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Need for India-Vietnam Strategic Naval Dialogue

” It is clear that military clashes would bring bad results to all countries in the region involved, but China will never waive its right to protect its core interest with military means.”— From a “Global Times” editorial of July 26,2010

After having adopted a soft policy towards China since coming to office in January 2009, the administration of President Barack Obama is showing signs of starting to articulate in public its concerns over the implications of the growth of the Chinese naval power and its likely impact on the freedom of navigation and maritime trade. The public articulation of the concerns of the Obama Administration in this regard were triggered off by China’s ambivalence on the question of action against North Korea for allegedly sinking a South Korean naval ship in March and its strong statements in recent months on its rights in the South China Sea and its determination to play what Beijing looks upon as its rightful role in the Western Pacific.

2. Interestingly and intriguingly, the concerns of the Obama Administration over the ambivalent policies of China in this region and over the implications of the increasing maritime assertiveness of the Chinese Navy were voiced by two dignitaries of the Obama Administration, who recently visited New Delhi and Hanoi, thereby hinting that there was a triangular convergence of these concerns in the US, India and Vietnam. Does this presage the beginning of a thinking in the corridors of power in Washington on the likely benefits of a co-ordinated strategy by the US, India and Vietnam towards the growing assertiveness of the Chinese Navy?

3. That is the questioin that has started bothering some analysts in China. While they have so far refrained from naming India in this context, they have already named Vietnam and cautioned it not to be misled by professions of US friendship for that country.

4.The opening salvo in the articulation of the US concerns was fired by Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, during an official visit to India.He told Indian media persons on July 23,2010, that China’s aggressive posturing over territorial claims in the Pacific and Indian Ocean regions was a matter of concern that the US shared with India. He was quoted by the Indian media as saying as follows: “China seems to be asserting itself more and more with respect to the kinds of territorial claims. They seem to be taking a much more aggressive approach to the near-sea areas recently….There is growing concern over it. In my perspective, we (the US) must work with India in this regard.In my recent interactions with its leadership, India too has expressed similar concerns.” He gave the example of recent public statements by China about the US Navy operating in the Yellow Sea. Noting that the US navy was in the international waters, Mullen said despite such remarks by China, the US would continue to operate in the international waters there.

5.Admiral Mullen said further that the US believed China was shifting focus from land-centric to air and maritime capabilities. “Fairly recently I have gone from being curious about where China is headed to being concerned about it. One of the characteristics that does not exist as far as China appears militarily is transparency. In fact, there is opaqueness to it that we continue to really scratch our heads about from a military standpoint. We have virtually no relationship with the Chinese military. If we have such relationship, we can agree on and disagree on, and also we can learn from each other.” He pointed out that the Pacific and Indian Ocean regions were critical to economic and trade activities and that stability in these two regions was absolutely vital.

6. The same day in her address to the Foreign Ministers of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) at Hanoi, Mrs.Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, said that resolving disputes over the South China Sea was “pivotal” to regional stability and suggested an international mechanism to solve the issue. “The United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea,” Mrs. Clinton said. According to the “China Daily”,Washington has called for unfettered access to the area and accused Beijing of adopting an increasingly aggressive stance on the high seas.

7.While Beijing has not yet reacted to the remarks of Admiral Mullen in New Delhi, it reacted immediately and with virulence against the remarks of Mrs.Clinton— thereby indicating that it possibly distrusts Vietnam more than it distrusts India. The Chinese Foreign Minister,Mr.Yang Jiechi. who challenged the remarks of Mrs.Clinton at the Hanoi ARF meeting, strongly opposed attempts to internationalise the South China Sea issue.”What will be the consequences if this issue is turned into an international or multilateral one? It will only make matters worse and the resolution more difficult,” Mr. Yang said and added:”International practices show that the best way to resolve such disputes is for countries concerned to have direct bilateral negotiations. ”

8.Mr.Yang said in his rejoinder to Mrs.Clinton: “China has territorial disputes with a few ASEAN member countries. The South China Sea is currently a peaceful area with navigational freedom.Trade has been growing rapidly in this region and China has become the number one trading partner of many countries in the region.In my bilateral discussions with both ASEAN colleagues and others, they all say that there is no threat to regional peace and stability.It is not China but some other country that is “coercing” regional countries to take sides on the issue. Asia can solve its own problems without interference by outside countries. ASEAN is also not an appropriate forum to resolve the issue.China and some ASEAN nations have territorial and maritime rights disputes because we are neighbors. And those disputes shouldn’t be viewed as ones between China and ASEAN as a whole just because the countries involved are ASEAN members.The Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea signed by China and ASEAN member countries in 2002 has played a good role in containing regional conflicts and will see high-level meetings when conditions are mature. In the declaration, the countries pledged to exercise restraint, and not to make it an international issue or multilateral issue.Channels of discussion are there, and they are open and smooth.”

