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Thayer Consultancy

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Background Briefing: Vietnam: China Seized Paracel Islands by Force Carlyle A. Thayer November 27, 2011

[clientnamedeleted] Q1.CanwesaythatSouthChinaSeaissuesarelargelyinternationalizedattheEast AsiaSummit?Whatwillbetheimpact? ANSWER: When ASEAN Chair, Indonesias President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, closed the East Asia Summit (EAS), he summarized proceeding by noting that maritime security issues were a suitable agenda item for the summit. Of the Summits 18 members, sixteen raised this issue. China was one of the sixteen and arguedtheEASwasnotanappropriatevenue. TheEAShasnottakenanyexecutiveaction,however.ButitisclearthatChinawill have to adjust its insistence on bilateral negotiations only in light of regional consensusthatcontentiousmaritimesecurityissuereadtheSouthChinaSeaare ofwidespreadconcern. South China Sea issues will be raised in three separate venues. First, ASEAN membersstatesandChinawilldiscussprioritiesastheycarryouttheGuidelinesto Implement the DOC agreed to in July. China will host a working group next year. Second, the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM Plus) Senior Officials Meeting(SOM)agreedonthetermsofreferencefortheJointExpertWorkingGroup on Maritime Security. This group is cochaired by Australia and Malaysia. The problemisthatwhentheADMMPlusfirstmetinHanoiin2010,itagreedtomeet every three years. The next meeting is scheduled for 2013. In October the ADMM PlusSOMagreedtomeeteverytwoyearsbutonlyafterthesecondmeetingisheld in2013.ButtheworkoftheMaritimeExpertWorkingGroupcanbereportedinthe interimtoADMMPlusSeniorOfficials.Third,maritimesecurityissuescanberaised at the annual ASEAN Regional Forum and its InterSessional Group on Maritime Security.Noneofthesegroupshasexecutivepower. Q2.Chinaseemstobeonthedefensive,withlowkeystatementsfromPremierWen Jiabao.Howdoyouinterpretthismove?IsitonlyatacticalretreatorisChinareally reconsideringitsstrategybecausealmosteveryoneisagainstBeijing? ANSWER: China has seen more than fourteen years of efforts promoting its news securityconceptandsecuritymultilateralismseverelysetbackbyregionalreactions to Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea in recent years, and in 2011 in particular.ItappearsthatmostincidentsintheSouthChinaSeawereprovokedby

2 competingcivilianagenciesresponsibletodifferentlevelsofgovernmentpluslocal governmentsandChineseoilcompanies.WhenBeijingwasmadefullyawareofthe damage they caused it moved swiftly to diffuse the situation. China reached agreement with ASEAN members on the Guidelines to Implement the DOC. China received President Aquino of the Philippines and Nguyen Phu Trong, Secretary GeneraloftheVietnamCommunistParty. Chinaisdriventorespondinasoftlysoftlymannerbecauseitsactionshavedriven regional states to seek assurances from the United States, and have led the major regionalpowersthUS,Japan,AustraliaandIndiatostiffentheirresponse. There is concern as the eighteenth congress of the Chinese Communist Party approaches, and as the powershift in leadership takes place, Chinese hyper nationalismmaytrumpdiplomaticcautionandraisetensionsintheSouthChinaSea onceagain.Chinahasyettobackdownfromitshistoricalrightstoindisputable sovereigntytoovereightypercentoftheSouthChinaSea.Whenhypernationalism combineswithamilitarybuildupandemotiveissuesregardingterritorialintegrityit makesanunstablecombinationasfarasregionalsecurityisconcerned. Q3.HowdoyouexplainthesuccessoftheUSandBarackObamathistime?Willit last? ANSWER: President Obama has been building on a number of successes. His AdministrationsignedtheASEANTreatyofAmityandCooperation,andappointeda permanent representative to the ASEAN Secretariat. Secretary of State Hillary ClintonrespondedtotheconcernsofmainlandSoutheastAsianstatesbylaunching theLowerMekongInitiative.SecretaryofStateClintonhasbeenaregularvisitorto theregionandhasattendedalltheARFmeetings.PresidentObamahassoughtand received membership on the EAS and at the same time he has held three leaders meetingswithASEAN. The US has seemingly resolved the Myanmar conundrum by sending Secretary Clintontoevaluaterecentpositivepoliticalreforms.ThiswillmeanthattheUSisnot at odds with other ASEAN members who have accepted the new government as legitimate. The Myanmar situation derailed the attempt by President Bush to hold the 2nd ASEANUS Leaders meeting at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. When the US indicatedthatMyanmarwouldnotbewelcome,ASEANdeclinedtoattend. PresidentObamahasalsoofferedassurancesthattheUSwillrenewitsengagement in the region. The defence budget for the AsiaPacific will be quarantined from defencecuts.TheUShasundertakenotherstepssuchasstationingLittoralCombat ShipsinSingaporeandinitiatingarotationofUSMarinesthroughtrainingfacilities nearDarwininnorthernAustralia. Most importantly, President Obama has affirmed ASEANs central role, and underscoredthattheUSwouldliketoengagewithChina.OntheSouthChinaSea, Obama has not overplayed the US hand. The US takes no sides on the territorial disputes.Butitdoessupportthenonuseofforceandthreatstouseforce.TheUS supportsinternationallaw,includingtheUNConventiononLawoftheSea,including freedom and safety and navigation and overflight. All countries depend on the prerequisitesforthesafeandsecurepassageofgoodtheysellandimport.

3 Q4.WhatcanVietnamlearnfromthisoutcome? ANSWER: Vietnam has learned that its threepronged strategy of (1) struggle and cooperation with major powers, (2) playing the role of pivot between Beijing and Washington, and (3) omnidirectional foreign policy is paying off in terms of mobilizingexternalsupportinitsdealingswithChina.Vietnamhasalsolearnedthat its interests are best advanced by letting the Philippines take the point on South ChinaSeaissues. Intermsofstrugglingandcooperating,VietnamhaslearnedtostanduptoChinaand thenseekcooperationinordertopreventtheSouthChinaSeafromdominatingthe bilateralrelationship.StandinguptoChinaalsoincludesbuildingupamodestnaval andaircapacityfor itsownantiaccess/areadenialstrategy.Aspivot,Vietnam can playonthematerialinterestsofChinaandtheUSforitsbenefit.Nonecanaffordto force Vietnam into the other powers camp. An omnidirectional policy adds additionalplayers:Japan,Australia,SouthKorea,France,theUnitedKingdom. VietnamhasalsolearnedthatASEANisdivided.CambodiaandMyanmarhavebeen conspicuous for never raising maritime security or South China Sea issues at multinationalforums.SomeASEANstatespreferVietnamandthePhilippinestogo into the lions den alone and not drag them into a conflict with China. This means that any potential Code of Conduct between ASEAN members and China will be toothless. In fact, Chinese pressures have prevented ASEAN from reaching a common stand. This is a sad state of affairs as ASEAN move to proclaim itself an ASEANCommunityin2015. Q5.WhatcanVietnamdotogainprofitfromthispositivetrend? ANSWER: The South China Sea may be essentially an issue between China and the claimantstatesofSoutheastAsia.ButthePhilippinesandVietnamareoutinfrontin dealing with China, while Malaysia and Brunei seek to avoid direct involvement. VietnammustdevotemoreenergytorevisingASEANmembersapproachtoChina. VietnamshouldpushforaCodeofConductforSoutheastAsiasMaritimeDomain. Such anapproach wouldbeaimedatputtingASEANhouseinorder bybringingits various maritime issues into conformity with international law including UNCLOS. ThailandandCambodiahaveyettoresolvetheircompetingclaimsforresourcesin theGulfofThailand.InfactThailandwithdrewfromanearlierunderstandingwhen clasheseruptedonthelandborder.Indonesiahasunresolvedmaritimeboundaries withitsneighbours.BoththePhilippinesandVietnamhaveoverlappingclaimsinthe SouthChinaSea.Someofthesearebasedonexaggeratedbaselines. Insummary,thesecurityofSoutheastAsiasmaritimedomainnotjusttheSouth China Sea should be treated as indivisible. All ASEAN members should work to resolve their disputes in accordance with international law. A Code of Conduct for SoutheastAsiasMaritimeDomaincouldhaveaprotocolpermittingexternalpowers to accept its provisions. Such an approach would strengthen ASEANs unity and cohesionandabilitytodealwithChina. Q6. Concerning remarks by Vietnams Prime Minister Nguyn Tn Dngs on the Paracels.Canyouprovideananalysis?Isitaboldmove?Whynow?Doesitmarka change in Vietnam's attitude on the South China Sea issues? Nguyn Tn Dngs

4 remarksareararepublicdeclarationbyaVietnameseleaderonthisissue,especially sincehejustcamebackfromtheEAS. ANSWER:PrimeMinisterNguyenTanDungsreassertionofVietnamesesovereignty overtheParacelIslandsisreportedlythefirsttimeaVietnamesegovernmentofficial haspubliclyacknowledgedthattheseislandswereseizedbyforcebyChinain1974. PrimeMinisterDungwasrespondingtoaseriesofquestionsonnationalsovereignty asked by deputies on the floor of the National Assembly. The deputies were reflecting widespread elite and public concern about Chinese assertiveness in the SouthChinaSeaandtheimpliedquestionofwhetherornotthegovernmentisdoing enough to defend national sovereignty. It is significant that Prime Minister Dung noted that Chinese actions in 1974 had been protested by the Provisional RevolutionaryGovernmentoftheRepublicofSouthVietnamastheParacelIslands were then under the control of the Republic of Vietnam and Vietnam was still partitioned into north and south. Prime Minister Dungs was careful to stress that Vietnam would settle the matter peacefully and called for China to open negotiations.Chinahasrepeatedlyrefusedtodoso.PrimeMinisterDungiswalking a fine line. He has said nothing that has not already been raised in private by Vietnamese negotiators but by speaking to a live television audience he risks provokingaChinesereaction.