runs gauntlet in South China
Seas By Jian Junbo and Wu Zhong
LONDON and HONG KONG - The Chinese
Communist Party (CCP) will celebrate its 90th
birthday on July 1. While the party has withstood
tough tests to reach this point, without doubt
there are challenges ahead. One immediate issue is
the escalating tensions on the South China Sea
with neighboring countries, Vietnam in particular.
For Beijing, this is not simply an issue
of international relations. It also has great
impact on China's strategy for a "peaceful rise"
and on domestic stability. This may explain why so
far Beijing has exercised self-restraint in the
face of what it sees as provocations by Vietnam.
These included high-profile war games in disputed
territories, issuing toughly-worded statements to condemn
"China's invasion" and
allowing fierce protests against China.
Beijing's reaction has been low key.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Li
reiterated on June 16 that China would always seek
a bilateral solution to disagreements on the South
China Sea, and not use or threaten force. He added
that China would work together with all parties to
effectively implement the Declaration on Conduct
of Parties in the South China Sea and maintain
stability in the region.
There are ample
reasons for China to cool tensions with Vietnam.
Firstly, territorial disputes between China and
Vietnam in the South China Sea are not a new issue
- the dispute largely emerged in the 1970s after
the discovery of huge oil and gas reserves there.
Vietnam (and some other Southeast Asian
countries) began to gradually colonize some
islands and explore oil and gas in waters that
Hanoi had previously recognized as China's
sovereign territories. For instance, the People's
Republic of China (PRC) issued a declaration on
September 4, 1958, defining its territorial waters
which encompassed the Nansha (Spratly) and Xisha
North Vietnam's then
prime minister Pham Van Dong sent a diplomatic
note to Chinese premier Zhou Enlai stating, "The
Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam
respects this decision and will give instructions
to its State bodies to respect the 12-mile
[19-kilometer] width of the territorial waters of
China in all their relations in the maritime field
with the PRC [People's Republic of China]." The
diplomatic note was written on September 14 and
was publicized on Vietnam's Nhan Dan newspaper on
September 22, 1958. 
To concentrate on
China's own economic development with reform and
opening up, Deng Xiaoping then set a policy of
"shelving disputes for joint cultivation" of the
South China Sea.
After three decades of
reform and opening up, China has grown into the
world's second-largest economy. But Beijing is
fully aware of emerging problems at home. In this
regard, a peaceful international environment is
crucial for China. President Hu Jintao is seeking
a "peaceful rise" to ease concern that China may
seek world hegemony.
In recent years there
have been growing calls, especially from the
United States, for China to act as a "responsible
player" in international affairs.
Therefore, Beijing does not want to take
tit-for-tat actions against Vietnam that could
jeopardize its image.
China may also see
Vietnam's provocation as related to the latter's
domestic issues. Vietnam's economy is in a bad
shape and public discontent is growing. It is an
ancient Chinese wisdom (Vietnam is strongly
influenced by Chinese culture) that a foreign
enemy can be of great use in easing domestic
Beijing does not want to be
goaded by Hanoi. Moreover, China has kept a wary
eye on the US ever since Washington announced its
"return to Asia". Vietnam has openly called for US
intervention in the South China Sea, and if
Beijing reacts too harshly, this may give the US a
convenient excuse to step in.
which always opposes any attempt to
internationalize the South China Sea issue, US
intervention would further complicate the matter.
On June 22, China's Vice Foreign Minister
Cui Tiankai warned the US to stay out of the
escalating tensions in the South China Sea:
I believe some countries now are
playing with fire. And I hope the US won't 'draw
this fire onto itself'." Apparently referring to
remarks from Washington about free passage in
the South China Sea, Hong had said earlier:
"China's maintenance of sovereignty in the South
China Sea ... will never influence the freedom
of navigation of other countries in the South
These factors are behind
Beijing's low-key reaction. However, the strategy
means taking some risks on the home front. The
Chinese public has criticized their government as
"too weak" and "spineless" over the issue,
demanding "another severe punishment" on Vietnam -
China officials describe the war against Vietnam
in 1979 as a "war of punishment" for its invasion
While netizens have not
criticized top Chinese leaders, they have taken
aim at generals of the People's Liberation Army
(PLA), as well as officials and media commentators
who have appealed for calm. Websites of state-run
media are a prominent forum for nationalists
expressing their frustrations.
One of the
more striking comments was found on the online
forum of the website of Global Times, a sister
publication of the People's Daily, the CCP's
Confronting such a hooligan country
and in face of losses of national territories,
you spineless generals and officials must listen
to people's voices: "We must strike back! We
must take back our territories lost because of
the treacherous shelving disputes for joint
development." China is in peril today mainly
because the government is full of corrupt
officials ... and party members and cadres have
lost their faith! Now only the powerless,
penniless but selfless and fearless grass-roots
people remain patriotic.
comment on the same forum said China must learn
from the US to dare to "bully small nations".
Beijing is walking a tight rope between
behaving as a "responsible player" in
international arena and responding to these
domestic pressures. The balancing act is
particularly fraught ahead of the CPP's 90th
birthday, which the party will use to justify the
legitimacy of its continuous rule by glorifying
If there is a danger that
the CPP might lose the people's support over a
certain policy, then it would have to change it.
Needless to say, the "core interest" of all "core
interests" for the CCP is to continue its rule of
China. Compared with this, other affairs - such as
maintaining regional peace and good relations with
other countries or acting like a "responsible
player" - are all secondary.
response to the rising nationalistic zeal over
Vietnam's "provocations", China has quietly taken
some action, such as staging a war game on Hainan
Island and sending a sea border patrol boat
through the South China Sea to Singapore.
For the time being, Beijing can still feel
comfortable over the nationalism rage as its
expression is largely limited to the virtual space
(the Internet). There are no sharp criticisms of
Beijing's policy in state-controlled media or any
spontaneous street demonstrations in protest at
"Vietnam's invasion". The row, for the time being,
is still not big enough to provoke the social
instability that the CCP considers a threat.
However, if Hanoi keeps escalating
tensions, and especially if the US sides with
Vietnam, Beijing will be forced to take more
radical actions. Despite its low-profile stance,
Beijing has imagined all possible scenarios and
prepared for the worst.
For the sake of
its "peaceful rise", war is the last thing the
Chinese government or people want. Fortunately,
there is no sign so far indicating the current
tension between Vietnam and China is likely to
escalate into a violent conflict.
the latest development suggests that tensions
between China and Vietnam have eased. Xinhua
reported this week a statement on the website of
China's Defense Ministry that China and Vietnam
conducted joint naval patrols in the Beibu
(Tonkin) Gulf (between Vietnam and China's Hainan)
from June 19 to 20.
After the joint
patrols, a Vietnamese naval delegation will visit
the coastal city of Zhanjiang in south China's
Guangdong province from June 21 to 24. The
statement said the joint naval patrols and the
port call were part of a scheduled bilateral
annual exchange plan, but stressed it was "a
friendly exchange activity between the two armed
That such activity could take
place at this juncture is strong evidence that
tensions between the two countries on the South
China Sea has so far not affected normal channels.
Note 1. File: 1958
diplomatic note from Pham van Dong to Zhou Enlai,
Dr Jian Junbo, an
assistant professor of the Institute of
International Studies at Fudan University,
Shanghai, China, is currently an academic visitor
at London School of Economics and Political
Science, United Kingdom. Wu Zhong is China
Editor of Asia Times Online.
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