The escalating dispute between China and Vietnam over contested waters in the South China Sea couldn’t have come at a worse time for Beijing. Less than a year ago, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put China on notice by declaring that the peace and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is in the US national interest, and she not too subtly called on China to resolve its territorial disputes with its neighbours through peaceful means and according to international laws.
As we now know, Clinton’s remarks in Hanoi in July 2010 marked a watershed in two important aspects. It decisively shifted the perception of the balance of power in the region. Prior to the Clinton statement, China was thought to have gained the upper hand in the region through years of painstakingly pursuing a ‘charm offensive.’ After the Clinton shock, which all Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries secretly cheered, China appeared to have been isolated on the issue of territorial disputes in the South China Sea. In addition, China’s clumsy response, consisting of thinly veiled threats to its neighbours, only added to the series of diplomatic blunders that made 2010 the worst year in Chinese foreign policy since 1989.
To regain its diplomatic initiative and repair self-inflicted damage, China has recently embarked on another charm offensive that has yielded some encouraging results. Ties with the United States have stabilized since Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Washington in January. US-China military-to-military dialogue has resumed. Even relations with Japan have improved considerably in recent months.
So at this stage, an ugly and potentially dangerous clash with Vietnam is the last thing China wants.
But at the same time, Beijing also needs to show that it won’t compromise on territorial disputes. Unfortunately, in Vietnam, China now encounters an equally tough and uncompromising contestant.
Of all the territorial claims in the South China Sea, the Sino-Vietnamese dispute is the most likely to lead to armed conflict. First, both countries have engaged in naval skirmishes in the South China Sea before. In 1974, the Chinese navy gained complete control of the Paracel islands after routing the South Vietnamese navy. In 1988, China and Vietnam fought a brief naval battle in the Spratlys. Second, Chinese claims in the Spratlys are generally considered weak under international law because, based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas, China would have difficulty proving the reefs it currently occupies meet the standards of self-sustaining and inhabitable islands (which then will have a 200 miles exclusive economic zone, or EEZ). But that isn’t the case with the Paracels, which China has effective control over, but which Vietnam continues to claim. The 200-mile EEZ of the Paracels and the 200-mile EEZ extending from Vietnam’s coastal line overlap. According to reports, the incident in which a Chinese patrol boat severed the multi-million dollar seismic survey cable operated by a PetroVietnam research vessel took place in this disputed zone.