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In an interview with Dan Tri/DTiNews reporter, Filippino expert on South China Sea, Professor Richard Heydarian said that Vietnam is victim of China’s territorial policy and “hawk” factions in Chinese leadership have been influencing the growing aggressiveness of China’s territorial policy in recent years.
Reporter: On the 26 of May our fishing boat from Da Nang has been rammed and sunken by a Chinese boat and the whole incident has been recorded by fishermen on other fishing boat and has been broadcast nationwide and outside Vietnam. We are going to sue China with the regard to this incident. From the perspective of an expert on South China Sea, do you have any advice for us?
Heydarian: I think the decision of Vietnam to go ahead with publicizing this incident – despite vigorous Chinese pressure – was a justified move, because it allows the world to have a better grasp of the dangerous naval standoff in the South China Sea due to China’s decision to unilaterally dispatch an oil rig into Vietnam’s EEZ and change the facts on the ground through increasingly coercive means. The video also allows Vietnam to more convincingly defend its position before the international community, underscoring the growing aggressiveness of China’s territorial policy. As Vietnam prepares legal complaints against China, it is very important for Hanoi to compile as many footage and evidence to demonstrate how it has been victimized by China’s territorial assertiveness. More importantly, Vietnam should launch a more expansive, focused Public Relations (PR) campaign by showing to the world how China –not Vietnam and other claimant states -- is escalating the situation, and contributing to greater tensions and potential confrontation in the South China Sea. Vietnam should also more vigorously reach out to other ASEAN countries, showing how in absence of regional engagement and pro-active mediation, the situation could deteriorate into a destructive military confrontation, affecting the entire region. Vietnam should also more consistently and vocally express its support for the Philippines’ arbitration case against China. The aim here is not to antagonize China, but to show that Beijing can’t get away with it is doing without paying a price in both legal and diplomatic terms. This way, we may convince the more moderate factions in the Chinese leadership to de-escalate the situation and push aside hawks, who have been influencing China’s territorial policy in recent years.
Reporter: And it seems that despite the world pressure on China, their behavior and activities on South China Sea are becoming more and more aggressive. Serious concerns has been in the region that China might drag the oil rig further south toward the Spratlys or may soon impose an ADIZ in the South China Sea. The Philippines has recently expressed concerns over China’s increased ships and reclamation activities on some disputed reefs, such as South Johnson Reef and Fiery Cross Reef, to make these reefs to become artificial islands for military purposes. In your opinion what Vietnam, Philippines as well as ASEAN should do to prevent these activities of China?
Heydarian: Gladly, the Philippines and Vietnam have moved closer to each other as a result of China’s actions. This way, two like-minded countries can forge a more consequential partnership within the ASEAN and the region. Obviously, the two countries should move deeper in their partnership, contemplating joint exercises among their maritime forces, enhance intelligence-sharing in terms of developments in the South China Sea, and coordinate their diplomatic and legal positions. As for the ASEAN, it is high time for it to drop its fruitless neutrality. The situation is obviously alarming, and key members of the ASEAN, from Vietnam and the Philippines to Malaysia and Indonesia, are all adversely affected by current developments. The least that the ASEAN could do is to expedite the negotiations over a legally-binding Code of Conduct (CoC), ensure the proper adherence of China and ASEAN members to the 2002 DoC, and make explicit statements against violation of regional principles as well as international law. China’s recent actions, from the dispatch of an oil rig into Vietnam’s EEZ and open admission to have been building structures on the Johnson South Reef and other Spratly island chain features within the Philippines’ EEZ, are an explicit violation of the DOC, which discourages claimants from unilaterally altering facts on the ground. The ASEAN can’t be quiet on this issue. It should speak out more forcefully and step up pressure on China to agree to a de-escalation mechanism in the South China Sea and negotiate a binding CoC.
Reporter: At the telephone press conference on the 10th of May, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific Daniel Russel suggested that ASEAN and China should try to reach a temporary deal not to occupy any of the land features in the South China Sea that are currently unoccupied. What do you think of this suggestion? Since China placed deep sea oil rig Haiyang Shiyou 981 deep into Vietnam’s EEZ and continental shelf, which has stirred the South China Sea, US has made many statements on this. But does it seem that there is still lack of actions from US?
Heydarian: The Obama administration has been criticized for not being more decisive in constraining China’s territorial assertiveness. And there is some basis to this. The U.S. can’t claim to be a guarantor of peace in the region, while not taking any position on the South China Sea disputes. The U.S. has not even provided categorical military support to the Philippines, a treaty ally, if a war erupts over the contested South China Sea disputes.
