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South China Sea: Going to Get Worse Before It (Might) Gets Better

by Joshua Kurlantzick
December 6, 2012

A Chinese national flag is seen on a boat at a fishing village in Tanmen town, Hainan province, next to the South China Sea. A Chinese national flag is seen on a boat at a fishing village in Tanmen town, Hainan province, next to the South China Sea (Aly Song/Courtesy Reuters).


This week’s latest South China Sea incident, in which a Chinese fishing boat cut a Vietnamese seismic cable —at least according to Hanoi— is a reminder that, despite the South China Sea dominating nearly every meeting in Southeast Asia this year, the situation in the Sea appears to be getting worse. This is in contrast to flare-ups in the past, when after a period of tension, as in the mid-1990s, there was usually a cooling-off period. Although there have been several brief cooling-off periods in the past two years, including some initiated by senior Chinese leaders traveling to Southeast Asia, they have not stuck, and the situation continues to deteriorate and get more dangerous.

In the new year, it will likely get even worse. Here’s why:

  • The new Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) secretary-general comes from Vietnam. Over the past three years, a more openly forceful China has found it difficult to deal with ASEAN leaders who even voice ASEAN concerns. But these leaders, like former Thai foreign minister and ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan, were nothing compared to the new ASEAN secretary-general, Vietnamese Deputy Foreign Minister Le Luong Minh. Although he is a career diplomat and certainly can be suave and attentive, he is still a former Vietnamese official, and undoubtedly will bring with him some of the Vietnamese perspective toward China, which is quickly turning more acrid.
  • This year’s ASEAN chair is Brunei. Keeping to its tradition of rotating the chair every year, in 2013 ASEAN will be headed by Brunei. Although some might think Brunei’s leadership will be better for stability than the 2012 ASEAN leadership of Cambodia, perceived by many other ASEAN members as carrying China’s water, the fact that Brunei is just as much of a diplomatic minnow as Cambodia will mean there is no powerful wrangler in the chair’s seat to hammer out a common ASEAN perspective. Were Indonesia or Singapore the chair, the situation might be different.
  • India is playing a larger and larger role in the South China Sea, adding even more potential players to the mix, and more powerful navies. The recent warning by Beijing that India and Vietnam should not engage in joint exploration is only going to lead to a harsher Indian response, since Indian elites pay far more attention to —and are more easily aggrieved by— China than the reverse.
  • The more they look, the more likely they will find. As reported by the New York Times, “On Monday, China’s National Energy Administration named the South China Sea as the main offshore site for natural gas production. Within two years, China aims to produce 150 billion cubic meters of natural gas from fields in the sea, a significant increase from the 20 billion cubic meters produced so far, the agency said.” Although I do not think that the oil and gas potential in the Sea is the biggest driver of conflict, compared to its strategic value, the more China (and anyone else) explores for energy in the Sea, the more likely they will (eventually) come up with potential deposits that will only raise the stakes, if the forecasts of the Sea’s petroleum potential are to be believed.
  • A new Chinese leadership is unlikely to want to show any weakness. With the leadership of this generation even more split than in the past, following a contentious Party Congress, continued infighting among acolytes of the major Chinese leaders, and the Bo Xilai fiasco, the new leadership is in no position, with Party members and the general educated public, to give any room on a contentious issue like the South China Sea.
  • The Obama administration has passed its period of focusing on more effective dialogue and crisis mediation with China. Officials from the administration’s first term, who naturally had the highest hopes for better dialogue, are gone, with many of them leaving just as convinced as their Bush predecessors that real dialogue was difficult if not impossible. Don’t expect a second term to yield better results with such a dialogue.

Happy New Year, South China Sea.


Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by HN

    The Chinese’s ways “What’s yours is mine, and what’s mine is mine”
    Nothing yours.
    Chinese leaders are practicing now, also molding their citizens to
    do so.