9. There is suspicion in China that Mrs.Clinton would not have made such a strong statement without the tacit concurrence of Hanoi. Mr.Su Hao, a researcher on Asia-Pacific studies with the Beijing-based China Foreign Affairs University, said there had been many “subtle changes” in the South China Sea issue in the past year, with countries including Vietnam becoming much tougher and Washington moving away from its previous low-profile tone. “I’m sure the US is the basic reason for the change – it is supporting the other sides,” Su said and added: “During a recent visit to Vietnam, I told a Vietnamese officer with diplomatic background that our late leader Deng Xiaoping had said ‘since we can’t solve the South China Sea issue, we can leave it to the next generation which will be smarter.” According to Mr. Su, the Vietnamese officer replied: “That is why we have to solve it now.” Mr. Shi Zhan, an international studies researcher at China Foreign Affairs University, said the US is re-flexing its muscles in the South China Sea partly because of the resources in the area.

10.In an editorial under the title “American Shadow Over South China Sea” published on July 26, the “Global Times” of Beijing wrote: “Maintaining and playing up regional tensions are typical American ways of keeping a presence and causing interference in disputed areas. On Friday (July 23), US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed “concern” over navigation freedom and offered help in facilitating communication in the South China Sea. Are any of them a major concern in the region at the moment? No. The remarks of secretary Clinton were, of course, made after various US think tanks and media groups created much fanfare about potential clashes that would necessitate the step-in of the US government. Clinton’s words clearly signaled America’s strategic intentions in the South China Sea. The US will not put regional interests first. This is something that Southeast Asian countries have to bear in mind. Regional stability will be difficult to maintain if the countries concerned allow themselves to be controlled by the strategic guidance of the US. China and its neighboring countries have built a consultative mechanism to smooth out disagreements in the disputed water, and the communication channels are open. Conflicts, though they appear sporadically, are expected to be diminished with deeper understanding. Fully aware of the complexity of the region, China offered a solution of “shelving disagreement and joint development” to help foster trust and move the issue forward. China’s objective is clear: to build strategic trust with neighboring countries under China’s tolerance and patience. But that hard-earned trust is under threat with the US intention to meddle in the region, and force countries to choose between China and the US. With growing economic power, China and the US may encounter more clashes in China’s adjacent sea. Few Southeast Asian countries would like to get in the middle of Sino-US tensions, but like many other regions, they are caught in a dilemma: economically close to China yet militarily guarded against China. Southeast Asian countries need to understand that any attempt to maximize gains by playing a balancing game between China and the US is risky. China’s tolerance was sometimes taken advantage of by neighboring countries to seize unoccupied islands and grab natural resources under China’s sovereignty. China’s long-term strategic plan should never be taken as a weak stand. It is clear that military clashes would bring bad results to all countries in the region involved, but China will never waive its right to protect its core interest with military means. To maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea, the solution of “shelving disagreement and joint development” is the only option. ”

11.In another editorial under the heading “US push in Vietnam suspicious”, the “Global Times” wrote on July 28,2010: “In another sign that the US is “back to Southeast Asia,” the US is approaching its old adversary in the region. During her two-day stay in Vietnam last week, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hailed economic cooperation, promised to solve the legacy of Agent Orange, and praised the unlimited potential of improved US-Vietnam relations. The message was clear when the US claimed, on Vietnamese soil, that it is in the US national interest to resolve South China Sea disputes. Embracing a former adversary for broader strategic gains is diplomacy the US is good at. It’s true there is still conflict between China and Vietnam over disputed waters and natural resources. Both are hot-button issues that can trigger public resentment toward each other. It is also an obstacle to deepening bilateral ties between China and Vietnam. But from a historical perspective, the two countries have overcome the shadow of past military clashes for mutual benefit. China has been the largest trading partner of Vietnam for five consecutive years. Charting a similar reform road like China, Vietnam is benefiting from economic boom and political stability that is envied by neighboring coun-tries. The desire for mutual economic benefit surpasses the dispute over sea territories and it also lays a solid foundation for solving the dispute peacefully. Two weeks ago, the two sides finished a 1,300-kilometer long land boundary demarcation. Six years ago, the two sides inked the treaty over maritime boundary demarcation at Beibei Gulf, setting a reference point for solving issues over disputed waters in the South China Sea. Pressure to maintain an influence and guard against a rising China, the West is eager to cozy up to Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries. Meanwhile, the Western media likes to poison Sino-Vietnamese ties by painting China as “an elephant” which can easily trample on the interest of Vietnam.Vietnam should also be careful about not becoming a chess piece for the US as it pursues a broader regional agenda. China does not include Vietnam into its sphere of influence. The two countries are making an effort to build normal nation-to-nation relations. The two can find ways to solve disputes peacefully and avoid being taken advantage of by other countries. ”

12. In bitter attacks on Mrs.Clinton’s observations, some Chinese bloggers have accused her of ambushing China in its backyard. There is not yet a smilar reaction against the comments of Admiral Mullen, but the Chinese must be nursing a similar, but not yet openly expressed apprehension that there is another US ambush at New Delhi.

13. These developments call for a strategic naval dialogue between India and Vietnam in order to assess the seriousness of the Chinese maritime threats to the region and exchange views on the options available to India and Vietnam to protect their maritime interests. It would not be advisable to associate the US with the India-Vietnam dialogue on this subject. Any Indo-US dialogue should be kept separate in order not to create any fears in Beijing that India, the US and Vietnam are ganging up to prevent the emergence of China as a naval power.

( The writer, Mr B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre for China Studies. E-mail: )

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