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Reacting to China – and its grand plan

20 May Reacting to China – and its grand plan

We now know the reactions in Vietnam to China’s move to begin drilling for oil in the South China Sea that both sides claim. More than 20,000 Vietnamese workers spilled out of control, attacking factories thought to be Chinese-owned, including those at two Singapore-run industrial parks.

With reports of fatalities and injuries, other manufacturers have been closing out of precaution. Global supply chains have felt the effects and Hanoi has wisely asserted domestic order.

But will the conflict escalate? Will Vietnam be the only one to protest or will others respond too?


History testifies to the real dangers of conflict between China and Vietnam. The two neighbours fought over the Paracel Islands in 1974, when China completed its effective control and Vietnam lost more than 50 personnel. They clashed again along their border in 1979.

Anti-China street protests have grown visibly in recent years, demonstrating nationalistic fervour.

Until now, countervailing factors have prevented conflict. Soon after the end of the Cold War, the respective communist parties that run the two countries developed layered dialogues on territorial issues at sea and along their long shared border. While upholding its claims, Hanoi restrained criticism.

Present events may upend this process. While the angry statements ensue, it is worth watching whether parties can possibly and quietly return to the dialogue process, away from public glare.

However, it is not, in any event, only Vietnam who should respond.

Others with competing claims —Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines — must take heed. Manila has already angered Beijing by taking up international arbitration and recently arresting Chinese nationals for fishing in contested waters. Its president once likened China to Hitler.

Brunei and Malaysia have been relatively tame in their responses, but may now need to steel themselves. Each has recently experienced Chinese vessels assertively venturing into nearby waters.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as the regional voice, will be pressed to take sides. The group’s ministerial meetings so far have declined to single out China, but instead express “serious concerns” about recent developments. It would be right to urge a peaceful resolution in accordance with international law and speed up discussions on a Code of Conduct that both sides have promised. If further concerns arise, ASEAN must be expected to speak up.


But will China care? There is a sense that China is looking past Vietnam and the region.

Place this action in a broader context of Beijing’s stand-off with Tokyo over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and its declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone.

Note that China moved the rig into the disputed waters soon after United States President Barack Obama’s Asian visit, which had put security reassurance at the top of the agenda.

China’s action can be understood as a pushback against the Obama administration’s policy to ‘pivot’ or rebalance towards Asia.

Shrewdly, it has acted against Vietnam, which is not an American ally. Each step taken, from China’s perspective, is justified and in isolation, may not seem significant. Collectively, however, some will read an orchestrated, step-by-step effort by China to move the status quo in its favour.

It remains unclear at present if the US sees it this way and how it might respond. So far, US Vice-President Joe Biden has said the country does not take sides in the dispute, while a State Department spokesman characterised Chinese actions as being “provocative and unhelpful”.

In response, a senior Chinese leader, General Fang Fenghui, sharply blamed the US ‘pivot’ for giving neighbouring countries a chance to “provoke problems”. This came while the general visited Washington DC for a high-level dialogue with US defence counterparts.

China has put relations with the US on a new plane, as a “major power” dialogue partner. This seeks to better manage the complex and interdependent relationship between the current and rising superpowers on global issues. This tests America’s commitment and emphasis in rebalancing to Asia.

If the Obama administration presses too hard, this could jeopardise a range of other interests on which China’s cooperation is needed. Yet, if it does not respond, Mr Obama’s security reassurances will mean little.

Asking China to reverse its present action may be asking too much. However, it will take more than finger wagging to convince Beijing that there is real cost against a further step.

The Vietnamese reaction has been angry and immediate. No doubt, the Philippines will promptly protest out of solidarity. Beyond this, broader implications will ripple through the region and indeed across the Pacific.

Most still wish to cooperate with a rising China while maintaining stability in the region. But, while no one should demonise Beijing, all have to be wary of mute acquiescence and this will require thoughtful and more measured responses.


Simon Tay and Nicholas Fang are, respectively, chairman and executive director of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. Both were part of a Singapore delegation that attended the 3rd Singapore-US strategic dialogue in Washington last week. This commentary was originally published in TODAY on 20 May 2014.