  • Posted by joseph enry

    I would like to add a little more:
    1. Russia has a 30+ years of profitable oil and gas joint ventures with Vietnam. Recently, the relationship even went up a notch with signed strategic partnership agreement, deliveries of 6 Kilo subs starting with 1 this 12/2012, a Russian remodeled Cam Ranh Bay facility for naval maintenance and sub hub, a missile factory jointly built producing 1st batch in 2013 and a Putin’s criticism of Chinese policies as well as a veiled support of Vietnamese EEZ right.
    2. A break-away group of 4 non-Chinese claimants to hash out common strategy and/or mutual UNCLOS based agreement can potentially open the gate for more anti-China voices among regional fence-sitters and legitimizes global “contain-China” campaign, especially when things become militarily messy.
    3. A record-breaking inflows of modern weapons among already significant well supplied armies of ASEAN members. While no match for China, it’s a confidence induced behavior and breaking point is getting nearer with each aggressive Chinese act. The pack mentality and nationalistic fever will be unleashed with lowered bar of 1 or 2 attacks and retaliations from bully China to small ASEAN nations ( most likely frontal Vietnam and the Philippines ).

  • Posted by Thangleader

    When the US and allies seeking to encircle a “great China” by new strategic and RIM pacific, some cold heads in China, almost of them are conservatives determine the action instead of “tiger sleeping”. Only one escape for China is the sea to the South when other three faces are blocked by Russia, Japan/Korea and main land.

    Vietnam and China has the history over thousands years of conflicts and regional wars. Other word, the history of “expansionism ” from Chinese mentalities and fighting long-time of resistance from Vietnamese people when they cannot accept the “assimilation” from Chinese Han.

    When the international community called the sea in the South of China as “South China sea” contradicting to Vietnam call sign “Bien Dong” or East Sea to Vietnam, there are some disadvantages for Vietnam when they claim its sovereignty in East Sea.

    Today, it wasn’t astonished when China claims almost of Sea boundary by some ASEAN countries and China and China considered this sea area as its “core interest”. Clear as the day the China wants to actualize its policies to offensive and keep these islands in East sea of Vietnam by any prices for escape the trap from US and allies, new and old.

    One of propaganda from China is seeking the “disputed islands” from “non-disputed” ones due to history reasons from Vietnam and other ASEAN countries.

    We share with some points of views from the lecturers and commentators that it’s time for China to accelerate its ambitions by any prices and regardless the attitudes from international community as long as China will be full when greedy for “go beyond the border” and re-draw the map in the world.

    Imagine, China has over 1,000 think-tankers for support the “Claims” of almost the East Sea of Vietnam; West Sea of Philippines or South Sea of China. China has many “playing-card” in this subject when Vietnam failing to “internationalization” or at least, Asean can play a “key-role” into a Chinese Chess game where the China is the masterminder of creating the “troubles” due to its owned-interests. We presume that some policies from Vietnam authority were obsolete and almost the “verbal agreement” were decisive instead of the written documentations.

    The forces of Vietnam coming from the solidarity of people instead of its government. Imagine, almost observers can note when the Vietnamese Government is wrestling the two digital inflation and the foreign currency reserve would be meet few months of importation, the dependence of mass importation from China … Some friends are giving their hands but it likely Vietnam still not to be ready for take it while the conflict in East sea of Vietnam or South sea of China would be more worsen than expected.

  • Posted by eyedrd

    The Vietnamese authorities deployed more security force in order to intimidate the demonstrators, who were holding peaceful rallies with chanting, music, and singing like a carnival except for the political and patriotic characters.
    Even the well-respected revolutionary figures were harassed and denied of their rights of participation to these rallies.

    For instance, Ms. Lê Hiền Đức, 80 year-old, nationally and worldwide famous figure for her revolutionary past serving as spy for President Ho Chi Minh and relentless leader of anti-corruption campaign, had been detained at her home by the police officers. She was up all night and anxious about the possibility of leaving her house this morning in order to join the rally with her friends and patriots.

    She threatened that there would be blood shed before 9 am if she was not allowed to leave her house because her life would be worthless living in a oppressive regime, a regime that she had dedicated her life to fight for and now she is not even allowed to exercise her simple rights of a citizen. An ambulance was on standby at her house ready for any tragic eventuality.

    Vietnamese authorities, being puppets of China, crack down on anti-China demonstrations. Time for National Unity!

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