adventure in China’s bullying strategy is that it gradually pushes the US and its alliance – Japan and the Western Europe, including Australia – to confront China in a competition of navigation freedom. Particularly, the possible conflict on free navigation and maritime security in western Pacific may happen between these countries and China, if Vietnam/the Philippines and regional countries gradually lose sovereignty in the East Sea.

In parallel with the bullying game against smaller countries, China conducts another game to compete for position and power in the region with the US, Japan, Australia and others like Russia and India.

At present, this is a multi-game linkage. Specifically, confronting China’s bully, the support of the international community, in which the role of the US and Japan is crucial, will allow Vietnam/the Philippines to be stronger. Once Vietnam/the Philippines’ self-defense capability is enhanced, the position and power of the international community, led by the US, in the second game to defend the regional order will be strengthened.

The highlight in the linkage between the two games is justice. The more brutal and unjust acts made by China, the less its position in the region is. It means that the alliance between smaller countries in the US and the US and its alliance increases to protect sovereignty and stability in the region.

The above analysis shows that China’s bilateral bullying game against small countries in the region has changed in its nature. Now, it is linked to another game, to define the maritime order between China and the US, particularly the freedom of navigation and maritime security in the East Sea.

In the two games, China’s respect to the first game will cool off the second game. In that context, the stability in the region is maintained: Vietnam/the Philippines do not lose anything; the US does not involve in and China does not appropriate sovereignty or freedom of navigation of other countries.

In another choice, China can continue its provoking and bullying acts against Vietnam/the Philippines, neglecting the consequence of having to face the US in the competition for influence in the region and maritime order. China has great ambition to tighten that strategic sea lane, where 80 percent of imported oil volume of China; and over one third of the global trade value passes.

However, a provoking strategy will be no longer a good choice for China, at least at present. The US’ deterrent power current predominates, so it is difficult for China to create a bilateral conflict and turn it into a regional conflict. Economic losses in case the strategic sea lane is blocked and losses in diplomacy due to being isolated in the region may be huge. In that context, China must step backwards in its strategy to set up a new order in the region (losing one point).

On the contrary, the US will benefit when it relies on the current military power to maintain the existing order and benefit from the freedom of navigation and maritime security in western Pacific. In this case, the US gets one point.

Therefore, the US will not sit tight if China’s provoking acts threaten stability in the region and maritime security. China, thus, will be unable to make provocation, if it estimates the losses it has to pay. In that context, Vietnam/the Philippines will combine with the US in case conflicts with China occur. Losses will be much gentle than sitting tight to see China’s gradually rodenting their sovereignty. Briefly, the threat to create military clashes against Vietnam on China’s Global Times newspaper is impossible at present.

Dr. Le Hong Nhat
(To be continued)