The recent incidents involving China and Vietnam must not give false hopes for these two Asian nations to sit down and give each other a chance of holding a dialogue concerning territorial claims. Recent developments would instead push both parties for a peaceful co-existence in the South China Sea. Beijing and Hanoi must heed to the rule of law for the sake of maintaining peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.
During his visit to Manila for the World Economic Forum on East Asia (WEF-EA), Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung urged for an international condemnation for China's actions in the disputed areas of the South China Sea being claimed by both countries. He also expressed for a possible legal action against China before an international tribunal like what the Philippines had exhausted against the Asia's giant. Though these are but two remedies that Vietnam is capable of doing, much has still to be done so as not to turn word war to a real military war between the two countries which both have a maritime military conflict in the past.
Test for the UN's power
The picture is more vivid now than before. China had put up an oil rig in an area claimed by Vietnam as belonging to the latter’s exclusive economic zone. This is turn led to a Vietnamese vessel rampaged by Chinese fleet, incident which triggered a violent protest affecting Chinese working in Vietnam. Before us in the most recent is a Vietnamese fishing vessel sinking near the vicinity of a Chinese oil rig where both countries blamed each other for the said occurrence.
These tensions where flexing of muscles over the sea by China is evident aren't necessarily tests for the United States pivot to Asia but a challenge to the United Nations' relevant and possible role in order to avoid future maritime war among the warring state parties. China's actions may not be equated to inviting war against the US; neither are these challenging the potential of the Association of Southeast Asian Nation or ASEAN to wage a unified and appropriate action against China, though China's unilateral claims on contested waters have implications on political, economic and military aspects of Asia and the world. And the South China Sea row is equally a test for the fullest implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS.
The trouble of Vietnam should she not opt for international arbitration is pushing for a claim against China on a seemingly unequal footing. The South China Sea might not offer a level playing field for Vietnam to throw her hats off. The world opinion deserves little attention at this stage of word war. The Asian neighbors, particularly Vietnam's fellow ASEAN member-states can also hardly use their consensus mechanism to influence the world stage in support of a member in conflict with other nations.
Where would Vietnam rely then for the necessary backing and support? Or is seeking for an alliance outside of Asia a feasible option for Vietnam? Worse, is Vietnam capable enough to launch a maritime war against the world’s third military power?
Asian security concept
Asia's security concerns will more likely shift toward the South China Sea in the following months or years. Whether Asian countries around, between or connecting to this water, particularly those having boundary issues thereat, would heed to enhancing dialogue, trust and cooperation is more of a challenge to Asian leaders. The South China Sea is certainly a new battleground of ideas which Asian states especially the Asean must engage head-on to foster peace, stability and cooperation in this dynamic and diverse region.
China has a strategic role to play here. In his speech during the Fourth Summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia, Chinese President Xi Jinping remarked that security must be universal, equal and inclusive and called on for a multi-pronged and holistic approach to managing security challenges in Asia. To quote the Chinese President:
Security must be universal. We cannot just have the security of one or some countries while leaving the rest insecure, still less should one seek the so-called absolute security of itself at the expense of the security of others. Otherwise, just as a Kazakh proverb aptly puts it, "One who tries to blow out other's oil lamp will get his beard on fire."
Security must be equal. Every country has the equal right to participate in the security affairs of the region as well as the responsibility of upholding regional security. No country should attempt to dominate regional security affairs or infringe upon the legitimate rights and interests of other countries.
Security must be inclusive. We should turn Asia's diversity and the differences among Asian countries into the energy and driving force for regional security cooperation. We should abide by the basic norms governing international relations such as respecting sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity and non-interference in internal affairs, respect the social systems and development paths chosen by countries on their own, and fully respect and accommodate the legitimate security concerns of all parties. To beef up and entrench a military alliance targeted at a third party is not conducive to maintaining common security.
But what is happening in the South China Sea nowadays implies the contrary and gives an impression of a regional security at the expense of others’. Countries such as Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Taiwan are also key players in the Asian security terrain which China must not ignore in her pursuit for legitimate territorial claims and in furtherance of an inclusive security for the Asian region. Otherwise, China has just put words in paper, leaving other state parties to decipher China’s deeper intentions like what the late Maya Angelou had once put forward in saying that: "Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with shades of deeper meaning.”
For a relatively smaller states like Vietnam and the Philippines, both having an emerging economy in the region, this issue on territory is as vital as an issue on the country’s economy. Territorial claims or the uncertainties thereof in today’s set up must come hand-in-hand with developmental initiatives, and countries which are still struggling for their boundaries might get exhausted in dealing with both internal and external affairs because first and foremost, state resources are at stake in protecting territorial integrity and state sovereignty.
Vietnam is practically on the disadvantageous side of the game, unless Hanoi would reach out to Beijing and vice-versa. This is bilateral talk at its best where state-to-state relations are of paramount consideration.