Last update 7/21/2011 8:00:00 AM (GMT+7)

China’s game in the East Sea

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 disputes

China’s game in the East Sea

As being analyzed in the first part (The East Sea: Seizing opportunity, getting out of danger), China’s major goal is to control the international sea lane from the Middle East to the Malacca Strait, through the East Sea to Truong Sa Archipelago (Spratly Islands) and to Hoang Sa Archipelago (Paracel Islands) (See Map 1).

This sea route is vital for China but it is also vital for the US, Japan and countries in the region. Cooperation in international maritime security between China and the US, Japan, ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) will be ideal for the stability and prosperity of the region. But turning these international waters into China’s territorial waters is more firmly a guarantee for China’s security, with the sovereignty of smaller countries in the region being violated.

We are witnessing a process in which China is seeking to harass smaller countries in order to re-map the region. Harassment or bilateral disputes related to island and sea sovereignty, the right to explore oil and gas, and to catch fish in the East Sea, are the first steps in the great plot to control the strategic sea lanes through the East Sea.

To avoid a conflict on freedom of navigation in the future, Vietnam must understand the gain and loss of each party in the game that China is playing. What does China want from that game? Why these are short-term steps for acquiring China’s long-term goal? Answering these questions will help find out mechanisms to promote regional security through peaceful negotiation.

Let’s review the Binh Minh 02 and Viking 2 cases, in which Chinese ships cut cables of Vietnamese seismic survey ships, or China’s construction of iron pillars and release of floats in Amy Douglas bank or Chinese ship’s harassment of Vietnamese and Filipino fishing boats in the waters of Vietnam and the Philippines.

Facing China’s provoking acts, Vietnam and the Philippines have four main choices: Firstly, making no response; secondly, issuing diplomatic notes protesting China’s acts at bilateral or multilateral forums, for example the United Nations; thirdly, bringing the cases to the international court; fourthly, implementing appropriate self-defense actions, like the Philippines pulled up China’s iron poles, or seized Chinese fishing boats that broke into its exclusive economic zone and judge them under the law.

If the incidents are bilateral conflicts, issuing diplomatic notes to protest China’s provoking acts is likely doing nothing. Bringing the incidents to the international court is time-consuming, costly and it may makes the cases more complicated since the international law is not specific enough to judge such cases. In addition, once a series of incidents happen continuously, the complicacy of the cases would rise and this would only benefit the bigger, which uses its soft power to bully the smaller.

On China’s viewpoint, making provoking acts related to the right to catch fish or exploring oil and gas in the exclusive economic zones of smaller countries in the East Sea will benefit for itself as follows:

1) China can keep conflicts at a sufficiently mild level to make it as “bilateral conflicts”, in which smaller countries can hardly do anything to change the situation.

2) The series of conflicts must be unceasingly and happen throughout strategic points in the East Sea, in order to turn fait accomplishments into China’s actual control in the East Sea.

More clearly, the Philippines’ driving away Chinese fishing ships or pulling up poles at the Amy Douglas bank could create opportunity for China to “accuse” the Philippines in the media (which makes China’s voice powerful thanks to money and soft power), and that the Philippines would have to suffer from China’s “executive” activities.

With China’s outstanding and rising military strength, smaller countries in the region have to face the risk that they would have to suffer great losses if they dare to resist China’s “executive” acts alone. Seeing that final outcome, smaller countries may have to take no action, except for releasing diplomatic notes to protest China’s acts, which is useless as the above analysis.

For that logic, Vietnam did not react when China imposed ban of fishing in a vast area of the East Sea, including Vietnam’s continental shelf for a long time. Resignation will gradually become the compulsory acceptance of China’s actual control in the East Sea. At that time, international conventions on the sea, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 (UNCLOS), will be useless to change the fact: China’s U-shaped line has been gradually set up in fact. It means that the strategic maritime lane through the East Sea will gradually belong to China. Other countries will have to obey the unirule, which is enforced by China’s military power and is anticipated to challenge the US in western Pacific by 2030.

China’s blocking strategy

Vietnam's Viking II ship.

China’s blocking strategy to swallow the East Sea can be briefed as follows:

After China creates incidents in the East Sea, which violate the rights to catch fish and explore oil of Vietnam and the Philippines, for instance the Binh Minh 02 and Viking 2 incidents, if Vietnam and the Philippines will make no response, China will win a point in its plot to occupy the East Sea. In that circumstance, Vietnam/the Philippines will lose part of their rights to explore natural resources in their territorial waters, including the islands and the waters where their people have been living.

Another choice, instead of making no reaction, Vietnam/the Philippines can have self-defense actions that are appropriate to regional commitments and international conventions. But after facing Vietnam/the Philippines’s self-defense reaction, China can response by two ways: Firstly, observing its commitments to the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea (DOC) and the UNCLOS. Thus, parties reach conciliation after conflicts. China does not score any point in its plot to seize the East Sea (scoring zero mark) while Vietnam/the Philippines do not lose any point in sovereignty.

On the contrary, China may break it words in respecting regional agreements and the international law. Specifically, China can make up the incidents to turn itself into the victim and it must to take “executive” actions. By doing so, China continuously violates the international law and the sovereignty of smaller countries. With the imbalance in terms of economic and military strength, the winner in bilateral conflicts will be the stronger, regardless of justice. Specifically, China scores two points in the plot to occupy the East Sea while Vietnam/the Philippines lose two points in defending their sovereignty.

If Vietnam/the Philippines make self-defense actions unilaterally, China’s swallowing of the East Sea will take place faster. China will absolutely retract its words and trample on the DOC and the UNCLOS. China will double the speed of swallowing the East Sea if it breaks its commitments. Seeing that ultimate result, Vietnam/the Philippines are not allowed to expect that China will implement its commitments.

Certainly, China and Vietnam/the Philippines can sign an agreement which is more binding than the DOC. Accordingly, Vietnam/the Philippines can sue China to the international law if China re-breaks the newly-signed convention. However, such legal agreements cannot count on all possible conflicts in the future. China can take advantage of the circumstances that are not made clear in such an agreement as the gap to continue blocking Vietnam/the Philippines, regardless of the new agreement.

On the other hand, reaching such a legal-binding agreement will increase the morals and legitimacy in sovereignty of Vietnam/the Philippines over their islands and waters. It will be the ground for setting up strategic cooperation ties in the region and in the world to defend Vietnam/the Philippines’ legitimate sovereignty. If the Malacca Strait is taken into account, which is the next target in China’s strategy to control the international sea lane, a non-official alliance including Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam will be formed.

That game is multilateral in nature and it must be solved multilaterally. At this point, China’s blocking in bilateral ties is more brutal, its acts are more contrary to morals and posing more dangerous precedents to freedom and security of international navigation.

On the view, China’s bilateral blocking to seize the East Sea will face stronger protest of the international community and it is difficult for China to realize its plot.

Dr. Le Hong Nhat

(To be continued)