Page 1 of 2 The devil and the deep South China Sea
By Walden Bello
Last year, the Philippines brought a complaint against China's aggressive actions in the West Philippine Sea to the United Nations Arbitral Tribunal. The Chinese "were really unprepared for that and were really embarrassed by it", one of Vietnam's top experts on Chinese diplomacy told me during my recent visit to Hanoi.
It was a master stroke by the Philippine government. The move put China on the defensive, said another Vietnamese analyst, and was one of the factors that prompted Beijing last year to agree in principle to hold discussions with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on a code of conduct for the disputed body of water - known in the Philippines as the West Philippine Sea, in Vietnam as the East Sea, and in China as the South China Sea.
The budding cooperation between Vietnam and the Philippines is the latest development stemming from China's aggressive territorial claims in the region. In 2009, China put forward the so-called Nine-Dash Line map in which it claimed the whole of the South China Sea, leaving four other countries that border on the
strategic body of water with nothing more than their 12-mile territorial seas.
In pursuit of Beijing's goals, Chinese maritime surveillance ships have driven Filipino fisherfolk from Scarborough Shoal, which lies within the Philippines' 200-mile exclusive economic zone. In the most recent incident, the Chinese tried to disperse Filipino fishing boats approaching the shoal with water cannons. Chinese government ships have also reportedly chased off Filipino boats trying to replenish a garrison on Ayungin Shoal in the Spratly Islands.
The downside of Manila's legal advantage was that it made the Philippines the number-one target of Beijing, replacing Vietnam as China's primary rival in the ongoing dispute. "They're now isolating you," explained a China expert at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, "while relations between Vietnam and China are getting back to normal." Despite the leaders of both countries exchanging visits, however, "we still feel the chill. In terms of China's least favored countries in ASEAN, we're number nine for the moment and you're number 10. In the long run, however, Vietnam is Beijing's main strategic problem."
Invited to Hanoi to give a series of lectures on foreign policy and economic issues by Madame Nguyen Thi Binh - the legendary head of the Provisional Revolutionary Government, who headed South Vietnam's delegation to the Paris talks that ended the Vietnam War - I took advantage of the opportunity to elicit Vietnamese views on the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Figuring out Beijing's motives
The Vietnamese are very well positioned to analyze the Chinese government. Not only have they fought the Chinese off and on for over a thousand years, they have remarkably similar ways of interpreting political developments. This is due to the fact that communist parties, with a common Leninist bent, rule both countries. Their putatively shared ideology, however, is hitched to different - indeed, conflicting - national interests.
How do the Vietnamese interpret China's Nine-Dash Line map that claims virtually the whole of the South China Sea as Chinese territory? There are, interestingly, several schools of thought. The first sees the Nine-Dash Line as delineating the maritime borders of China and not necessarily possession of the islands in the area. The second interprets it as saying only that the islands and other terrestrial formations in the area belong to China, leaving the status of the surrounding waters ambiguous. A third opinion is that the map asserts that both the islands and surrounding waters belong to China.
There is a fourth perspective, and though it is held by only a handful of experts, it is intriguing. This view holds that the Nine-Dash Line is an aggressive negotiating device. According to a diplomat and academic expert who has first-hand experience negotiating with the Chinese, Beijing's style of resolving territorial issues has the following steps: "First," he said, "the two parties agree on the principles guiding negotiations. Second, both sides draw up their maps reflecting their respective territorial claims, with China pushing its territorial claims as far as possible. Third, they compare the maps as to overlapping or disputed and undisputed areas. Fourth, the parties negotiate to resolve the disputed areas. Fifth, if there is agreement, draw up a new map. Finally, go to the United Nations to legalize the new map."
Despite varying views on China's intentions, however, the Vietnamese are at one on two key points: that the Nine-Dash Line claim is illegal; and that owing to the number of parties and overlapping claims involved in the South China Sea dispute, only multilateral negotiations can set the basis for a lasting comprehensive solution.
Also, whatever may be their different readings of China's motives for advancing its Nine-Dash Line claims, there seems to be a consensus among Vietnamese officials and experts that China's strategic aim is to eventually assert its full control of the South China Sea. In other words, Beijing's aim is to legally transform the area into a domestic waterway governed by Chinese domestic laws. Some of Beijing's acts are explicit, such as the establishment of Sansha city as a domestic governing unit for the whole South China Sea, and the recent passage of a fisheries law requiring non-Chinese vessels fishing in the area to obtain a license from the Chinese government.
Others are more ambiguous, such as Beijing's views on the issue of freedom of navigation in the disputed area. Ambiguity serves their purpose at a time when they do not yet have the capability to match their ambition. "But there is no doubt that when they reach that point, of having the power to impose their ambition," said one Vietnamese analyst, "they will subject the area to Chinese domestic law."
Vietnam on the Philippines' legal case against Beijing
The Vietnamese government is said to be in full support of the Philippines' legal case against China at an informal level but cannot "fully publicly support it", according to one academic. What this meant was captured in the carefully crafted response to a reporter's question about Vietnam's position on the Philippine move by Nguyen Duy Chien, deputy director of the National Border Committee under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: "It is Vietnam's consistent position that all issues related to the East Sea should be solved by peaceful means, on the basis of international law, especially the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea." He continued: "In Vietnam's opinion, all nations have the full right to choose peaceful means to solve disputes in conformity with the United Nations Charter and international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea."
During his visit to Washington, DC in July last year, President Truong Tan Sang attacked the Chinese Nine-Dash Line claim as being "legally groundless". He remained silent, however, on whether Vietnam would join the Philippines in filing a case at the UN against China, though he was quick to add that as a member of the UN, the Philippines "has all legal rights to carry on with any proceedings they would like".
Part of the reason for the lack of more explicit support appears to be that a judgment on the case would clarify not only the Philippines' and China's claims but also Vietnam's, and some implications of this might not be positive for Hanoi. But uppermost is a desire not to enrage China at a time that high-level exchanges are returning relations between the two countries to normal, or at least something close to it.