China exerting 'maximum pressure' to set its own East Sea rules: expert

By Viet Anh   August 1, 2019 | 05:31 am PT
China exerting 'maximum pressure' to set its own East Sea rules: expert
A Chinese Coast Guard ship (top) is seen near a ship of Vietnam Coast Guard in the South China Sea, about 210 km (130 miles) offshore of Vietnam, May 14, 2014. Photo by Reuters/Nguyen Minh.
China wants Southeast Asian nations to play by the rules it sets in the South China Sea, known in Vietnam as the East Sea, an expert says.

China is imposing direct pressure on Vietnam and taking advantage of the attitude of seeking to maintain regional peace among nations in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to intensify it, Hawaii-based Alexander Vuving, an expert on Asia security, in particular, China, Vietnam, Southeast Asia and the South China Sea, told VnExpress.

China is applying "maximum pressure" on ASEAN parties, and from now until 2021, it will increase that pressure to make the regional bloc follow terms that benefit China in the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea (COC), said Vuving, who is currently with the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies under the U.S. Department of Defense.

Vuving was referring to the deliberate operation of Chinese oil survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 and its escorts in the southern area of Vietnam’s waters, near the Vanguard Bank.

"After finishing building artificial islands in Spratly Islands, China last year suggested that ASEAN countries should complete the COC in the next three years and said it wanted no ASEAN members to join hands with those outside the bloc to exploit natural resources or conduct military drills. By that, it means ASEAN is only allowed to cooperate with China, and hopes that the bloc will eventually get tired and decide to eventually go along with its rules."

No more tests

China started to create conflicts in the South China Sea since early 20th century, raking up disputes over islands, mostly over the Paracel and Spratly Islands.

From the early 1990s, disputes with China started to spread to exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and continental shelf of coastal countries, Vuving said.

In the past 30 years, there has been seven serious cases in which "China wanted to test the reactions of Vietnam and other regional countries."

China sent an oil survey ship to the Vanguard Bank in 1994, the Kan Tan-3 ship to survey the overlapping area in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1997, let its ships cut the exploration cables of Vietnam’s oil exploration ship Binh Minh in 2011, brought the HD 981 rig into Vietnamese waters in 2014, sent ships to vandalize oil and gas activities in the southern continental shelf of Vietnam in 2017 and 2018.

Now in the latest move, it sent the Haiyang Dizhi 8 and, Vuving asserted, it was no longer a test because the ship has been in Vietnam’s EEZ and continental shelf for almost a month.

"The area that HD8 and its escorts have occupied is as big as Vietnam’s Mekong Delta [15,600 square miles] and it is possible that they did not just stop at evaluating the amount of oil and gas, gas hydrate, metallic minerals, but also studied the seabed geology to serve the operation of oil rigs and submarines."

Explaining why he thinks China has waited until now to stop testing and start acting for real, Vuving said that previously, China did not have enough force, but today it is well-equipped in terms of logistics, with its artificial islands in the Paracel and Spratly islands.

"What China wants to pursue is to prevent others from exploiting natural resources in its so-called ‘nine-dash line’ area and if any countries refuse to play by its rules, China will interfere. In recent years, it has repeatedly sent ships to disturb Vietnam and Malaysia’s oil exploitation in the South China Sea."

In the long term, China has always wanted to surpass the U.S. and become the world’s most powerful nation. In order to do so, it must have sea power first, and actualizing the nine-dash line will pave the way to realizing its ambition, he said.

Alexander Vuving, an expert at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies under the U.S. Department of Defense. Photo courtesy of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies.

Alexander Vuving, an expert at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies under the U.S. Department of Defense. Photo courtesy of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies.

What about Vietnam?

For the second time in a week, Vietnamese Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang said last Thursday that China’s incursion violated Vietnam’s EEZ and continental shelf and demanded that it withdraw its ships from Vietnamese waters.

The case has also garnered a lot of international attention.

In a joint communique issued on Wednesday, ASEAN foreign ministers reaffirmed the need to avoid actions that further complicate the situation in the South China Sea.

It was at the same event that Vietnam's Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh denounced Chinese activities near Vanguard Bank.

The U.S. has made three public statements in the past 10 days, opposing China's "bullying" acts that threaten other nations's sovereignty and undermine peace and security in the region.

One of the statements was a letter by four U.S. senators to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, asking him to accord high priority to China’s maritime aggression in the South China Sea at the ASEAN Regional Forum to be held Friday in Bangkok.

Experts said China is trying to turn Vietnamese territory into a disputed area to advance its superpower plans, but the actions could erode bilateral and regional trust and affect domestic opinion.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, including waters close to Taiwan and Southeast Asian countries Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Given the current situation, Vuving said Vietnam should prepare itself for a long, drawn out fight.

He said other powerful countries like the U.S., Japan and India are not going to get China achieve its aim of becoming the most powerful in the region and as the South China Sea will continue to be the major battlefield for these superpowers in the decades to come, Vietnam should make the most of the situation to protect itself.

Vietnam needs to adopt high technologies such as unmanned aerial/diving vehicles, stealth technology, and wave breaking technology and keeps in mind that the technology race in access/anti-intrusion (A2/AD), which means a device or a strategy used to prevent an adversary from occupying or traversing an area of land, sea or air, is inevitable.

Then, Vietnam should seek support from international and regional peers in its fight against the nine-dash line by making use of events like the ASEAN summits, East Asia Summit and ASEAN Regional Forum to raise its voice about South China Sea issues, he said.

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