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Given the nationalist sentiment underlying all parties’ claims in the sea, future incidents would be extraordinarily difficult to de-escalate.
Over the past month, the number and intensity of nautical clashes between China and other players such as Vietnam and the Philippines have soared, unleashing deeply-held tensions that threaten to turn the region into a ticking time-bomb.
Ongoing disputes culminated recently in a series of dramatic events.
In late May, Chinese patrol boats slashed a research cable laid by a Vietnamese seismic survey ship only 75 miles from the Vietnamese coast. Just a few weeks later, Chinese patrols rammed into a Vietnamese energy exploration vessel. In response, both Vietnam and China have stepped up military activities in the sea, engaging in live fire drills and large-scale naval exercises, as well as a diplomatic war of words.
So deep is the hostility that Vietnam has allowed street protests — rare in the tightly-controlled Communist nation — permitting hundreds to demonstrate outside the Chinese embassy in Hanoi for a fourth week.
These tensions mirror recent events in the Philippines.
There, President Benigno Aquino has accused China of firing on a Filipino vessel, attacking a number of fishing trawlers, and violating the country’s nautical exclusion zone. In this context, Aquino has openly called for security reassurances from the United States; indeed, the U.S. 7th Fleet as of last week is conducting joint naval exercises with the implied point of reinforcing the Philippines’ capability to guard against China’s new assertiveness.
China would prefer to solve its disputes one-on-one with its smaller neighbors, and hates American meddling in the region. As Southeast Asian nations run to the United States for assistance, Beijing increasingly fears that America aims to encircle China militarily and diplomatically. A joint statement by the U.S. and Vietnam calling for freedom of navigation has redoubled Beijing’s alarm. In response, China is signaling to its Southeast Asian neighbors that U.S. support can’t force Beijing to back down, while all players remain determined not to retreat on territorial claims.
These conflicts underscore the dangers of today’s highly charged environment, in which vessels with military capabilities ignore each other’s signals and engage in provocative actions. Competing claims over islands in the region have already led to violent conflict between Vietnam and China in 1974 and again in 1988. Given the nationalist sentiment underlying all parties’ claims in the South China Sea, future incidents would be extraordinarily difficult to de-escalate.
Although China and Vietnam this weekend reaffirmed their mutual support for the China-ASEAN Declaration of Conduct (DOC), which rejects the use of force in the South China Sea, such rhetoric must be matched by actions on the ground.
Despite Beijing’s high-level conciliatory overtures, with President Hu Jintao calling for a “harmonious Asia” and dispatching envoys to reassure several of China’s ASEAN neighbors, Chinese patrol boats have continued to harass Vietnamese and Filipino energy vessels. These are precisely the type of actions proscribed by the DOC. Adding fuel to the fire is the growing militarization of the region as countries boost spending on new warships and submarines, sparking an arms race.
If the region wants to avoid locking into a dangerous game of clashes, grand rhetorical gestures are not enough. Countries must match words with action and suspend patrol activities in disputed areas until a true return to the DOC can be realized. In particular, China must clarify its sweeping and ambiguous territorial claims in the region, and ground these claims in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
This month’s ASEAN Regional Forum offers a golden opportunity for the parties involved to take concrete steps toward implementation of the DOC.
Joint exercises between countries in the South China Sea should be expanded. And all parties should agree to specific steps to help actors on the ground ease tensions in the event of a clash. If this chance to set a constructive path forward is not taken, further clashes in the South China Sea may well escalate into open conflict.
Stephanie T. Kleine-Ahlbrandt is the Northeast Asia Director of the International Crisis Group. She is based in Beijing.