Challenging Beijing in the South China Sea

Posted July 31st, 2012 at 7:49 pm (UTC+0)

Hanoi and Manila Take Different Approaches

Vietnam and the Philippines are both angry at what they see as Chinese bullying in the South China Sea, but Hanoi and Manila are taking different approaches to the standoff over rival maritime claims.

Vietnam is strengthening military ties with the United States, India, Singapore, Japan, Australia, and Russia, building what Joshua Kurlantzick of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations calls a “web of ad hoc bilateral relationships to shore up their security.”

With Vice Admiral Viktor Chirkov in talks to return Russia’s navy to Cam Ranh Bay, Kurlantzick says Hanoi is sending a clear signal to Beijing that it is not alone in the South China Sea.

Philippines President Benigno Aquino III tells lawmakers July 25 that Manila will stand firm against Chinese territorial claims on the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Photo: AP

“It speaks to Vietnam’s utilization of many different partners in order to back itself up,” says Kurlantzick, a Southeast Asia specialist. “Vietnam is in a stronger position that the Philippines simply because for years the Armed Forces of Philippines basically did nothing to upgrade its navy.”

Filipino President Benigno Aquino III is trying to catch up, placing an order for more attack helicopters after China opened a new base in the Paracel Islands to patrol waters claimed by both Vietnam and the Philippines.

Now, more powerful countries such as Vietnam are looking to other solutions after China managed to stymie an attempt to address the maritime claims through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). But weaker nations such as the Philippines are trying to broaden the mediation effort by taking the dispute to the United Nations.


ASEAN or the United Nations

That move has little support in Washington, says Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow on China studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). She says the Obama administration is pushing instead for direct code-of-conduct talks between China and ASEAN.

“The United States doesn’t view this as a U.S./China issue,” Glaser says. “Taking it to the U.N. would make it seem like a U.S./China issue because none of the other permanent Security Council members really have any stake in this issue at all.”

“The Philippines is throwing everything at the wall because they are in the weakest position and they want to see what sticks,” Kurlantzick says. “You have senior Philippine national security officials coming repeatedly to the U.S. and asking for certain types of upgrades. You have them sort of trying to maneuver the U.S. into confirming that because of our relationship with them in the past, the South China Sea would come under that” Mutual Defense Treaty.

Though weaker militarily, Kurlantzick says the Philippines has a more open and democratic political system than Vietnam and is less susceptible to public anger over Chinese aggression.

“Certainly President Aquino has taken some strong steps, and he is not going to back down on certain issues. But at the same time, it’s a much more mature political system,” Kurlantzick says. “So I think public pressure works a number of different ways, and the government is less straightjacketed by nationalistic tendencies because its legitimacy can rest on a number of different foundations.”

Demonstrators march through Hanoi July 22 protesting China’s claims on South China Sea territory also claimed by Vietnam. Photo: Reuters

With regular, carefully-guided Sunday protests against China in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, the Vietnamese government is trying to stay ahead of public opinion at a time when Glaser says nationalist sentiments are running high in Vietnam, the Philippines, and China.

“This has certainly become imbued with a sense of, ‘These are our rights.’ It has become a very sensitive issue,” Glaser says. “On the blogosphere all over China, Chinese citizens, netizens, are calling for their government to defend their interests. And I do believe that the Chinese leadership is very wary of being seen as too soft and not protecting Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

This is especially so as Washington makes its “Asia Pivot” in military strategy, repositioning Marines and aircraft carrier task forces in the Pacific.

China is pressing huge territorial claims, outlined in red, in the South China Sea region. The Philippines, Vietnam and others are also making claims.


Washington’s ‘Asia Pivot’

“Countries are worried about U.S. staying power, about whether or not there will be a counter-weight to China,” Glaser says. “We are trying to say, ‘Yes. We will be there to ensure peace and security in the region.’ It’s problematic because we don’t want to embolden other countries to engage in a confrontation with China.”

To the extent that they do, Glaser says that would be an unintended consequence of the Asia Pivot.

“Perhaps some of the actions taken by the Philippines might not have been taken if this series of events had taken place at a time when the United States was not seeking to refocus on Asia.

“When we are asked by President Aquino to say something more forcefully about how we will defend the Philippines if it is attacked, this puts the U.S. in a very difficult position,” the CSIS regional expert says. “We don’t want to leave the Philippines in a weak position. But at the same time we don’t want to tell the Philippines, ‘We’ve got your back.'”






12 responses to “Challenging Beijing in the South China Sea”

  1. Ur Septim says:

    “Perhaps some of the actions taken by the Philippines might not have been taken if this series of events had taken place at a time when the United States was not seeking to refocus on Asia.”

    Why I am not surprise to the statement above. The Obama administration is pretty much kowtowing to China. All it’s action are calculated in a way of avoiding to upset China. While at the same time its ally is losing its EEZ to China. All of the Chinese-held reefs, island and shoals in Spratlys has military garrison. China is pretty much stole the whole sea.

  2. Temujin says:

    Just by looking at the map: China greeds are insatiable.

  3. […] Challenging Beijing in the South China Sea « State of Affairs Asia, ChinaBeijing China, Bilateral Relationships, Cam Ranh Bay, China Beijing, Clear Signal, Council On Foreign Relations, Hanoi, India Singapore, Japan Australia, Joshua, Maritime Claims, Military Ties, Philippines, Rsquo, S Council, Sea State, South China Sea, standoff, State Of Affairs, Vice Admiral ← Russian Activist Aleksei Navalny Charged With Embezzlement – Comments are closed. /* */ RSS Feed Watch Netflix in Europe Duolingo: Free Language Courses […]

  4. Belami says:

    Dear all,
    Have you all seen this 1904 map of China?
    As it is conspicuously marked in this made-in-China map, Hainan island is the southernmost point of China. This is an inconstestable proof that the Paracels and Spratlys never belonged to China.
    Vietnam has shown this map to the public for over one week now. However, the Chinese government has kept totally silent about this. They must have been perplexed by the map. And the bellicose nationalists in the Chinese public too. They have been victims of Beijing’s inflammatory one-way propaganda for so long, and they must be now left bewildered by this proof.

  5. […] Challenging Beijing in the South China Sea (VOA 31-7-12) […]

  6. Great blog! Keep it up.

  7. deng xiao ping says:

    the Chinese people should apply common sense, because they are like all of us — homo
    sapiens. They will see that they don’t have the right to claim territory so far away from their land.

  8. […] the other smaller South East Asian states, such as the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, and Malaysia all contesting China’s claims of sovereignty over tiny land masses in this water […]

  9. […] The thing is it’s already happening. In recent years and more recent months, the Vietnamese government has loosened restrictions to allow for more western, and specifically American, investment in infrastructure and more importantly, business investment. […]

Scott Stearns

Scott Stearns

Scott Stearns is VOA’s State Department correspondent. He has worked as VOA’s Dakar Bureau Chief, White House correspondent, and Nairobi Bureau Chief since beginning his career as a freelance reporter in the Liberian civil war. He has written for the BBC, UPI, the Associated Press, The Jerusalem Post, and The Economist. Scott has a Bachelors and Masters in Journalism from Northwestern University.



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