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Background Briefing: South China Sea: China’s Rejuvenation and Vietnamese Nationalism Carlyle A. Thayer March 21, 2013
[client name deleted] Vietnam has yet again slammed China for a series of recent actions that “seriously violated Vietnam’s sovereignty over the Paracel and Spartly archipelagos as well as Vietnam’s sovereignty and jurisdictional rights over its waters.” These actions include setting up a television and radio station in what China calls Sansha City; dispatching surveillance vessels and helicopters to patrol the Paracels’ waters and chasing away Vietnamese vessels fishing “legally” there; and most recently, sending a survey ship to study the fishing resources in the Spratly waters over which Vietnam claims sovereignty. Vietnam has asked China to stop these activities and harass “normal” and “legal” fishing activities of Vietnamese fishermen and their vessels. We request your assessment of the following: 1. Does the ratcheting up of China’s increased assertiveness in the disputed waters derive from that country’s new leadership’s emphasis on national "rejuvenation" and the "revival of the Chinese nation"? How are these actions significant to China’s new leaders who are facing daunting domestic problems and would be wary of any foreign entanglement? ANSWER: Chinese actions in setting up radio and television facilities in Sansha City, dispatching surveillance ships and helicopters to patrol the waters surrounding the Paracel Islands, chasing away Vietnamese fishermen near the Paracels, and surveying fishing resources in the Spratly Islands is “business as usual” by China. They do not represent any new major escalation of past patterns of Chinese assertiveness. Nor are current Chinese activities linked to any new strategic policy of rejuvenation and revival of the Chinese nation. Chinese leaders are giving priority to pressing domestic problems. At the same time they are attempting to unify control over five or more agencies with maritime responsibilities. Local authorities are operating largely on their own initiative. Most of recent Chinese activity will not result in any entanglement with foreign countries. If Chinese surveys are conducted within the Exclusive Economic Zones belonging to the Philippines or Vietnam, this could result in a confrontation and possible clash at sea. Incidents of this nature would be bilateral.
2 2. Vietnamese nationalists are apparently getting fed up with their government, which has routinely protested such actions by the Chinese side. The nationalists are worried that the Vietnamese government lacks the guts to stand up to China in the sea dispute. Meanwhile, China has shown no sign of letup in staking its claims in the South China Sea. Do these signs signal a military conflict in the near future? If, so why? If not, why not? ANSWER: Dealing with China on territorial disputes in the East Sea is a delicate matter requiring a careful mix of accommodation and confrontation. The key is to resist Chinese pressure without overacting. South China Sea issues should not become the sole focal point in bilateral relations between China and Vietnam. Vietnamese nationalists must understand that in many cases Vietnam is better served by quiet diplomacy rather that public confrontation. China will continue to use civilian paramilitary enforcement ships rather than the People’s Liberation Army Navy to enforce its jurisdiction. China is not seeking a military clash because of the economic and political repercussions it would suffer. Finally, China does not want a conflict on three fronts at the same time: Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam. China’s major attention is focused on Japan and the avoidance of military confrontation. 3. The Vietnamese government has been caught between a rock and a hard place: it has to do something to appease it domestic nationalistic audience but at the same time avoid aggravating the already heated relations with China. Is there any win-‐win solution for the Vietnamese government at this stage and in the long run? ANSWER: Vietnam must continually engage with China at the highest levels, president to president and party secretary general to party general secretary. Both sides need to reassure the other that they will act in accord with past understandings and not use force or the threat of force to resolve territorial disputes. The Vietnamese government must also continue to engage in what is called “self-‐help” or “internal balancing”. This means strengthening the capacity of Vietnam’s armed forces and maritime police. And Vietnam needs to continue to promote external balancing by enlisting the political support of Japan, the United States and other regional powers. A win-‐win situation for Vietnam would be the maintenance of the status quo coupled with advances in diplomacy with China to reach agreement on the waters at the mouth of the Gulf of Tonkin and then extending further into the South China Sea, 4. Given that China is getting embroiled in the territorial disputes with Japan in the East China Sea and Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea, which conflict do China’s new leadership make a priority to deal with, in your assessment? What does it mean for the other conflict? ANSWER: China’s priority is the current confrontation with Japan. Japan’s Maritime Self-‐Defense Forces are strong and capable. Chinese national leaders too are between a rock and a hard place. They must deal with domestic nationalism and conduct diplomacy with Japan at the same time. Focus on Japan is likely to result in efforts by China not to escalate its disputes with the Philippines or Vietnam. China seeks to settle its disputes bilaterally. Any step up in Chinese assertiveness would draw in other maritime powers and multilateralise territorial disputes. 5. Any further observations you want to make?
3 It is imperative that the Philippines and Vietnam exercise discipline and control over the next few months while the Xi Jinping administration takes full control of the party, army and government. Any incident would force China’s leaders to react following the precedent of the past. This would only worsen the security environment. A period of relative calm would allow China to return to the diplomatic track. There is no early end in sight over tensions surrounding maritime territorial disputes yet at the same time there a low risk of armed conflict at sea. But any accident or miscalculation could quickly escalate. Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “South China Sea: China’s Rejuvenation and Vietnamese Nationalism,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, March21, 2013. Thayer Consultancy Background Briefs are archived at Scribd.com