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China-Vietnam conflict
Image: picture alliance/AP Photo

'Hardening stance'

Gabriel Domínguez
May 8, 2014

Tensions are rising in Southeast Asia as Vietnam claims two of its ships were rammed by Chinese vessels in disputed waters. The row shows China is hardening its stance on maritime disputes, says analyst Gregory Poling.


The confrontation began on May 2 when the state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation placed its deep sea drilling rig HD-981 in disputed waters of the South China Sea. As Vietnam objected, China deployed some 80 ships, including seven military vessels, along with aircraft to support the rig. Hanoi reacted by dispatching 29 ships to attempt to disrupt the rig's placement and operations.

The situation escalated five days later, when Hanoi reported Chinese vessels used water cannon and rammed several Vietnamese patrol ships, injuring six crew members and damaging some of the ships. China claims a large part of the South China Sea and rejects rival claims from Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.

In a DW interview, Gregory Poling, a Southeast Asia expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), says the incident is likely to increase solidarity amongst ASEAN members. But it also shows that Beijing is determined to change the status quo in the South China Sea - regardless of the complaints or actions of neighboring states.

This aerial view of the city of Sansha on an island in the disputed Paracel chain, which China now considers part of Hainan province on July 27, 2012.
The dispute began when a state-owned Chinese company placed a deep sea drilling rig in disputed waters south of the Paracel IslandsImage: STR/AFP/GettyImages

DW: Why is the location of the Chinese oil rig so controversial?

Gregory Poling: The location of the rig is controversial because while Vietnam insists that it is in disputed waters, China claims it is not. If Vietnam is correct, which all the evidence suggests it is, then China's unilateral action is in violation of both the letter and spirit of its international commitments, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) and the Declaration of Conduct for Parties in the South China Sea.

What are the international implications of this incident, especially given the fact that it took place immediately after US President Barack Obama visited four Asian countries in late April?

For the other regional claimants - the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as Japan in the East China Sea - this incident indicates a continued hardening of China's aggressive stance toward maritime disputes. For the United States, it is a signal that China is not convinced that Washington has the wherewithal to do what is necessary to protect its partners in the region and deter Chinese aggression. And for the international community at large, it represents yet another challenge to the order that underpins the global commons, meaning both UNCLOS and customary international law.

What message is China sending to its neighbors with this move?

The message, along with its actions earlier this year at Malaysia's James Shoal and the Philippine-occupied Second Thomas Shoal, are clear indicators that Beijing is determined to change the status quo in the South China Sea regardless of their complaints or actions, including attempts to take it to international arbitration or bring in the United States.

Gregory Poling, Southeast Asia expert at CSIS
Poling: 'This incident indicates a continued hardening of China's aggressive stance'Image: privat

How will the incident go down with China's ASEAN neighbors, most of whom seem wary of Beijing's growing economic and military clout in the region?

I expect it to increase solidarity and the perception of threat among most of the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), especially at the group's summit in Myanmar this weekend.

What role can the United States play in situations like this one?

The US has limited levers to pull. It must rally the international community in condemnation of China's unilateral attempts to challenge the law of the sea. And it must use every possible channel to urge both sides to refrain from violence.

What impact has the latest incident had on Sino-Vietnamese ties?

It has clearly driven relations to their lowest level in years. Vietnam is in many ways economically dependent on China as the main supplier of inputs for Vietnam's manufacturing industry, but it is also determined to stand up to Chinese aggression no matter the costs - and it has centuries of experience doing so.

What possibilities does Vietnam have to counter China's aggressive moves?

Militarily, Vietnam is far more capable than the Philippines. It cannot hope to match the Chinese navy, but it does have the capacity to make a large-scale clash costly for China. That will serve as a deterrent. Legally, it could conceivably take a case against China's unilateral actions, and its violence against Vietnamese ships yesterday, to an arbitral tribunal under UNCLOS. But it is unlikely to take such a step until it sees how a similar tribunal will rule in the Philippines case against China. Hanoi will not lay its cards on the table unless it is relatively certain it will win.

A general view of the meeting room at the 16th ASEAN-China Summit is seen in Bandar Seri Begawan, October 9, 2013.
The incident is likely to increase solidarity amongst most member states of ASEAN, says PolingImage: Reuters

In your view, is China likely to back down over the following days and weeks?

That is unclear. Much will depend on how much support Vietnam gets from its neighbors and the international community. The only way Beijing will back down from this is if it has a way to save face. At best, concerted regional and international pressure might convince China to withdraw its rig earlier than August, which is when it has said the rig will leave, but do so in a way that lets Beijing rationalize it as a magnanimous move on its part.

Gregory Poling is a fellow with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Washington-based Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS).

The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez

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