Vietnam’s recent flare-up with China in contested waters is likely to top the agenda at a forthcoming regional summit, but analysts doubt any breakthrough will be achieved in a diverse bloc that remains divided over the issue.
“I suppose it will be prominent at the summit,” Mark Valencia, a Hawaii-based expert, told Thanh Nien News. “But I doubt it will move ASEAN as a whole to any condemnation of China alone,” he said, referring to the historic two-day summit that begins Saturday in Myanmar.
China and four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) including Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei all claim territory in the East Sea, internationally known as the South China Sea. China’s claim is the largest, covering most of the sea’s 648,000 square miles (1.7 million square km), a claim that has been emphatically rejected by international scholars.
Vietnam and the Philippines became embroiled in new territorial conflicts with China this week, highlighting the lingering disputes over the resource and oil-rich waters.
The tensions between Hanoi and Beijing resurfaced last week when the state-run China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) moved a giant US$-1billion oil rig into position in waters in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone.
On May 7, Vietnam released images and information about Chinese vessels intentionally ramming Vietnamese patrol boats protecting their waters.
The various incidents unfolded between May 3 and May 7 after China deployed roughly 80 ships to guard the giant mobile rig as it drilled for oil and gas just 120 nautical miles off Vietnam’s central coast.
Images and videos released at a press conference in Hanoi on May 7 showed Chinese boats ramming and firing water cannons at Vietnamese vessels, damaging the ships and injuring six Vietnamese fisheries surveillance officers.
On Thursday, China acknowledged for the first time that its vessels had fired water cannons at the Vietnamese flotilla. But Beijing defended its actions by saying that it had no choice but to increase its security measures in response to what it claimed were Vietnamese provocations, Reuters reported.
The newswire quoted Yi Xianliang, deputy director-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs, as saying that China was willing to try and resolve its issues with Vietnam, but demanded that Hanoi withdraw its ships as a precondition for talks.
“We can appropriately resolve this issue. We have the ability, the confidence and the wisdom to do so,” he said.
Vietnam has shrugged off the Chinese defense, saying it will do whatever it takes to defend its territorial sovereignty.
Ngo Ngoc Thu, vice commander of Vietnam’s Marine Police, said that Vietnamese maritime police and fishing protection forces have acted with “the utmost restraint”.
“We will continue to hold on there. But if (the Chinese ships) continue to ram us, we will respond by taking defensive measures,” Thu said.
Analysts maintain that given China’s history of unilateral aggression and negative publicity in the Western media, the public will be quick to blame it for any clashes that may erupt.
“If it’s about what happened, I think the world does not really care who provoked whom,” Alexander Vuving, a security analyst at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii, told Thanh Nien News.
In such a territorial dispute, claimants are bound to provoke each other, and blame each other, he said.
“If it’s about your commitment to your own rights, China is more credible because its signal is costly–it will ignore the law if needed,” Vuving said.
“If it’s about who is nicer, obviously Vietnam is. But I’m not sure if playing nice will pay off in this sort of situation, where the world does not want to take sides.”
The US and its Asian allies, Japan and Singapore, have been quick to say that China’s decision to push the oil rig into disputed waters accompanied by numerous government vessels for the first time is “provocative” and “raises tensions.”
The Vietnam-China ship collision came on the heels of US President Barack Obama’s visits to Japan and the Philippines, both of which were bogged down in territorial disputes with China.
But analysts have said the US strategic “pivot” towards the Asia-Pacific will not help defuse the tension. On the contrary, it could aggravate the situation as Beijing always sees America’s strategy to contain its growth in everything it says.
Although the latest oil rig row is set to cloud the upcoming ASEAN summit, analysts say they are not expecting the entire bloc to do anything apart from calling on “both sides to exercise restraint.”
“I expect China to simply dismiss any strong ASEAN statement as ‘interference’ in its internal affairs,” Mohan Malik, another security analyst at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, said.
In 2012, ASEAN member states were at odds on how to resolve the sea dispute with China during a regional summit in Cambodia.
The divisions prevented the block from issuing its joint communiqué for the first time in its 45-year history. Since then there has been no sign that the rift has been mended.
Tensions are also brewing in another part of the sea.
Beijing has demanded that the Philippines release a Chinese fishing boat and crew seized on May 6 near Half Moon Shoal in the Spratly Archipelago, which Vietnam calls Truong Sa, according to Reuters.
Philippine police said the boat and its crew were arrested for hunting sea turtles, which are protected under local laws.
Analysts agree that the worst-case scenario for the latest developments in the East Sea would be a skirmish and a sharp downturn in bilateral relations between Vietnam and China.
But even that may do little to advance Vietnam’s position.
“This skirmish will [also] reinforce the fact that ASEAN is unable to manage the South China Sea disputes,” Vuving said.