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South China Sea and the Major Powers in 2015 By Carlyle A. Thayer

C3S Paper No. 0011/ 2015


When China put the Haiyang Shiyou 981 rig in Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone it precipitated a major crisis. We request your assesment of the following:

Q1 – 2014 is a complicated year for the situation in South China Sea and East China Sea. How has the South China Sea shaped the diplomatic & military policies of world powers?

ANSWER: Chinese aggressive assertiveness in the East and South China Seas, falling short of the use of military force, has posed a special challenge to the United States and Japan. Both have strengthened their alliance. President Obama put his personal prestige behind US policy by declaring that the US-Japan alliance included the Senkaku islands. Both Japan and the United States are working in tandem to support maritime security capacity-building in the Philippines and Vietnam. Both countries have made funds available for Vietnam to procure maritime patrol vessels. India too has made it a priority to assist in the modernization of Vietnam’s military. India will be providing four new Ocean Patrol Vessels to Vietnam. Russia has not become directly involved in maritime disputes but continues to remain Vietnam’s largest arms market. Russia is on schedule in its delivery of six advanced Kilo-class conventional submarines. India, Japan and the United States all provide political and diplomatic support to the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in its consultations with China on implementing the Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and on the early conclusion of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC). These three great powers continue to apply political pressure on China to be more transparent in military affairs and to settle maritime disputes peacefully in accord with international law and the UN Convention on Law of the Sea.

Q2 – China’s illegal deployment of Haiyang Shiyou – 981 oil rig in Vietnam’s EEZ is only beginning of Beijing’s ambition in total domination over the South China Sea. In your assessment, what will be China’s next actions in this area?

ANSWER: China will continue to consolidate its physical presence in the South China Sea through multiple means. China will continue with its land reclamation activities and extend this to the construction of infrastructure such as piers and airfields and other facilities. China will tow large moveable docks equipped with electrical power generation, water purification and repair facilities to its artificial islands. This will enable China to colonise these features with a permanent population. China will expand its commercial fishing operations by moving further south with large mother ships to process the catch from hundreds of Chinese fishing boats. This will spark confrontation in the Exclusive Economic Zones of littoral states that lie within China’s nine dash line. China will protect its fishing fleet by the deployment of more modern  maritime law enforcement ships. These will attempt to intimidate local coast guard vessels. China will also step up oil exploration activities. China is building more HD 981-type oil drilling platforms. They will begin to be deployed in 2016-17. These platforms will be accompanied by sizeable escort vessels. Finally, China will continue to modernize its navy. Larger naval exercises will take place in contested maritime zones. In addition to all these activities, China will drag out consultations with ASEAN on the DOC and COC. In summary, China is laying the foundation for the permanent occupation of the South China Sea no matter what decision the UN Arbitral Tribunal makes with respect to the legal claim by the Philippines.

Q3 – Will China’s expansive activities within the sea territory that Vietnam claims sovereign jurisdiction over impact on the trust of other countries in the region towards China?

ANSWER: China will manipulate its maritime dispute over the Paracel islands with Vietnam. China will attempt to use political influence and diplomatic means to win over Vietnam’s leaders to convince them to cooperate with China by downplaying their territorial and maritime disputes. When Vietnam acts independently or acts in a way that displeases China, China will again apply pressure. China’s actions will put a severe strain on strategic trust with Vietnam and the Philippines. But elsewhere in the region most states will try to stay out South China Sea disputes. Many states may not trust that China’s rise will be peaceful. Some will bandwagon and go along with China in the hopes they will be rewarded for their “good behavior.” Other states will adopt a hedging strategy. They will try to maintain good relations with China while seeking support from India, Japan or the United States to balance China.

Q4 – Under current circumstances in the region, what is your assessment of Vietnam’s diplomatic efforts in relieving tension in South China Sea?

ANSWER: Vietnam’s policies of cooperation and struggle, multilateralization of relations, and defence modernization are the correct strategies in dealing with China. Vietnam must try and maintain good relations with China by quarantining the South China Sea dispute from its overall relationship with China. At the same time, Vietnam must also develop relations with Russia, India, Japan and the United States by giving them an interest in Vietnam’s stability and regional peace and security. Vietnam also needs to court the nine other members of ASEAN to make ASEAN a more cohesive and stronger diplomatic player. Vietnam should not over estimate ASEAN’s strength but Vietnam needs ASEAN’s continual support. Vietnam must maintain unity on the home front while steadily modernizing its armed force. In this respect, Vietnam must move to integrate it armed services – navy, air defence-air force and army – so they each reinforce the other. Vietnam must also integrate its various weapon systems to achieve maximum synergy.

Q5 – In your assessment, what will be the highlights of Vietnam’s diplomatic policy in 2015?

ANSWER: In 2015, Vietnam and the United States will celebrate the twentieth anniversary of diplomatic relations. This provides an opportunity for the two countries to advance their comprehensive partnership to a new level. It would be fitting for President Barack Obama to visit Vietnam at this time, and for the United States to receive a high-level visit from Vietnam. Both the president and prime minister of Vietnam have already visited the US so the time is ripe for a visit by the Secretary General of the Vietnam Communist Party. In 2015 the United States is also due to send its Secretary of Defence to Vietnam as part of an alternating exchange of visits every three years. The major accomplishment for Vietnam in 2015 would be its accession to the Trans-Pacific Partnership to further Vietnam’s integration into the global economy by securing special access to the US market. Special Envoy Le Hong Anh extended invitations from President Truong Tan San and Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong to Xi Jinping to visit Vietnam in his capacity as China’s president the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. An official visit by Xi to Vietnam would mark another highlight. Xi’s visit holds the possibility  that both sides could negotiate a breakthrough and reach agreement on “cooperation for mutual development” or joint development while putting off sovereignty claims to the future. Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “South China Sea and the Major Powers in 2015,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, January 8, 2015. All background briefs are posted on Scribd.com (search for Thayer). To remove yourself from the mailing list type UNSUBSCRIBE in the Subject heading and hit the Reply key. 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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