VietNamNet Bridge – During the international conference on maritime security in the East Sea in Washington, USA on June 20-21, international scholars considered the possibility for clashes and an arms race in this region when related parties seem to have tougher attitude.
Another scholar from China said that the US backed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Vietnam, so Vietnam has had tough attitude on the East Sea disputes.
An official from the Chinese Embassy questioned Vietnamese scholars: “If the US didn’t back you, would have you had such strong reaction?” Meanwhile, a Vietnamese scholar, Dr. Tran Truong Thuy, director of the East Sea research program, said that Vietnam made public China’s acts because it wants China to rethink and change its behavior.
Chinese scholars’ view was not supported by international scholars. The question “Anybody here support China’s viewpoint?” was answered by laugh. Scholars agreed at one point: China has to bear responsibility for escalating tension in the East Sea.
Dr. Steain Tonnesson, Director of the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo, Norway, said that ASEAN called for the US’ intervention into the East Sea disputes is due to the fault of China, especially the acts of this country’s patrol force in the last two years.
US Senator John McCain said frankly: “The aggressive behavior of China and the unsubstantiated territorial claims that it seeks to advance” are “exacerbating tensions” in the waters.
Prof. Carl Thayer from the Australian Defense Force Academy said that China is retaliating against Vietnam for its role in internationalizing the East Sea disputes in 2010, when Vietnam held the ASEAN chairmanship. China’s acts at the Reed Bank aimed to survey whether the US-Philippines Joint Security Agreement is still valid or not over the Kalayaan islands.
Scholars say that China created incidents in the East Sea in late May and early June (before and after the Asia Security Summit or the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore) to test the attitude of related countries, especially the US. In some ways, China feels that it is capable to challenge the order that is under the US’ control.
What is the real China?
On one hand, Beijing showed its restraint for the US-China strategic relations in meetings with US officials (with President Obama in January and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in early June 2011 at the Shangri-La Dialogue).
On the other hand, China caused escalating tensions by military and non-military pressures on Vietnam and the Philippines in the East Sea.
“We can see the difference between China’s talk and take. Only several days after the Chinese Defense Minister’s statement of peace at Shangri-La Dialogue, Chinese vessels continued cutting cables of Vietnam’s Viking 2 ship,” said Dr. Dang Dinh Quy, director of Vietnam’s Institute for International Relations.
Scholars questioned “what is the real China?”
Whether Beijing is really truthful or they only wheedle the US and ASEAN by sweet talks at high-ranking meetings to believe that an escalation will end, or Beijing will use force to squeeze concessions from ASEAN countries and then, perhaps concessions from the US?
There is no clear answer for this question.
If China continues its provoking acts, the situation in Southeast Asia will be unstable because “any minor move can become a big deal”, said Dr. Quy.
Diplomatic pressure should be made, not confrontation
According to Prof. Carl Thayer, both Philippines and Vietnam should strengthen their power to exercise their sovereignty over their exclusive economic zones. However, it does not mean armed confrontation against China.
Some scholars are worried that the increasing nationalism in China and Vietnam will make an escalation in disputes, intentionally or unintentionally.
China is intimidating its neighbors and its neighbors re-intimidate China. If Vietnam is tough to the level that clashes occur, China will benefit, Prof. Thayer said.
He said that ASEAN and the international community have to struggle against China’s aggressive acts through diplomatic channels.
“General diplomatic pressure” on China must be made at the upcoming ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the East Asia Summit, to force this country to respect its commitments in the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea (DOC).
While rejecting the possibility of war, Prof. Su Hao emphasized that Vietnam and China are brothers. According to him, there are differences between brothers. The elder brother is older and stronger and he wants his younger brother to be obedient, while the younger brother is always under the protection of the elder brother so he is afraid of his elder brother.
Prof. Carl Thayer noted that Vietnam must be very carefully in using tough policy against China. Vietnam needs to learn from its own history. More than anyone, Vietnam knows that wars still happened in the “brother relations” between the two countries.
Dr. Tran Truong Thuy confirmed that Vietnam does not want to confront China. Vietnamese and ASEAN scholars reminded the policy to seek peaceful solutions for the East Sea disputes.
Vietnamese lawyer Nguyen Duy Chien from the Institute for International Relations noted: “To solve disputes, solutions must be sought for real disputes, not creating false disputes to make tension. Some countries intentionally create disputes in the waters of other countries”.
Dr. Stein Tonneson said that in the last two years, China has become more aggressive against its neighbors. “I have to blame the responsibility on Beijing and I hope that you will advise your government to reconsider its wrong policy and make improvement, Dr. Tonneson told Prof. Su Hao.
United ASEAN in East Sea disputes
Ambassador Dino Patti Djalal from Indonesia, the current ASEAN chairmanship, said that to solve East Sea disputes, ASEAN must continue building trust, one of the three elements of the DOC and to develop the Code of Conduct in the East Sea (COC).
The DOC cannot prevent increasing tensions in the East Sea.
Dr. Peter Dutton from the US Naval University said that ideas to solve disputes are always abundant, only political will is lacking. He said that related sides must have political concessions, otherwise the strong will do what they can do and the smaller have to do what they have to do.
Dino Patti Djalal said that there are only one or two hindrances for the COC and Indonesia would try its best for the signing of the COC.
Optimistic people said that the COC may be signed on the 10th anniversary of the DOC, but Prof. Carl Thayer said that it is difficult to happen.
ASEAN state members need to build an Agreement on the Conduct in the East Sea and open it for the participation of non-member countries, he suggested.
Dr. Dang Dinh Quy said that related parties need to promote sea-related cooperation, including joint patrol and military exercise with the participation of China, ASEAN and related countries. Parties also need to reduce purchasing weapons and perform measures to build trust.
Most scholars said that the “joint exploration” mechanism doesn’t work because parties cannot reach agreement in defining the dispute and undisputed areas.
Filipino and Vietnamese scholars have a similar approach to define the dispute and undisputed areas where joint exploration can be conducted.
Henry S.Bensurto, Secretary General of the Committee on Marine and Oceanic Issues under the Filipino Foreign Ministry, said that this country is finalizing its proposal to zone waters to form the peaceful and friendly waters. Accordingly, waters will be divided into dispute, overlap and undisputed areas.
The US’s role in East Sea
Bonner Glaser from the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that the US’ plan in 2010 shows the cooperation between the US and China. But many incidents have occurred and perhaps the US has to reconsider its plan.
According to Glaser, many countries expected the US to warn China of its aggressive acts though some emphasizing that the US-China must further promote cooperation.
Prof. Su Hao said that the US’ positive involvement to solve the East Sea disputes is welcomed by China, but sometimes “US’ intervention is not positive in Southeast Asia and that is why China doesn’t welcome this intervention”.
However, Dr. Marvin Ott from the John Hopkins University worried--when an aggressive China is facing the only country that’s against its ambition, but when the US fails to advise China, there is a big problem and the future is dull.
He said that China has seen the East Sea as its own pond since 1949, and now the US’ responsibility is seeking ways to avoid war and maintain stability.
Dr. Tran Truong Thuy said that China did not join the DOC unintentionally. At that time, the US stated that Southeast Asia was the second battlefield in its war against terrorism, so China was friendlier to Southeast Asia.
At the ASEAN Regional Forum last July, after 13 countries talked about the East Sea disputes and supported the implementation of the DOC and the signing of the COC, the US stated its national interests in the East Sea, China used a more gentle policy later.
The US needs to clarify its position in China’s claims over the East Sea, said Henry S. Bensurto.
The US benefits most from the international order based on rules, which are maintained by the US’ power and leadership. If the US gives up that role, it is dangerous for the world and for the US itself, said Senator John McCain.