Provoking a military dispute in the East Sea, China’s prestige would plummet

VietNamNet Bridge – Tension has been rising in the East Sea, with China’s escalating acts: establishing the so-called Shansha city, organizing a government election there, building military station, sending more than 20,000 fishing boats to the sea, etc. To provide more information for the readers, VietNamNet held online talks with Prof. Carl Thayer, from the Center for Defense and Strategic Studies (CDSS), Australian, a well-known expert on security in Southeast Asia, the East Sea and China.

The East Sea disputes

Prof. Carl Thayer.

VietNamNet received a hundred questions from our readers. Below is the full content of the talks.

China’s actions - a tit for tat

What do you observe about the escalation of tension in the East Sea recently? What has driven the escalation? To what extent is a more confident, assertive China the cause for the tension?

Prof. Carl Thayer: Three events precipitated a rise in tensions this year. The first was the confrontation at Scarborough Shoal when the Philippines was prevented from exercising its jurisdiction in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
The Philippines sought to arrest Chinese fishermen who were illegally fishing. China intervened by sending a number of civilian enforcement vessels and the incident became a two-month standoff.

The second incident was the raising of the East Sea issue at the ASEAN Summit in April and the ASEAN Foreign Ministers ministerial meeting in July. On both occasions China used its diplomatic influence on Cambodia to try and prevent the East Sea issue from being discussed.

The third incident was China reactions to the passage of the Law on Territorial Sea by Vietnam. The China National Offshore Oil Company retaliated by offering nine leases in waters that fell almost entirely in Vietnam’s EEZ. More proactive elements in China appear to have become more assertive in pushing its territorial claim.

China has blamed Vietnam’s approval of the Law on Sea for the escalation of tensions in the East Sea. What do you think about it? In your viewpoint, what is implication of Vietnam's new law?
Prof. Carl Thayer: China tried to dissuade Vietnam from adopting the Law on the Sea. When it was clear that the National Assembly would go ahead anyway China planned its response. That is why the China National Offshore Oil Company immediately put to tender the nine blocks inside Vietnam’s EEZ but outside its 9-dash lines.

The most important part of Vietnam Law on the Sea is Article 2.2 where the law states that if anything in the law contravenes international law, international law takes precedence.

Some describe the East Sea tension as a cycle of action-reaction dynamic with increasing hostility betweens all claimants. Some researcher concerned that recent developments in the East Sea could raise the risk of an accidental clash that could escalate into a more serious military or political crisis. Could you share your view?

Prof. Carl Thayer: All sides to the East Sea dispute are distrustful of the other and are extremely sensitive to any perceived affront to national sovereignty.

The level of tensions have risen this year but the use of force to cut cables in Vietnamese waters and driving off a foreign oil exploration ship in Philippines’ waters has not been repeated.

China is exploring new tactics. I describe the East Sea as a bathtub. China is building more and more civilian enforce vessels and sending larger numbers of fishermen further south. The waters are contested, congested and prone to armed strife in the conclusion of the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank. I agree with this assessment.

A few months after the agreement on principle to solve sea disputes signed by leaders of Vietnam and China, China invited bids for oil exploration inside nine blocks within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone. What are the implications of China’s move?

Prof. Carl Thayer: China’s actions were a tit for tat response to Vietnam’s adoption of the Law on Sea. China’s actions were largely political to counter Vietnam’s legal claim. It is unlikely that any major international oil company will take up China’s offer.

Do you think China will put into use its deep water oil drill in the East Sea disputed area?

Prof. Carl Thayer: No, not for the next three to five years. The mega rig is committed to long-term operations off the mouth of the Pearl River and an area within China’s EEZ with large hydrocarbon resources.

China uses a U-shaped (also called nine-dash or nine-dotted line) along the coastal line and the island chains in the East Sea as the basis for its sovereignty claim. The encircled area covers almost the entire East Sea. How should we deal with China’s claim?

Prof. Carl Thayer: Probably no one in Beijing knows exactly what the 9-dash line map really claims. It was drawn up by the Republic of China in 1948 and officially tabled with the United Nations Commission on Limits to Continental Shelf in 2009. China seems to be claiming historic rights to the waters. There is no provision UNCLOS for such a claim.

China has also claimed sovereignty over all the islands and rocks and their adjacent waters. Sovereignty can only be claimed over land. Land gives a state sovereign jurisdiction over water. For example, each island is entitled to a 200 nautical mile EEZ and each rock a 12 nautical mile territorial water.

Vietnam and other regional states first much put their claims to sovereignty and sovereign jurisdiction into line with international law. Vietnam claims excessive baselines (the pregnant lady) in the southeast. Vietnam should redraw this claim as the Philippines did recently when it redrew its baseline to bring them into conformity with international law.

Next Vietnam and regional states should press China to be specific about what it is claiming and bring its claims into line with international law. Experts say this would reduce the area in dispute.

Until China brings its claims into conformity with international law, Vietnam and other states should continue to put diplomatic pressure on China.

How is the risk of an armed confrontation in the East Sea?

Prof. Carl Thayer: The risk of armed confrontation between military ships is very low. The risk of armed confrontation by paramilitary ships is low. The danger of accident or miscalculation by local commanders is always present.

Jim Holmes in his article published on the Foreign Policy said this is time for the People’s Liberty Army of China to emerge and China must act quickly to occupy more features in the East Sea in order to take the lead in the dispute. He predicts that another armed attack like the one in 1974 may happen. Do you share that viewpoint?

Prof. Carl Thayer: No I do not share this view. It is not in China’s interest to provoke a military dispute and China’s occupation of an uninhabited feature or China’s seizure of an island from another country could be viewed, respectively, as a violation of the Declaration on Conduct of Parties and an act of aggression. China’s international prestige would plummet.

China would find its relations with ASEAN strained. And China would find that a coalition of maritime powers led by the United States would quickly taken shape. In sum, China’s actions would spark a new tense Cold War.

Carl Thayer was educated at Brown University in the United States. He holds an M.A. in Southeast Asian Studies from Yale and a PhD in International Relations from The Australian National University (ANU). He studied Vietnamese language at Yale, Cornell and Southern Illinois University, Thai language at The University of Missouri at Columbia, and Lao language at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.

Before embarking on an academic career, Carl served in Vietnam with the International Voluntary Services (1967-68) and as a volunteer teacher in Botswana with the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. He began his professional career in 1976 as lecturer at the Bendigo Institute of Technology (renamed the Bendigo College of Advanced Education). In 1979, he joined The University of New South Wales and taught first in its Faculty of Military Studies at The Royal Military College-Duntoon (1979-85) and then at University College, ADFA (1986-present). He served as Head of the School of Politics from 1995-97. In 1998, he was promoted to full Professor.

Carl has served three major periods away from University College. From 1992-95, he was seconded to the Regime Change and Regime Maintenance Project, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, ANU. From 1999-2001, he was granted ‘leave in the national interest’ to take up the position of Professor of Southeast Asian Security Studies and Deputy Chair of the Department of Regional Studies at the U.S. Defense Department’s Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii. From 2002 to 2004, he was seconded to Deakin University as On Site Academic Coordinator of the Defense and Strategic Studies Course, the senior course, at the Centre for Defense and Strategic Studies (CDSS), Australian Defense College, Weston Creek.

Professor Thayer has spent special study leave at the ANU’s Strategic and Defense Studies Center; Harvard’s Center for International Affairs; International Institute of Strategic Studies in London; Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Chulalongkorn University in Thailand; Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore; and the Department of Political Science at Yale. In 2005, he was the C. V. Starr Distinguished Visiting Professor of Southeast Asian Studies at The Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C. During 2006-07 Carl directed the Regional Security Studies module at the Australian Command and Staff College, Weston Creek. In 2008, he spent the first half of the year as the inaugural Frances M. and Stephen H. Fuller Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Center of Southeast Asian Studies, Ohio University in the United States and the second half of the year as Visiting Fellow at the Strategic and Defense Studies Center, ANU.

