To prevent China from bullying its neighbors

VietNamNet Bridge – Vietnam should use its diversified external relations to build a coalition of supporters among the major powers, advised Prof. Carl Thayer.

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.

Commentators in the Philippines have accused China of using its advantages to bully its neighbors, following a recent standoff between the two countries in the disputed Scarborough shoal. Is a U.S. military presence necessary to balance out power in the region? How would the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) shape U.S. involvement?

Prof. Carl Thayer: China’s bullying tactics were by civilian ships belonging to the China Maritime Surveillance and the Fishery Law Enforcement Command. The appropriate response is by the Philippines’ Coast Guard.

The U.S. is a maritime power and its interests dictate that no country – including China – dominate the sea lanes in the East Sea. It is clear that the U.S. Navy will assert its presence and deter China.

As a result of Chinese actions, the MDT with the Philippines is being revived largely due to initiatives by President Aquino. U.S. support is necessary to build up the capacity of the Philippines Navy and Coast Guard to protect national sovereignty and sovereign jurisdiction in its EEZ. The MDT also acts as a deterrent against China’s use of military force.

After the Phnom Penh incident, ASEAN appeared as a divided group in the issue. Some questions on the role of ASEAN in settlement disputes. Could you share your view?

Prof. Carl Thayer:
There were three separate developments at the ASEAN meeting this July. Two positive developments were overshadowed by the failure of ASEAN ministers to reach agreement on the wording of their joint communiqué. This may have been a heated disputed between foreign ministers but it will not be long lasting.

The two other developments were: (1) prior to the joint communiqué incident, ASEAN foreign ministers unanimously adopted the key elements on the Code of Conduct and (2) Indonesia’s foreign minister successfully got all ASEAN foreign ministers to agree on ASEAN’s Six Principles on the East Sea. Talks with China may begin in September with the aim of adopting the COC by November.

Finally, ASEAN announced its “proposed elements” for the COC. Unfortunately, there is no legal binding in this outline as expected previously. How useful would a code of conduct be in reducing tensions? And in solving the dispute?

Prof. Carl Thayer: The draft COC has not yet been agreed by China. But the draft COC requires the signatories to seek a resolution of their disputes under the provision of the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation if both parties are willing. Failing this, the parties in the dispute are to settle their dispute in accordance with international law, including UNCLOS.

China can always refuse either choice – the TAC or international law. But if a final COC is agreed it will serve to restrain China, if China is willing to abide by its principles. If China does not then the period of diplomacy will be bypassed realpolitik. The point is to reach agreement on how to behave until sovereignty disputes are resolved.

In July 2011, China and ASEAN came to an agreement on the guidelines for implementing the 2002 Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea. These implementation guidelines were intended to decrease tensions and prevent any further escalation in the area. Recent developments in East Sea show that these guidelines have thus far been effective. With the drafting COC, do you think it effectively keep the status quo?

Prof. Carl Thayer: China and ASEAN have set up a working group to suggest projects in areas of cooperation listed in the DOC.

China has generously offered to fund cooperative activities. So far there has been no observable action. If and when joint cooperation begins there is hope that it would contribute to building up mutual confidence and trust. It is too early to tell.

ASEAN has adopted the “key elements” of the COC. Now ASEAN members and China must reach agreement on a final text. The COC will only work if the states concerned have the political will. The important element of the COC is to bind members not to use force or intimidation. But the draft COC really does not provide for a check on a country that does use force or intimidation.

Dealing with Chinese escalating assertiveness and divided ASEAN, what are the policy options for Vietnam? What should Vietnam do in order to protect its sovereignty and maintain peace and stability?

Prof. Carl Thayer: Vietnam should first continue to build up its self-reliance to protect its national sovereignty and maintain unity on the home front. Vietnam should continue to engage China – struggling and cooperating – in order to ensure that no side uses force or the threat of force in their relations.

ASEAN must continue to lobby individual ASEAN members to forge a unified ASEAN position on the East Sea. Vietnam should also use its diversified external relations to build a coalition of supporters among the major powers. Vietnam’s foreign policy must always be aimed at convincing China that cooperation will bring greater results than confrontation.

What should Vietnam do to defend its marine sovereignty while developing good relations with China, the US and Russia?

Prof. Carl Thayer: Vietnam should first rely on civilian agencies to protect its sovereignty. This means developing the Canh Sat Bien and building up its capacity.

