Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Strategic Analysis from Viet Nam

The recent crises put the U.S. pivot to Asia to the test?

Nguyen Tam Chien, Vietnam-USA Society

1.    In Europe, the international community is witnessing “economic sanctions” that the U.S. and European countries have imposed on Russia in the evolution of the Ukraine crisis.  Meanwhile in Asia, China has sent a “giant oil rig” into Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which creates conflict in Vietnam-China relations and threatens peace and stability in the region. This “super-flat” world is likely to be a less quiet playground.

Choosing this moment to pick a quarrel in the South China Sea, China has attracted many people’s attention.

On the big powers’ chessboard, there are only three major global players: the U.S., China and Russia. China’s oil rig was illegally planted in Vietnam’s EEZ and infringed on Vietnam’s sovereignty right after U.S. President Obama’s visits to America’s allies: Japan, Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines. In the context of the Ukraine crisis matters have become more complicated as the U.S. and Europe try to punish Russia with economic sanctions.

It is notable that China’s provocative behavior toward Vietnam is just the latest in a series of actions calculated by Beijing, going back to 1956 when China began occupying the eastern part of the Hoàng Sa Islands (the Paracels) of Vietnam. This has been part of China’s plan of appropriating the South China SeaChina often “uses war or conflict as the wisest way” to reach its goal. In 1974, China occupied the western part of the Paracels when the U.S. withdrew from the Vietnam War, and afterwards the war between China and Vietnam took place in 1979. In 1988, China occupied some reefs of the Trường Sa Islands (the Spratlys). In 2011, three Chinese maritime surveillance ships cut the cables of the Vietnam’s oil exploration ship named Binh Minh 02 in Vietnam’s EEZ. Justifications for all events were made up. The current case is no exception. Beijing asserts that the position of 17 nautical miles from the Paracels where the Chinese oil rig is situated is “obviously within its continental shelf”, which means China arrogantly claims the entire Paracels as its own. Meanwhile, that oil rig lies just 120 nautical miles off Vietnam’s shore, completely within Vietnam’s 200-nautical-mile EEZ according to international law.

2.    China’s action always has many purposes. China’s intentions through the current oil rig event are: (1) to change the present conditions to monopolize the South China Sea; (2) to test how some powers, such as the U.S., will  respond to its activities, especially when President Obama has just finished his visit to Asia, as well as how effective the U.S. pivot strategy is; (3) to challenge whether the ASEAN countries are united and to give the building process of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea a trial; (4) “killing the chickens to scare the monkeys” which means China will not make any concessions on disputed waters with Japan and ASEAN (countries); (5) provoking Vietnam by using military ships to intentionally trap Vietnam into a situation in which Vietnamese forces use military response, enabling China to accuse Vietnam of “attacking Chinese military ships” and  “invading China”, and then the conflict will become diffused and more widespread with China aiming to  invade other areas on the South China Sea; (6) to raise up Chinese nationalism in order to strengthen internal circumstances since  China’s economy has been growing slowly, and its anti-corruption campaign may put the new leaders into a real dilemma.

3.    The timing of China’s activities is also notable.  You may say the Chinese are masters at taking advantage of opportunities. At present the timing is assessed favorably for China because its main partner and its tactical objective as well, the U.S., is facing difficulties.  In particular, (i) America’s economic recovery continues at its slow pace, yet the Obama Administration has little time left to take action and Obama’s legacy depends on economic achievements; (ii) in respect to foreign affairs, the U.S. President’s visits to allies seem unlikely to accomplish their purposes as expected since economic issues are left incomplete. Concrete evidence of this is Japan’s and Malaysia’s indecision on the TPP compromises.  Their weighing the pros and cons of economic benefits between relations with China and with America is considered the root cause of this delay. Meanwhile, the U.S.’s strategies of protecting national interests and maintaining its global predominance are distracted by Russia and the Ukraine crisis; (iii) Sino-Russian relations are rising to a new peak of warmth with joint military exercises and President Putin’s visit to China; (iv) China has certain influence on ASEAN nations, and hopes to have impact on the ASEAN Summit in Myanmar this year. Currently, Vietnam has limited economic and defense capabilities, thus China can rely vaingloriously on its power to bully its neighbor.

4.    In this set of conditions, there are some perspective of influence of the recent crises on American national interests and policies in Asia.

Firstly, the impacts are on the intent of the U.S.’s “pivot”. The “pivot” began at a Southeast Asia/ASEAN event. In July 2009, Hillary Clinton, the former U.S. Secretary of State, announced the U.S. pivot to Asia during her attendance at ARF meetings in Thailand. At that time, Asians did not take the message seriously. The U.S. signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) which marked the beginning of a new involvement process in this region that in part was neglected by the American predecessor’s administration. Not until the next ARF meetings in Hanoi did Asians really pay attention to the message when Hillary Clinton stated that the United States “has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to […] the South China Sea[1]. This statement was in response to a requirement of China that the U.S. recognizes the South China Sea as one of China’s “core interests”, a few months ago.

Secondly, Chinese has launched its response-trial. New questions have been raised: Whether the U.S. will keep its own stance to remain a outsider of territorial disputes between nations in East Asia when China steps forward in invading waters and violating neighbors’ sovereignty The U.S. and Asian countries clearly perceive the importance of international sea and air transport access through the South China Sea as well as the peace and stability of the region. If powers do not cooporate to achieve a win-win solution, if they use power unilaterally regardless of other countries’ national interests and sovereignty, the final outcome will be very bad for all.

Thirdly, many people recently have raised concerns over an arms race in East Asia. It is easy to recognize that risk and danger to peace and stability have never decreased due a continuing arms race. Civil war and conflict still occur uninterrupted around the world despite the current dangers of a nuclear era.  The struggle to prevent nuclear proliferation is another tense issue in Asia. In short, it seems that the Cold War with the two poles in the past, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, has not ended.  It is continuing in other ways, and in other places. 

Finally, prospects for U.S.-China relations are also affected by these crises. The U.S.’s attitude toward China’s recent behavior helps Asian countries understand clearly the economic symbiosis and the interdependence in other fields between the U.S. and China, and the limitations of this relationship. Chinese and U.S. leaders often claim that China-U.S. relations will be able to govern global and Asian political trends throughout the 21st century. If that is true, the two countries’ international responsibilities will be huge, such as keeping regional peace and stability, and establishing the rules of the game that respect interests and sovereignty of all countries, small ones in particular.

5.    The U.S.’s pivot to Asia is facing challenges. New crisis in the South China Sea, have varied impacts on the great-power politics. The crisis caused by China’s invasion in Vietnam’s waters brings new focus on Chinese policies since China is emerging as a rival against the U.S. for global primacy.

In conclusion, we hope the new world order is appearing as multi-centered network of interdependent states and players of win-win game but not as a coming back to the Cold War time when nations were in the total global confrontation.

[1] Press Availability: Hillary Rodham Clinton, US Secretary of State, National Convention Center Hanoi, Vietnam, July 23, 2010.

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