Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Diplomat's short review of Sino-Vietnam relationship

By Hung Nguyen  - associate professor of government and international relations at George Mason University.
Since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, Vietnam-China relations have gone through roughly four major phases.
The first phase, which ran from 1949 to 1978, was characterized by ideological comradeship, mutual trust and support.  China was a steady and indispensable source of support for the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) throughout both its war against the French, then against the United States and South Vietnam.
The second phase began with Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1978 and China’s border war with Vietnam in 1979, and ended in 1990. This period featured antagonism, war and mutual distrust.
The third phase began in 1991, with the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries through 2007. The first few years of this period saw a rapid improvement in bilateral relations based on ‘sixteen golden words’—friendly neighbours, total cooperation, stable and long-term, future-oriented increased trade and settlement of border disputes, mostly in favour of China.  This spirit of cooperation and renewed friendship was, however, weakened toward the latter part of the period due to Vietnam’s concern over China’s rise and its aggressive behavior in the South China Sea.
The fourth phase, which began in 2008, pitched China’s increasing assertiveness against Vietnam’s efforts to preserve its sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of the China challenge. The future of Vietnam-China relations depends on the interaction between two constants (geography and history) and two variables (China’s policy and changing big powers’ relationship).
Geographically, Vietnam is a small country living in the shadow of a huge neighbour. It’s normal for a big country to seek influence over a smaller neighbour, just as it’s normal for a small country to resist that effort to preserve its independence until they reach a mutually satisfactory accommodation. In the past, when the two countries shared the same ideological fervour and faced a common enemy—the anticommunist ‘imperialists’—relations were close and solid. The end of the Cold War, the collapse of European communism,  the ascendancy of the market economy and the force of global integration have weakened the special ideological bond between China and Vietnam and have revived the perennial problem of the big neighbour-small neighbour relationship, as well as Vietnam’s strategic mistrust of China.
In 1990, feeling threatened by the radical transformation in the communist world, Vietnam sought a communist alliance with China against the threat of a perceived Western-instigated ‘peaceful evolution.’ China accepted Vietnam’s proposal for reconciliation, but rejected its request for an alliance. Failing to secure an alliance with China, Vietnam began to take serious steps to reorient Vietnam’s foreign policy toward its neighbouring countries and the West, and worked to improve its international profile. The success of this policy has resulted in the normalization of US-Vietnam relations, deepening Vietnam’s integration into the ASEAN system, and its election as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council in 2008 and as the Chair of ASEAN in 2010.
If geography and history combine to make Vietnam’s mistrust of China an underlying factor in bilateral relations, Chinas’ actions since 2008 have further reinforced this. On the one hand, China accelerated its naval build up in the South China Sea, while Chinese web sites began to publish ‘invasion plans’ against Vietnam. On the other hand, China began to warn foreign oil companies against exploring for energy in area claimed by Vietnam while allowing them to explore in area disputed by Vietnam.
More recently, in 2009, China unilaterally imposed a fishing moratorium in the South China Sea, arrested Vietnamese fishermen and made public its claim over 80 percent of the South China Sea—a claim that seriously encroached upon Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone. Vietnam reacted by encouraging Vietnamese fishing vessels to continue fishing in disputed areas, purchasing arms to beef up its defences and, despite China’s protests, multilateralizing the South China Sea dispute and seeking the cooperation of other countries.
The US has made clear it doesn’t share China’s views over its excessive territorial claim, and that it opposes  any attempt to intimidate US companies ‘engaging in legitimate economic activity’ and interference with the free navigation in the South China Sea. China’s aggressive behavior thus speeds up the process of US re-engagement in Asia, including with Vietnam.  This new US determination emboldened countries including Vietnam to stand up to China, as reflected at the Shangri-La dialogue in June 2010, the Fifth East Asian Summit and the first ADMM-Plus in Hanoi in October 2010.
At the same time, US-Vietnam military relations have improved markedly, beginning with the first political-military dialogue in 2009 and followed by the first defence policy dialogue in 2010. China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea brought about a convergence of strategic interests between
Vietnam and the United States and served as a driving force behind Vietnam’s rapid rapprochement with America despite its fear of  ‘peaceful evolution.’
All this said, Vietnam doesn’t want to antagonize China unnecessarily. Ideologically, it’s more comfortable with China than with the United States. Economically, China is a potential market, a source of financial assistance and a model of development. The biggest obstacle to good relations between the two countries is their conflicting claims over the South China Sea.
Vietnam has for its part declared that it won’t make further concessions to China’s excessive demands. A peaceful solution to this problem therefore depends heavily on China’s restraint and magnanimity. If it can’t respond as hoped, China will simply drive Vietnam and other countries further away—and into closer cooperation with the United States.
Source: The Diplomat

