Water cannons yes, but live-fire exchanges unlikely

May 13, 2014 17:29
Vietnamese demonstrators protest China's alleged invasion of Vietnam's territorial waters. Photo: AFP

Tensions have again risen in the South China Sea after China, the Philippines and Vietnam ratcheted up posturing over territorial rights in their long-running maritime disputes.

It came on the heels of a four-nation tour by United States President Barack Obama last month aimed at reaffirming Washington’s commitment to its long-time allies.

The visit has apparently emboldened the two Asian countries to harden their stance toward China.

Yesterday, Vietnamese television showed footage of its coastal patrol ships and Chinese vessels blasting each other with water cannons in disputed waters. The two countries increased patrols in the area as a row over China’s oil exploration activities heated up.

In Hanoi, a senior official told the Wall Street Journal Tuesday that the Vietnamese coast guard exercised restraint. "We are exercising restraint while trying to avoid being rammed and attacked by water cannons by the Chinese," said Rear Admiral Ngo Ngoc Thu, vice commander of Vietnam's coast guard.

Thu said China has 86 vessels around an oil rig, including military vessels, notably one anti-submarine ship. The giant oil drilling rig was towed to a Chinese exploration site in the South China Sea on May 2.  

On Sunday, Vietnam allowed several hundred demonstrators to stage a noisy rally outside the Chinese embassy in Hanoi to protest Beijing's deployment of the rig in contested waters.

In an intriguing coincidence, the Philippine government clashed with China over an unlikely subject: endangered sea turtles. Nine Chinese fishermen, who were arrested in disputed waters last week, were charged with environmental crimes. China has demanded their release.

The increasing tensions prompted the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to make a rare statement at the end of a foreign ministers’ meeting ahead of a leaders’ summit over the weekend. It urged “all parties concerned… to exercise self-restraint and avoid actions that could undermine peace and stability in the area".

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III raised his country's territorial dispute with China at the meeting and called for support in resolving the conflict through international arbitration.

Beijing has repeatedly rejected Manila's attempts at international mediation, insisting the dispute should be resolved through bilateral talks.

In an editorial Tuesday, the Hong Kong Economic Journal said it was rare for ASEAN to wade into the South China Sea dispute. Although it did not name China, the reference to the dispute is yet another sign of the growing fragility and uncertainty in the disputed area in these times of profound geopolitical changes.

After the signing of a 10-year defense deal with the US during Obama's visit, the Philippines appeared keen to test Beijing strategy and policy on the South China Sea.

Meanwhile, China and Vietnam are in no mood to soften their sovereignty claims in the region, with Beijing insisting it has the right to deploy the oil rig off the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.

The deployment, which came shortly after the end of Obama's Asian tour, might have been timed to gauge the response of the US and Vietnam to the territorial issue.

Speaking before a meeting with visiting Singaporean Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam in Washington on Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry described the China-Vietnam standoff as “the Chinese challenge to the Paracel Islands”.

He said: “We are particularly concerned – all nations that are engaged in navigation and traffic within the South China Sea, the East China Sea, are deeply concerned about this aggressive act. We want to see a code of conduct created; we want to see this resolved peacefully through the Law of the Sea, through arbitration, through any other means, but not direct confrontation and aggressive action.”

China may be adamant about the legitimacy of its territorial claims. Its increased assertiveness, however, could backfire if it drives ASEAN into Obama’s embrace in his “rebalancing” policy in the region.

In view of the complex economic ties and economic disparity among ASEAN countries, it is inconceivable that they will act as a group to back Vietnam and the Philippines in their territorial issues with China.

But ASEAN's reference to the territorial question in a joint statement on Monday reflects growing anxiety over China’s foreign policy in the region under President Xi Jinping who has put defense and security high on the national agenda.

That said, the basics in the tripartite relationship among the US, China and the rest of Asia remain largely unchanged.

Although Washington is divided over the country's role in the world, Obama’s foreign policy priority is the avoidance of new wars. Going to war with China over disputed seas or uninhabited islands in the East and South China Seas is the last thing he wants.

Faced with a host of domestic issues including economic transformation, Xi has good reasons to stick to peaceful ascendancy.

Most countries in Asia prefer to stay neutral in any wrangling between China and the US to give themselves more flexibility in their own diplomatic maneuvers.

There is no doubt the waters of the South China Sea will remain choppy for a long time, occasionally punctuated by blasts of water cannons. A large-scale military conflict, however, is unlikely.

-- Contact the writer at [email protected]



He was editor-at-large at the South China Morning Post and, more recently, deputy chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal.