Tensions in Asia have been high ever since China placed an oil rig in disputed waters of the South China Sea. Former Vietnamese diplomat, Ton Nu Thi Ninh, calls on the European Union try to resolve the dispute.
China has sent four more oil rigs into the South China Sea in a bid to step up exploration for oil and gas in the in the potentially energy-rich waters. Beijing's move comes less than two months after it deployed the giant Haiyang Shiyou 981 drilling platform in Vietnam's claimed Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which led to violent anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam as well as accusations from both sides. Beijing claims almost the entire South China Sea, rejecting rival claims from Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei.
In a DW interview, Vietnamese diplomat and foriegn affairs expert, Ton Nu Thi Ninh, says the world's major powers cannot remain indifferent to what is happening in the South China Sea.
DW: Should the European Union engage more in the ongoing South China Sea crisis?
Ton Nu Thi Ninh: We live in a multi-polar world, which should better serve peace and security. The major powers, including the EU, should sometimes get involved directly or indirectly for the sake of peace and security in other parts of the world. For instance, the US has always declared itself a Pacific power and has come out with strong statements about China's provocative actions in Vietnam's Exclusive Economic Zone. The EU, which shares very good relations with Vietnam, has not been as clear and loud.
The EU still looks at the issue in a limited fashion, as if it were only a Sino-Vietnamese dispute. The fact is that the scope of the issue is regional, and, in some ways, global. China could have built the oil rig elsewhere in the nine-dashed-line area - over which it claims sovereignty - but it deliberately chose to do it close to Vietnam.
The danger of it is, as we say in Vietnamese - if the head gets through, the rest will also go through. For China this is a "test project." If it works out, it will be a message to other countries in the region. It will also mean that the international community couldn't do anything about it. It is an attempt by China to assert its sovereignty in disputed waters, which is over 80 percent of the South China Sea.
The EU is not quite living up to the expectations of Vietnam and some countries in Southeast Asia because its economic and cultural profile in the region is quite high in comparison to its geostrategic and geopolitical profile. I think it is high time the EU enhances its profile there to help implement a multipolar world order. […] We need to find ways to make China understand that the only way it can become a major power which is recognized and respected by others in the world is if it obeys international laws and respects all countries.
China is trying to establish its own pax sinica in the region first. […] The hallmark of this should be disquieting for everybody, but it is more disturbing for countries like Vietnam as it has to bear the brunt of Beijing's provocative actions. […] China is flexing its muscle and is giving itself a unilateral say over international navigation in this part of the world. […] Its behavior should be a cause of serious concern not just to Vietnam but also to countries outside the region.
What kind of help or support does Vietnam expect from the EU?
The EU countries should speak with a clearer and louder voice. The bloc should at least call the Chinese actions what they actually are: unilateral provocations that are dangerous for regional peace and security. EU foreign ministers can take up the issue at the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional forum, the East Asia Summit, or other forums like UNCLOS.
The attention span of our time is very short. Conflicts erupt every week. It would be very disappointing if the voices of major world powers are not heard in time. It would work in Beijing's favor.
Do you think the countries in the region, especially China, will accept a bigger EU role in the conflict?
China won't like it. Fu Ying, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of China's National People's Congress, told the US at the Shangri-La Dialogue that Washington had nothing to do with the issue between China and Vietnam. I think major powers should tell Beijing that in today's world there is a greater need to uphold international law, and that it is everybody's business to make sure that it happens.
The truth is that China's unilateral actions are a blatant violation of international law. Vietnam is a small country and cannot provoke a big power like China. We have always handled our relationship with China with self-restraint.
Ton Nu Thi Ninh is a Vietnamese diplomat and foreign affairs expert. She was Vietnam's ambassador to the European Union, and has been vice-president of Vietnam's National Assembly's foreign affairs committee.
The Interview was conducted by Rodion Ebbighausen.