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

America Cannot ‘Lead From Behind’ in Asia

  By Aaron L. Friedberg/ The Diplomat
In early September, as Bill Clinton wowed the crowd at the Democratic convention in Charlotte, his wife was facing a smaller and less appreciative audience in Beijing.  The Secretary of State had come to China with soothing words and appeals for cooperation.  Seeking to downplay talk of an escalating Sino-American rivalry, she told a conference of smaller island nations where she stopped en route that “…after all, the Pacific is big enough for all of us.”
Her hosts were not convinced.  Washington should “stop its role as a sneaky troublemaker” stirring up tensions between China and its neighbors, advised an article in the government-run news agency.  While her official welcome was somewhat more cordial, the Secretary of State achieved no discernable progress on a range of outstanding issues, including the civil war in Syria and Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
Clinton’s journey to Beijing is emblematic of a third shift in the Obama administration’s ongoing efforts to craft a sustainable China strategy. At the time of her first visit in January 2009, Secretary Clinton suggested a “re-set” of sorts, similar to the one she sought with Russia. Henceforth, she declared, the United States would not allow differences over human rights to interfere with cooperation in addressing other pressing issues, including climate change and the global economic crisis.  Perhaps reading them as a sign of weakness, Beijing responded to these overtures by taking a harder line in its dealings with both the United States and its Asian neighbors.  This tendency was most evident in the East and South China Seas, where China sought to reinforce its claims to control over islands and resources.
To its credit, the Obama administration eventually responded in kind.  Starting in 2010 the administration changed course and began to make a series of highly publicized statements and gestures intended to underline America’s continuing commitment to Asia. Much to Beijing’s annoyance, the U.S. inserted itself in ongoing maritime disputes–reiterating its interest in ensuring freedom of navigation and offering to play a mediating role.  Officials also announced that the United States would, in the words of Secretary of State Clinton, “pivot” towards Asia, bolstering its military presence there even as it cut overall defense spending.  The symbolic peak of the pivot came in November 2011, when the President toured the region, stopping in Australia to announce the impending deployment of a small number of U.S. Marines.
In recent months, however,Washington has subtly tacked back towards a more accommodating stance.  Amidst warnings from some China watchers that the pivot had deepened distrust and could trigger a competitive spiral, the Obama administration has looked for ways to soften its tone and reassure Beijing about its intentions. Muscular, martial rhetoric has been replaced with the bland language of accounting. Instead of “pivoting” dramatically towards Asia, government spokesmen now characterize their actions as “rebalancing” America’s strategic portfolio.  Indeed, in recent months, the term “pivot” appears to have been banished from the Obama administration’s official lexicon.
Having sought at first to stiffen their spines, Washington now aims to put some distance between itself and its allies in Asia, reminding them that it takes no stand on the ultimate resolution of their maritime disputes with China.  A striking case in point is the administration’s repeated refusal to clarify whether it would come to the aid of the Philippines in the event of an attack on its forces in the South China Sea.
Following the departure of Secretary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta also made the trek to Beijing in September.    Like his counterpart, Panetta’s goal was to convince his hosts that, in the words of a skeptical article in the People’s Daily, the “strategy of ‘rebalance’ in the Asia-Pacific region is not directed against China.” Towards this end the Defense Secretary invited the Chinese navy for the first time to send a warship to participate in an upcoming multinational exercise.  Using a formulation that is certain to furrow brows in foreign ministries across Asia, Panetta declared that the United States wanted to see China “expand its role in the Pacific.”
The latest shift in U.S. strategy is premature and could prove counterproductive.  As the reception accorded Secretary Clinton suggests, China’s leaders are in no mood to be placated. If they believe Washington’s renewed appeals for cooperation to be sincere they likely see them as signs of temporary weakness.  Under the circumstances Beijing has every incentive to play hard to get, demanding that the U.S. take concrete steps to show its good intentions and alleviate the tensions for which it is allegedly responsible.
The danger here should be obvious: as it seeks to soothe Beijing, the administration risks undermining much of what it has already accomplished.  Other Asian nations have no desire to be caught up in a new cold war, but they are also deeply fearful of being left alone to confront an increasingly powerful China.  The point of the pivot was to reassure them that, despite its present difficulties, the United States is not going to pull back and abandon them to their fates.  While they have generally welcomed recent signals of American commitment, many regional observers remain unconvinced that the United States has the will or the wallet to follow through.  Impending defense budget cuts and indications that, after a few months of tough talk, Washington is already prepared to soften its stance towards China can only reinforce these doubts.
As China grows stronger other countries are going to have to work harder to preserve a balance of power that safeguards their interests and helps keep the peace.  Taken together, the United States and its Asian friends and allies have more than sufficient means to maintain such a balance.  But if Washington wants others to do their part it needs to stand firm in its dealings with Beijing.  Even more important, it needs to make costly, long-term investments in the military capabilities that will be needed to counter China’s own.  When it comes to Asia, the United States does not have the option of leading from behind.