The U.S. should obviously play a more pro-active role. As an offshore balancer, the U.S. has been quite ineffective in pushing back China. What the U.S. needs to do is to be more of an onshore stabilizer, and this means greater diplomatic engagement with the ASEAN and China on the issue, and, of course, stronger strategic and military footprint in Asia. I think the Obama administration has realized that the status quo is unsustainable and dangerous, because it could impact freedom of navigation in international waters – a cornerstone of Washington’s naval supremacy and national interest in the Pacific. So now the U.S. is becoming more engaged, and this is good. I think the proposal of the State Department to create an “escalation freeze” mechanism should have come earlier. The important thing at this point is to vigorously pressure China to stop escalating the situation, with the U.S., ASEAN, and other Pacific powers playing the role of mediators. Officially, ASEAN is supposed to be the primary mediator, but in conjunction the U.S. and other Pacific powers should step up their diplomatic pressure – through bilateral and multilateral channels -- on China and certain uncooperative countries in the ASEAN, which have been more sympathetic to China than fellow Southeast Asian states on the territorial disputes.
Reporter: During the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore last month, Japan pushed for a greater role in Asian security to counterbalance to China. What is your view on this?
Heydarian: The emergence of Japan as a key regional security actor is of huge importance. Under the Abe administration, Japan has relaxed self-imposed restrictions on arms exports, increased defense spending, and pushed for a re-interpretation of the Japanese pacifist constitution. Japan has also emerged as an important partner of the ASEAN, more particularly Vietnam and the Philippines. Under the doctrine of “collective self-defense”, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is obviously looking at the prospect of Japanese Maritime Self Defense Forces playing a direct role in stabilizing Sea Lines of Communications (SLOC) such as the South China Sea, and assisting the U.S. – and its treaty allies such as the Philippines – if a war erupts in the region. No wonder, during the Shangri-La Dialogue Abe was very clear in presenting his country as a counterforce to China. The Obama administration has been encouraging Japan – and other Pacific allies – to also step up their security role. Obviously, Washington has rely more on its leading allies such as Japan to preserve a liberal order in East Asia, especially amid huge military budget cuts and fiscal woes in the U.S.
Reporter: It is reported that Indonesian Foreign Minister has suggested a special meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers on ongoing South China Sea tensions. What will be the significant of this meeting if it does happen and what can we expect?
Heydarian: Indonesia has effectively become the informal leader of the ASEAN. Given its diplomatic pro-activeness and economic heft, Jakarta is in a perfect position to make the ASEAN a more effective mediator to ensure regional maritime security. Although not a direct party to the ongoing disputes in the South China Sea, Indonesia has rejected China’s sweeping territorial claims, arguing the “nine-dashed-line” overlaps with Jakarta’s jurisdiction over the hydrocarbon-rich Natuna Islands. Indonesia is also worried by China’s growing para-military patrols within its own EEZ. So no wonder Indonesia is playing a very pro-active role in unifying the ASEAN on the South China Sea disputes. China seems to have recognized Indonesia’s influence too, and this is why Beijing has been coursing its diplomatic message to Hanoi and Manila through Jakarta, especially in crisis periods such as what we have been confronting in recent months. Indonesia should more vigorously convince countries such as Laos and Cambodia to support ongoing efforts to expedite a CoC in the region and more vocally criticize China’s destabilizing actions.
Reporter: Chinese media has recently reported that Chinese government does not allow their stated-owned companies to bid on new projects in Vietnam. If this is true, what is the effect of the move?
Heydarian: Given the tragic aftermath of the recent anti-China protests in Vietnam, I think the Beijing authorities were hard-pressed to retaliate in diplomatic and economic forms. So we shouldn’t be surprised by China’s decision to disallow its state-owned companies to engage in new projects in Vietnam. As the top trading partner of Vietnam, China is obviously in a position to hurt Hanoi. China is obviously also trying to send a message to other ASEAN countries, especially the Philippines, that it won’t hesitate to consider large-scale economic sanctions. This will most likely encourage the Philippines to diversify its trade and investment relations. Vietnam should also look in this direction, exploring ways to decrease its economic reliance on China.
But the fact of the matter is that, China also needs Vietnam for trade and economic reasons. Vietnam has become a favored destination for many Chinese companies, which have been struggling with rising costs and labor unrest. And the business groups will try to lobby for calibrated, limited Chinese economic sanctions on Vietnam. Obviously, if the naval standoff between China and Vietnam escalates into larger confrontations, then we could see a more significant impact on China-Vietnam economic relations.