Page 1 of 2 Web of containment tightens on China
By Richard Javad Heydarian
MANILA - The Philippines and Vietnam, confronted with an increasingly assertive China, are putting aside past rivalries and inching closer to becoming full-fledged brothers in arms in the South China Sea.
In a symbolic gesture of the budding alliance, Philippine and Vietnamese troops on Sunday played sports and drank beer together on the disputed Southwest Cay island (claimed by Hanoi, Manila and Beijing). More significantly, Hanoi seems increasingly likely to follow Manila's lead in internationalizing its disputes with
China through legal appeal to an international arbitration tribunal, a move China has strongly criticized and resisted.
On the sidelines of the recently concluded World Economic Forum on East Asia in Manila, Philippine President Benigno Aquino and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung vowed to forge a "strategic partnership", with a focus on enhanced maritime interoperability and defense cooperation.
Throughout the Vietnamese premier's three-day working visit to Manila in late May, the two leaders laid down the building blocks for a more robust bilateral relationship, just as the two Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members face a simultaneous spike in their territorial tiffs with China.
"We face common challenges as maritime nations and as brothers in ASEAN," Aquino said after meeting Dung in Manila, underscoring his country's growing interest in reaching out to like-minded countries in the region. "In defense and security, we discussed how we can enhance confidence-building, our defense capabilities and interoperability in addressing security challenges."
Dung, in a striking departure from Vietnam's traditionally low-key, diplomatic language towards China, said: "More than ever before, ASEAN and the international community need to continue raising a strong voice in protesting against [China's territorial assertiveness], securing a strict observance of the international law and peace, stability in the region and the world.
"In East Sea, China has undertaken many activities that violate the international law. [China's action] constitutes a serious threat to peace and maritime safety, security and freedom of navigation in the East Sea."
Vietnam is grappling with a deepening crisis over China's decision to dispatch HYSY981 - a US$1 billion state-of-the-art deep-water oil rig owned by China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) - into Hanoi's 200-nautical-miles exclusive economic zone (EEZ) near the Paracel Islands, which are controlled by China.
Despite recognizing China's superior naval capabilities, Vietnamese authorities have nonetheless sought to stand up to their powerful neighbor by dispatching their own maritime forces to the contested area, leading to a series of low-intensity clashes between Chinese and Vietnamese fishing and naval vessels.
From a domestic perspective, the Vietnamese government knows that it can't afford to look soft on such sensitive territorial issues but must also control rising anti-China sentiment to avoid diplomatic and economic repercussions. Recent anti-China protests in Vietnam related to the placement of the CNOOC drilling rig grew into extensive destruction of property owned foreign companies believed by protestors to be China-owned and the exodus of thousands of Chinese citizens to neighboring countries.
Death toll figures have varied, with some international media putting the figure over 20. Beijing responded by evacuating a number of its nationals by sea while social media were rife with rumors China was bolstering troops along the two countries' northern border, the site of a short-lived but bloody war in 1979. According to reports, Beijing has also stepped up its economic sanctions against Hanoi by barring state-owned Chinese companies from bidding fresh contracts in Vietnam. Authorities in Hanoi will be forced to brace for a potentially significant economic fallout given China's status as one of the top trading and investment partners of Vietnam.
Beijing maintains that commercial rather than strategic reasons underpinned the deployment of the oil rig, which is apparently building on prior energy exploratory studies conducted in the area. China has announced that it will keep the oil rig in the area until mid-August, a position that has provoked outrage in Hanoi.
Vietnam has since accused China of flagrantly violating agreed-upon bilateral and international agreements in the South China Sea, including a non-binding 2002 Declaration of Conduct (DoC) for the maritime area signed by China and ASEAN members.
On Monday, China responded by telling the United Nations that Vietnam was the aggressor in the month-long stand-off over the oil rig. In a position paper presented to UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, China detailed what it claimed was Vietnam's "illegal disruption" of the "routine" activities of an offshore drilling platform.
The paper claimed that as of June 7 Vietnamese vessels had rammed China ships precisely 1,416 times. While China presented its case to the global body, consistent with its resistance to multilateral mediation on issues it considers bilateral, it did not seek a UN resolution to the dispute.
Vietnam has not yet responded to the paper's claims and assertions. Some in Hanoi believe China will leverage the claims to keep HYSY981, which was first deployed in May, in the contested area beyond August. The paper also stated that "these waters will never become Vietnam's EEZ and continental shelf no matter which principle is applied in the delimitation".
That hard rhetoric is driving Hanoi to rethink its earlier reluctance to take China before a third-party arbitration panel over its territorial claims. In this regard, the Philippines could serve as a role model. Last year, Manila filed an arbitration case against China before a United Nations special arbitral tribunal court in The Hague. Dung recently indicated he may do the same.
So far, China has flatly rejected the Philippines arbitration efforts, while analysts have noted the tribunal lacks an enforcement mechanism to make any decision truly binding. Beijing has until December 15 to decide on whether it will file a counter-argument in The Hague, something US diplomats have encourage Beijing to do.
The main challenge for Vietnam now is to locate appropriate arbitration bodies to file its long list of complaints against China, which date back to when the country was divided into separate northern and southern states; the Philippines has recently offered legal advice in this regard.
Against this uncertain legal backdrop, the Philippines and Vietnam are deepening their strategic ties, including through stronger coast guard and naval forces cooperation, intelligence-sharing in the realm of maritime security, diplomatic coordination within ASEAN and other international bodies, and sustained consultation in crafting legal responses to China's territorial maneuvering in the South China Sea.
The two countries' navies recently agreed to extend cooperation in disputed areas, while a Vietnamese guided missile cruiser is scheduled to visit Manila in the weeks ahead, according to a Reuters report.