Internal political factors and escalation in the East Sea

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.

Prof. Carl Thayer.

In this part, Prof. Carl Thayer explained the impacts of internal political factors of the countries that claim sovereignty on the tension in the East Sea.

In the latest developments, China announced to build a garrison in the so-called Sansha city. China also announced that it has another garrison under the navy which is responsible for combating in the East Sea. What are the implications of the moves? Is there any difference in China’s action in the East Sea?

Prof. Carl Thayer: The direct involvement of China’s military is a marked change of policy. It is of concern because the decision was made by then Central Military Commission, the highest party-military committee.

China’s announcements are designed to intimidate and deter Vietnam and the Philippines from taking any action on their territorial claims. But China’s actions were aimed largely at its domestic audience.

It is unlikely that we will see a major military buildup on Truc Lam (Woody) Island or the direct involvement in People’s Liberation Army Navy ships in the East Sea.

In your viewpoint, how do difficulties in the domestic economy affect the escalation in the East Sea?

Prof. Carl Thayer: When nations go to war or engage in conflict, economic considerations are the first casualty.  At the same time, a poor economy serves to constrain state behavior.

I mean that in some cases, some claimants want to raise tension in the East Sea in order to distract people from their daily concerns due to economic difficulty. They want to use the dispute to reduce the pressure from their people. What do you think about that?

Prof. Carl Thayer: I do not agree. It would not solve the underlying economic difficulties or improve good governance. It would be an extremely dangerous game that could result in conflict. No one would win form such a situation.

What role does domestic politics play in the approaches adopt by China to the disputes, especially the leadership transformation of China?

Prof. Carl Thayer: It is clear that China is not a unitary actor. Studies by the International Crisis Group show that the so-called “nine dragons” or nine ministries have overlapping responsibility for maritime affairs. Some compete with each other to take the lead and to increase their budgets by defending China’s national sovereignty.

The period of leadership transition is a worrisome period because some leaders and factions raise the flag of nationalism to advance their interests. It is possible that once a new leadership comes to power China will attempt to work out its relations with the United States and to a certain extent diffuse tensions in the East Sea.

What is the role of the military circles in shaping Chinese foreign policy?

Prof. Carl Thayer: The Chinese military is widely viewed as a conservative force that is nationalistic and does not want to yield on China’s sovereignty claims. But China’s military does not want to provoke a confrontation with the United States. The Chinese military plays a major role in national security policy but not overall foreign policy.

Some said that the assertiveness of China in the East Sea reflects the emergence of the military circles in China's government in the upcoming Party Congress. What do you think?

Prof. Carl Thayer: Chinese assertiveness is a product of nationalism rather than militarism. Chinese leaders know that now is not the time to challenge the United States in a military confrontation.

At the end of this year, China will accomplish its leadership transformation. Could you share your predication on the East Sea related situation/ policy at that time?

Prof. Carl Thayer: A change of leaders will give the new team time to re-evaluate Chinese policy on the East Sea. China is likely to shift tactics and emphasize diplomacy initially.  But China will not give up its sovereignty claims and China will react to any perceived encroachment on its sovereign jurisdiction.

Could you share your assessment on China’s foreign policy under Xi Jinping administration? How will it affect on the East Sea situation?

Prof. Carl Thayer: Many analysts are expecting better Chinese behavior in the East Sea under Xi Jinping because the political jockeying for a leadership position will be over.

This will not mean an end to sovereignty disputes, but possibly a Chinese attempt to use diplomacy better.

Stepping back from recent events, what is the nature of the disputes in the East Sea?

Prof. Carl Thayer: The fundamental nature of the East Sea dispute resides in resource nationalism, especially oil and gas, but also fisheries.

By claiming sovereignty over islands a state can claim a 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone. The state then has sovereign jurisdiction over the resources in the water, sea bed and under the sea bed. China provides estimates of oil and gas that are seven times greater than U.S. estimates. China wants to control the oil and gas in the East Sea.

What are the best- and worst-case scenarios for tensions in the East Sea in the coming year?

Prof. Carl Thayer: The best scenario would be for China and ASEAN to implement the cooperative activities outlined in the DOC and to reach agreement on and adhere to a Code of Conduct in the East Sea. With this as the foundation, all parties could then agree on joint development.

The worst scenario is that China seizes the opportunity to force one country off an island or rock in the East Sea; and then occupies that island or rock and stations military forces around the island or rock to protect its seizure.

In what prospect of the East Sea issue can all claimants be satisfied?

Prof. Carl Thayer: Sovereignty disputes will not be resolved. Maintaining the status quo in a peaceful manner without threats of force, joint development in selected areas and engaging in cooperation under the DOC could satisfy all claimants.

(To be continued)