Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Q&A: South China Sea Tensions and the Future of Asean

• May 22, 2014, 7:06 AM SGT
Q&A: South China Sea Tensions and the Future of Asean
BySara Schonhardt
This picture, taken from a Vietnam Coast Guard ship on May 14, shows a Vietnamese Coast Guard ship (left) being
challenged by a Chinese Coast Guard ship near to the site of a Chinese oil rig that has set off a tense dispute between the
two countries.
Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
A simmering dispute between China and some of its Southeast Asian neighbors over
the South China Sea flared up last week – sparking deadly riots and protests in
Vietnam. China’s increasingly aggressive moves to press its claims to parts of the
waters, believed to be rich in oil, has drawn out deep-seated grievances in Vietnam
and posed challenges to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a body formed
nearly 50 years ago to ensure peace in the region.
Southeast Asia Real Time asked several experts their thoughts on the current
tensions and what they mean for the future security of Southeast Asia.
Carl Thayer, professor humanities and social sciences and an expert on
Vietnamese foreign policy in the Australian Defense Force Academy at the
University of New South Wales.
WSJ: Can the Vietnamese government stand up for itself enough to calm the anger
and protests within the country without forcing China to act even more provocatively?
Mr. Thayer: Yes the Vietnam government has extensive resources to repress any
further protests, violent or otherwise, that take place. The Vietnamese government
has also moved to assuage China by clamping down and arresting workers involved
in the violent attacks on Chinese and other foreign invested properties. But the
Vietnamese government will have its work cut out calming nationalist anti-China
sentiment. Many of those who protested peacefully in the cities are critical by what
they perceive as government inaction.
WSJ: Vietnam obviously can’t stand up militarily to China but also doesn’t seem to
have much support from its Asean neighbors. What would it need to do to strike an
alliance with the U.S. similar to what the Philippines has? And is this something it
Mr. Thayer: Vietnam will not strike an alliance with the United States under any
circumstances. Vietnam is fearful that in the end China and the U.S. will reach
agreement over the South China Sea at Vietnam’s expense. Vietnam has a policy of
three no’s enshrined in the last two Defense White Papers: no foreign military bases,
no military alliances, and no use of a third country against another country. U.S.-
Vietnam defense and security relations are very low level.
WSJ: How serious is the current standoff – worse than the border war in 1979? And
what might it portend for the future?
Mr. Thayer: The current crisis is the worst eruption in bilateral relations since the
1979 border war, but it hardly bears comparison. In 1977 and 1978, prior to the
border war, there were rising deadly incidents along the Sino-Vietnamese border. A
quarter of a million ethnic Chinese (or Hoa people) fled into southern China. After the
border war, the border was tense, featuring frequent Chinese artillery barrages
during Vietnam’s decade-long intervention in Cambodia.
An escalation of violence is always a possibility given the daily confrontation at sea
around the oil rig. China will bluster and get its pound of flesh for the violence
directed at Chinese factories and workers. China will keep up the pressure long
enough to convince Vietnam to adopt a conciliatory and accommodationist posture.
When China put the rig in Vietnam’s waters it claimed it would operate from May 2 to
August 15. China kept the door open for it to de-escalate on its terms. At some point
China will receive a Vietnamese high-level envoy and they will reach terms to
manage this situation. Both sides will put a spin on their agreement as part of a facesaving

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