The use of military ships, as the Philippines discovered in Scarborough Reef, was counter productive. Vietnam needs to build up its defense self-reliance by modernizing its navy and air force and making them operate jointly.

In other words Vietnam should develop an anti-access area denial strategy as China is developing a similar strategy against the stronger United States.

Vietnam should continue to use the dense network work of party-to-party, government-to-government and military-to-military ties with China to compartmentalize the East Sea dispute from their broader economic relationship.

Vietnam is raising its relations with Russia to a comprehensive strategic partnership. Vietnam should continue to import Russian military technology and expertise for its weapons system. And Vietnam should encourage more Russian investment in its oil, gas and nuclear industries.

Human rights are an issue blocking Vietnam and the U.S. from agreeing to a strategic partnership. But both share a convergence in strategic outlook and maintaining good relations should not be too difficult.

In my opinion, the Chinese government will be more and more assertive in dealing with the disputes with the neighbors in the issue of East Sea, and will not willingly renounce its claim on sovereignty of most East Sea. Apparently the Vietnamese government has many times stated a view that Vietnam does not ally itself with some country to be against another country. But you know that Vietnam is so weak especially in terms of military in comparison with China. So, what is your own view of this dilemma?

Prof. Carl Thayer: Vietnam needs to develop separate robust bilateral relations with China and the United States that focus on areas where their interests overlap.

Vietnam needs to maintain unity at home and develop its capacity for self-reliance. At the same time Vietnam needs to encourage ASEAN unity and cohesion.

Finally, Vietnam should develop its relations with all the major powers. In other words: diversification and multi-lateralization of relations and struggle and cooperate bilaterally.

Analysts comment that the US is in the dilemma on East Sea issue. Could you share your view on that (whether the US is directly involved in the dispute and how far will the US get involved)?

Prof. Carl Thayer: The U.S. dilemma is to decide how much support to give the Philippines to enhance their capabilities without becoming trapped by reckless actions by the Philippines. A dispute over sovereignty – who own islands and rocks – can only be resolved by the parties directly concerned. The U.S. does not take sides on this. But U.S. policy is to prevent any country from using force or intimidation to settle a sovereignty dispute. The U.S. has a national interest in freedom of navigation and over flight for its military and commercial ships.

What implications do the East Sea disputes hold for the US’ policy and interests in the region?

Prof. Carl Thayer: The United States is a maritime power and needs access to the East Sea for its military ships as they transit from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean.

China is challenging U.S. maritime dominance and attempting to drive it from the so-called first island chain off China’s east coast. The United States seeks to prevent China from challenging the U.S. presence. The East Sea disputes threaten the stability of the sea lanes as the dispute draws in both China and the United States.

China has built a major naval base on Hainan Island and the U.S. strategy of rebalancing is designed to give the U.S. military access in Southeast Asian to exert its naval power against China.

Do you believe an increased U.S. military presence in the East Sea serves to stabilize, or further destabilize, current relations between regional states?

Prof. Carl Thayer: Despite all the talk of rebalancing, it is unlikely there will be a marked increase in U.S. naval presence. But the nature and location of the U.S. naval presence will change.

The fundamental dynamic that destabilizes the East Sea is China’s military challenge to U.S. maritime supremacy and reaction of the U.S. to ensure it remains the dominant power. This is taking place at a time when China’s rise is causing a relative decline in U.S. power.

Many regional states are skeptical that the U.S. has the resources to maintain its supremacy. The U.S. is seeking to demonstrate that it has enduring interests in the region.

Based on China’s recently more and more aggressive actions and the comparison between the power of Vietnam and China, should Vietnam go further to be an ally with the United States to have a decisive support outside to confront China in the question of East Sea disputes?

Prof. Carl Thayer: Vietnam should not ally with the United States. Vietnam should develop its relations with the U.S. to advance Vietnam’s national interests. The United States has its own national interest in maintaining freedom of navigation in the East Sea. Vietnam can count on the U.S. to act on its interests.

What are the roles of regional powers such as Japan, India, and Australia in the East Sea disputes?

Prof. Carl Thayer: All three countries have a policy similar to that of the U.S. None wants to take a side in a dispute over sovereignty. All three are maritime countries; two are allies of the United States. All three share an interest in preventing China from dominating the East Sea and interfering with the operations of military and civilian vessels as provided for in international law, including the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea.