Will Chinese rebuke to Vietnam spur greater Southeast Asian cooperation?

China defended its right to place an oil rig in disputed waters in a meeting today with Vietnamese officials. China's assertiveness has led several Southeast Asian countries to recently settle old disputes among themselves.

Luong Thai Linh/Reuters
Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi (L) listens to Vietnamese Communist Party's General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong (R) during a meeting in Hanoi, June 18, 2014.

A meeting by a top Beijing official in Vietnam today will fall short of easing China’s troubled relations at sea, analysts say, as Southeast Asian countries begin exploring deals to control China's maritime expansion.

Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi sat down with Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh in the first high-level meeting since violent anti-China protests broke out in southern Vietnam following Chinese placement last month of an oil rig in waters claimed by both sides.

The communist neighbors expressed willingness to shore up relations in official statements, but Mr. Yang was quoted by Chinese state media as telling Mr. Minh that Vietnam should "stop disrupting Chinese operations, stop hyping problems and disagreements, and refrain from creating new disputes." 

Those statements are unlikely to cool anger that has led to dozens of Vietnamese and Chinese vessels ramming one another since the $1 billion rig was installed May 2 about 130 nautical miles from Vietnam. The oil rig is scheduled to stay in place until August.

“Both sides will come up with some nice announcements, more cooperation, more communication and all that, but the defiance and assertiveness will go on,” says Lin Chong-pin, a retired Tamkang University strategic studies professor in Taiwan.

China, which wants to protect its shipping lanes, is viewed by its neighbors as an increasingly pushy presence: the unilateral declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone over disputed territory in the East China Sea raised hackles last December. The Philippines and Vietnam are also sounding an alarm against China building schools or artificial islands in the South China Sea in order to shore up its footprint in the disputed waters. 

But the assertiveness of Beijing, which sees itself as restoring its historical sphere of influence, is leading to new pressure from rival sea claimants that see China as a volatile superpower. They are starting to settle their own maritime territorial disputes, fostering new friendships to isolate Beijing, analysts say.

“The real issue is whether the South China Sea claimants other than China can reach agreement among themselves and then deal with China as a united bloc,” says Denny Roy, senior fellow at the East-West Center, a US research institute in Honolulu. “They must realize that they will all lose to China in the long run if they do not band together.”

South China Sea deals 

Countries worried about China have begun exploring two-way maritime deals since last year, with the Philippines leading. Six countries claim overlapping rights over parts of the South China Sea, a key shipping zone and the site of potential oil and gas reserves.

Last month the Philippines signed a deal with Indonesia, clarifying exclusive economic zones to end a dormant 20-year dispute between the two fishery-reliant archipelagos. The deal makes the rules clearer for fishing and coast guard vessels, giving Philippine President Benigno Aquino III more space to focus on China. 

The Philippines also sparred this year with Beijing over the South China Sea, arresting nine fishermen despite Beijing’s outcry, and asking China to freeze construction in the ocean’s Spratly Islands. 

South China Sea claimant Taiwan expects a deal this year with the Philippines on joint law enforcement in overlapping waters of the heavily fished 130-mile-wide strait between them. That accord would keep relations friendly after a 2013 flap when Manila’s coast guard fired on a Taiwanese fishing boat, killing a crewman, Taiwan foreign ministry spokesperson Anna Kao says.

In contested areas of the adjacent East China Sea, Beijing has challenged Japanese control with flyovers and naval exercises since late 2012.

Without giving up its claim to sovereignty, Japan last year agreed to let Taiwanese fishing boats use 17,000 square miles of the East China Sea. China and Taiwan claim the same ocean, but Japan has given China no concession.

Vietnam has also reached out to other countries, and to the United Nations. Earlier this month Vietnam's deputy defense minister thanked Japan for military cooperation and for speaking out in favor of Southeast Asian nations' sovereignty.

In another show of cooperation, Vietnamese and Philippine navy forces played volleyball together on a Vietnamese-claimed island in the Spratley's last week. "We’re trying to set an example,” Philippine navy spokesman Gerald Fabic said. “We want to show that there can be other approaches to the disputes that can in fact ease the tensions.”

Chinese strategy 

China wants its own bilateral sea rights deals to stop neighbors from forming a bloc with likely support from the United States, which already has mechanisms in place to militarily help Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines as needed.

But China wants to first build on more of the roughly 500 mostly uninhabited islets in the South China Sea in order to pursue two-way deals with individual countries from a position of strength, says Alex Chiang, associate professor of international politics at National Chengchi University in Taipei.

“China is basically trying to reinforce its current position, and then it will be in a better bargaining position,” Mr. Chiang says. “They want bilateral deals one by one and don’t want outside powers to get involved.”

Countries at odds with China will pursue maritime deals among one another to show their public they’re doing something about the South China Sea dispute, Mr. Lin says. But voters also hope their governments give up as little as possible, especially islets.

“If all the claimants other than China could resolve their sovereignty disputes, that would put a great deal of pressure on Beijing,” says Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Security Studies. 

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