Aaron L. Friedberg is Professor of Politics and International Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. His most recent book, A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia, is now available in paperback.  His essay "Bucking Beijing: An Alternative U.S. China Policy," appeared in the September/October 2012 issue of Foreign Affairs.  From 2003 to 2005, he served as a Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs in the Office of the Vice President.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Chinese strategic miscalculations in the South China Sea

First and foremost, China should take constructive steps to bring about an amicable conclusion to negotiations on the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea, and implement a face-saving policy renouncing once and for all its U-shaped line. Obviously, this will be a difficult decision for China to take. However, the international dividend and return for China’s peaceful rise would ripple far beyond the neighborhood and confines of the South China Sea.
Just less than a decade ago, China ranked as the world’s fifth largest economy. Since then, high domestic economic growth has enabled it to surpass Japan as the second largest global economy, and China is now poised to overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy, possibly within the next 10 to 20 years. With a huge population and a dynamic economic foundation, there is every reason to believe that China could very well one day become the world’s largest economy. However, attaining that level of economic prowess is no guarantee of superpower status. It took the United States over 75 years and two world wars to become a global superpower in terms of both economic and military supremacy.
This suggests that even if China does ascend to become the world’s largest economy, it will not automatically transform itself into the most powerful nation. The key lesson for China is that it needs to develop a technologically advanced economy enhanced by good governance, effective policy making, and respected global citizenship supported by level-headed diplomacy. Sustaining superpower status is no small challenge. History is full of accounts of failed superpowers that collapsed into obscurity by virtue of succumbing to competitors, committing strategic blunders that squandered resources, compromising the interests of their citizenry, or misjudging the intentions of rivals. 
For China, the South China Sea dispute represents the kind of challenge that could determine whether or how China will indeed ascend to superpower status. Regrettably, China does not yet recognize the extent to which its aggressive course in the South China Sea is damaging its diplomacy with neighboring countries.
First, sovereignty disputes with some ASEAN neighbors have severely weakened China's standing in the region and beyond. The deterioration of China’s relationship with the West after the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident should be a strong reminder to Beijing of its recent strategic errors in judgment. During that period, ASEAN played an important role as a conduit for China to the outside world. Indeed, it is in large part due to China’s relationship with ASEAN that China was able to gradually resume normal diplomatic
relations with the West.
China’s current assertiveness in the South China Sea is now slowly but surely eroding its positive image with its ASEAN neighbors as a peacefully rising power. Without exception, countries within Southeast Asia and beyond are very cautious of China’s rise. Even as China’s national economic and global stature increase, its influence, image and “soft power” abroad is declining dramatically.
Second, China’s aggressiveness has resulted in the United States reprioritizing its global strategy with its “pivot” or “rebalance” toward the Asia-Pacific region. This policy adjustment by the United States has given Chinese policymakers serious reason for concern and activated the fear that China might again end up being contained in much the same way as the former Soviet Union during the Cold War. 
