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China’s Land Reclamation: Tearing the Maritime Heart Out of Southeast Asia


By Carl Thayer, C3S Paper No.2063

We request your assessment of the visit to China by the Vietnamese Defence Minister Phung Quang Thanh. Here are our questions:

1- Why has China shown a willingness to invite Vietnam’s military representatives for discussions at this time? Will the main topic be disputes in South China Sea?

ANSWER: Ever since the crisis of China’s oil rigt HD 981 broke out in May, Vietnam has repeatedly sought to engage China by hot line, direct contact between responsible agencies or by special envoys. The recent talks between defense ministers is the outcome of China’s decision to re-engage Vietnam. This was signaled when State Councilor Yang Jiechi attended the Vietnam-China Joint Steering Committee meeting on June 18. This was followed by China’s decision to remove the HD 981 from disputed waters a month earlier than planned. And finally, China agreed to receive Le Hong Anh, special envoy of the Secretary General of the Vietnam Communist Party. China has been motivated to prevent bilateral relations from further deterioration.

Another factor motivating China is to appear conciliatory prior to hosting the APEC Summit later this month, and the East Asia Summit next month.

2 – How do you assess the visit especially as at the same time China continues to step up its land reclamation and construction in the South China Sea?

ANSWER: The purpose of Defence Minster General Phung Quang Thanh’s visit was not to resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea but to set in place a mechanism so the two sides could communicate directly in the event of another crisis. The two sides agreed to step up defence cooperation under the terms of a protocol signed in 2003. This verbal commitment must be followed by practical

deeds. The visit of the Commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy to reclamation projects in the South China Sea is a sign that territorial and sovereignty disputes will remain the main irritant in China-Vietnam relations.

3- What is the significance of the large size and seniority of the Vietnamese delegation – (12 generals and one admiral)?

ANSWER: The size and composition of the two defense delegations is significant for two reasons. First, military commanders on both sides of the border and at sea have met their respective counterparts after the HD 981 crisis. Second, and more importantly, these commanders have all personally witnessed the verbal understandings reached by their respective ministers. Military commanders on both sides can be expected to carry out their duties including stepping up existing defense cooperation activities in a number of areas.

From Vietnam’s point of view, the visit by its Defense Minister and twelve generals and one admiral was important to demonstrate unity to China.

4 – How will the hotline work in the future? Can it effectively resolve maritime incidents?

The most important outcome of the talks between the two defense ministers was agreement on a protocol establishing direct communication links between their respective ministries. This agreement will be tested when the next serious incident occurs. Presumably one side will contact the other to discuss the incident, exchange information, and prevent any escalation towards confrontation and the use of force.

The terms of this protocol have not been released but presumably both sides have  nominated a point of contact.

5 – How Vietnam should respond to China’s continuing land reclamation activities?

ANSWER: Vietnam must continuously press China to be transparent about what purpose its land reclamation will serve and urge China to exercise restraint in further activities. This matter should be raised at the working group level on the Implementation of the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.

Vietnam’s task is made more difficult by China’s conciliatory stance since June. Vietnam may feel that if it protests land reclamation too loudly this will jeopardize progress in other areas.

China’s reclamation activities are an extremely significant strategic development that does not seem to be appreciated by ASEAN leaders. In the past ASEAN leaders have adopted a Declaration on a Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (1971), Treaty of Amity and Cooperation for Southeast Asia (1976) and a Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty (1995). ASEAN leaders intended these declarations to cover all of Southeast Asia including the South China Sea.

China’s reclamation and development activities have the potential to rip the maritime heart out of Southeast Asia and turn the South China Sea into an inland Chinese lake. This will mean that the three major documents on regional security will not apply to this area. ASEAN will lose its strategic depth and this will undermine the significance of an ASEAN Political-Security Community scheduled for late 2015.

Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “China’s Land Reclamation: Tearing the Maritime Heart Out of Southeast Asia,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, October 20, 2014. All background briefs are posted on Scribd.com (search for Thayer).

Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.

(Article reprinted with the permission of the author Carlyle A. Thayer, Emeritus Professor,The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra email: Carlthayer@webone.com.au)

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