Publications: Professor Thayer is the author of over 380 publications including:

    Vietnam People’s Army: Development and Modernization. Research Monograph. Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam: Sultan Haji Bolkiah Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, 2009.

    Leadership Dynamics in Terrorist Organizations in Southeast Asia, Leadership Papers No. 3. Canberra: Centre for Defense Leadership Studies, Australian Defense College, 2005.

    Regional Outlook Forum 2005: Political Outlook for Malaysia, Myanmar and Vietnam, Trends in Southeast Asia Series 2(2005). Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2005 (with Khairy Jamaluddin and Robert H. Taylor).

    Security, Political Terrorism and Militant Islam in Southeast Asia, Trends in Southeast Asia Series 7(2003). Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2003 (with Mhd. Shafie Apdal).

    Force Modernization in Southeast Asia and Its Implications for the Security of the Asia Pacific, NDCP Occasional Paper, 3(1). Camp General Emilio Aguinaldo, Quezon City: Republic of the Philippines, Department of National Defense, National Defense College of the Philippines, 2000.

    Multilateral Institutions in Asia: The ASEAN Regional Forum. Honolulu: Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, 2000.

    eds., Vietnamese Foreign Policy in Transition. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1999 (with Ramses Amer).

    Cambodia and Regional Stability: ASEAN and Constructive Engagement. The CICP Distinguished Lecture Series Report no. 14. Phnom Penh: Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, 1998.

    eds., Bringing Democracy to Cambodia: Peacekeeping and Elections. Canberra: Regime Change and Regime Maintenance in Asia and the Pacific Project, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, The Australian National University and Australian Defense Studies Centre, 1996 (with Verberto Selochan).

    Beyond Indochina, Adelphi Paper 297. London: Oxford University Press for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, 1995.

    eds., A Crisis of Expectations: UN Peacekeeping in the 1990s. Boulder: Westview Press, 1995 (with Ramesh Thakur).

    The Vietnam People’s Army Under Doi Moi. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1994.

    Soviet Relations with India and Vietnam, 1945-1992. Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta and Madras: Oxford University Press, 1993 (with Ramesh Thakur).

    eds., Vietnam and the Rule of Law. Canberra: Department of Political and Social Change, Research School of Pacific Studies, The Australian National University, 1993 (with David G. Marr).

    eds., Reshaping Regional Relations: Asia-Pacific and the Former Soviet Union. Boulder, San Francisco and Oxford: Westview Press, 1993 (with Ramesh Thakur).

    Vietnam. Asia-Australia Briefing Papers. Sydney: The Asia-Australia Institute, The University of New South Wales, 1992.

    Soviet Relations with India and Vietnam. London: The Macmillan Press and New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992 (with Ramesh Thakur).

    Trends and Strains: Pakistan, India, Vietnam, Japan. New Delhi: Continental Publishing House for The International Institute for Asia Pacific Studies, 1990 (with Joseph A. Camilleri et al.).

    War By Other Means: National Liberation and Revolution in Vietnam, 1954-1960. Sydney and Wellington: Allen & Unwin and Boston and London: Unwin Hyman Ltd., 1989.

    eds., The Soviet Union as an Asian Pacific Power: Implications of Gorbachev’s 1986 Vladivostok Initiative. Special Studies in International Security, Boulder and London: Westview Press and South Melbourne: Macmillan Australia, 1987 (with Ramesh Thakur).

    Vietnam Since 1975. CSAAR Research Paper No. 20. Brisbane: Centre for the Study of Australian-Asian Relations, Griffith University, August 1982 (with David G. Marr).

Source: The University of New South Wales


(To be continued)