The announcement by Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung that his country will re-open the Cam Ranh Bay port to foreign navies presumably won’t have amused Chinese officials.
Speaking Saturday following the conclusion of the 17th ASEAN summit over the weekend, he said, ‘In the centre of the Cam Ranh port complex, Vietnam will stand ready to provide services to the naval ships from all countries including submarines when they need our services.’
The summit was dominated by discussions over China’s various territorial disputes, and the Vietnamese announcement over the port is almost certainly in part a response to growing concerns over China’s increasing assertiveness and willingness to making sweeping territorial claims in the South China Sea region.
The most public territorial spat involving China has been the ongoing row with Japan about ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. China on Friday called off expected talks between Premier Wen Jiabao and Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan after Chinese officials complained Japan had been ‘spreading groundless distortions’ and that it had ‘ruined’ the atmosphere for one-on-one talks between the two leaders.
Chinese officials also noted sourly that ‘Japanese diplomatic authorities have partnered with other nations and stepped up the heat on the Diaoyu island issue.’
It hardly seems worth noting the inconsistency in the Chinese position. China accuses Japan of being hawkish and unreasonable over its approach to the dispute because it claims the islands publicly as Japanese territory and has the audacity to discuss the issue with its allies. However, this indignation comes despite China insisting publicly throughout the row that, in Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu’s words: ‘The Diaoyu Islands have been an integral part of Chinese territory since ancient times. China has indisputable sovereignty over the islands.’
The Chinese have singled out Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara for particular criticism over his handling of the row, with the Global Times dismissing him as a political ‘extremist’ in a new editorial. The editorial goes on to argue that: ‘China's rise is inevitable…(Maehara) should not try to push his country to confront this trend, which will be unbearable for Japan.’
But try as it might to dismiss Maehara as an extremist, the fact remains that China is finding itself increasingly isolated over its territorial positions. While China blasts Japan, Vietnam has instead been making overtures, offering to help Japan with crucial supplies of rare earth metals that it feels have been threatened by leading exporter China. Tokyo claimed in September that China had started blocking shipments of the metals to Japan, with officials saying the country could run out of stocks of the metal by the spring if no new suppliers are found.
Channel News Asia reported that the Vietnamese and Japanese leaders announced jointly Sunday that, ‘Vietnam has decided to have Japan as a partner for exploration, mining, development, and separation and production of rare earth minerals in the country.’
In a further sign that China’s more assertive approach may also be backfiring by drawing the United States back more closely to the Asia-Pacific, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a speech in Hawaii last week that was notable in its underscoring of the continued (and in some areas expanding) US military presence in the region.
Speaking at the East-West Center in Honolulu she said:
‘(W)e are enhancing our presence in Northeast Asia. The build-up on Guam reflects these ideas, as does the agreement on basing that we have reached with Japan—an agreement that comes during the 50th anniversary of our mutual security alliance. We have also adopted new defence guidelines with South Korea.
‘In South-east Asia and the Pacific, we are shifting our presence to reflect these principles. For example, we have increased our naval presence in Singapore. We are engaging more with the Philippines and Thailand to enhance their capacity to counter terrorists and respond to humanitarian disasters. We have created new parameters for military cooperation with New Zealand and we continue to modernize our defence ties with Australia to respond to a more complex maritime environment. And we are expanding our work with the Indian navy in the Pacific, because we understand how important the Indo-Pacific basin is to global trade and commerce.’
On bilateral relations, Clinton also singled out engagement with Vietnam, noting the US was ‘cultivating a level of cooperation that would have been unimaginable just 10 years ago’.
She followed the remarks up with a press conference and signing ceremony with Deputy Prime Minister Khiem, which VOV News reported: ‘witnessed the signing of cooperative agreements including the contract for Vietnam Airlines to buy B787-9 aircraft from Boeing Company and a commitment between the Vietnam Ministry of Information and Communication and Microsoft Corporation to improve Vietnam’s information technology and protect intellectual property rights.’
All this is a historic shift that Washington Post writer John Pomfret captured well in a piece Saturday entitled: ‘In historic turn, Vietnam casts China as opponent.’
Reporting from the Vietnam Military History Museum, Pomfret notes: ‘Along those walls hung daggers, paintings and quotations from Vietnam's struggle with another rival: imperial China…Putting China on a par with "Western aggressors" marks a psychological breakthrough for Vietnam's military and is troubling news for Beijing.
‘For years, China has tried to forge a special relationship with Vietnam's Communist government. But China's rise—and its increasingly aggressive posture toward Vietnam—has alarmed the leadership of this country of 90 million, prompting it to look differently at its neighbour. Beijing risks losing its status here as a fraternal Communist partner and instead being relegated to its long-time place as the empire on Vietnam's northern border.’
It’s clear that blaming Japan for souring ties in the region and drawing other countries into its territorial dispute with Beijing just isn’t good enough. If China finds itself isolated on the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue, then it needs to accept that it only has itself to blame.