China now sees “US hands” in both its internal and external affairs. Examples this year of US influence in China’s domestic affairs include Wang Lijun, Chongqing’s former police chief, applying to the US Consulate in Chengdu for political asylum and the blind lawyer, Chen Guangcheng, fleeing to the US Embassy in Beijing. Throughout the region, US allies including Japan, South Korea and the Philippines have all upgraded their already strong military cooperation with the United States. If China continues to ignore the interests or concerns of its neighbors who have a stake in the South China Sea, its aggressiveness is likely to galvanize increased regional cooperation with the United States.
Third, troubles with close neighbors also affect the image and position of China in the world. The most important condition for any country aspiring to ascend to global power status is to maintain good relations with its neighbors. However, if China is unable or unwilling to maintain a cordial relationship with its closest neighbors, how can countries further afield trust and respect this aspiring superpower? As long as China is unable to maintain a significant level of trust and friendship with its neighbors, benevolent global power status for China is likely to remain a pipe dream.
Fourth, China’s dramatic assertion of unilateral sovereignty over the South China Sea has adversely affected the peaceful environment China desperately needs to become a global power. If conflict does break out, it is likely to have a sustained, widespread and long-term detrimental impact on the regional economic and security situation in the region. China itself would severely be impacted as nearly 80 percent of its oil imports and the majority of its goods, imports and exports, flow through the Strait of Malacca and other South China Sea routes. 
Central to the dispute is China’s claim of sovereignty over the U-shaped line that it claims to have inherited from the Kuomintang government, and which was only officially submitted to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in 2009. As the lines are not based on any legal foundation and have no specific geographical coordinates, they leave room for inconsistent explanations from China. It should be noted that the Chinese U-shaped line covers 80 percent of the South China Sea, while China only administers 15 percent of that area.  
China’s unilateral claims of sovereignty over the years to the South China Sea has made the majority of Chinese citizenry mistakenly believe that China does indeed own the entire area within the U-shaped line and that the line makes up China’s southern border. However, newly discovered maps in 1904 dating from the Qing Dynasty do not show the Paracel and Spratlys Islands. Instead, it is Hainan Island that is depicted as China’s southern most border. Unfortunately, this U-shaped line is now very much like a bone in China’s throat that it cannot swallow or remove.
A respected characteristic of a truly global power lies in its ability to admit and move beyond historical misadventures. US efforts to normalize relations with Vietnam are a case in point. China is a great civilization which gave birth to great men like Laozi, Confucius, and Li Shizen, and by following the teachings of these renowned philosophers China should be capable of overcoming its miscalculations in its South China Sea policy. 
First and foremost, China should take constructive steps to bring about an amicable conclusion to negotiations on the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea, and implement a face-saving policy renouncing once and for all its U-shaped line. Obviously, this will be a difficult decision for China to take. However, the international dividend and return for China’s peaceful rise would ripple far beyond the neighborhood and confines of the South China Sea.
By Hoàng Anh Tuấn
Director-General of the Institute for Foreign Policy and Strategic Studies
at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam

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