Starting June 13, Vietnam first staged live-fire drills in the South China Sea amid rising tensions with China, then issued a decree specifying who would be exempt from military call-up in a time of war.
In response, China said it will not resort to the use of force to resolve maritime border disputes in the South China Sea.
Perhaps, it is due to the consciousness of the fact that as a “military underdog”, Vietnam might well rally international support and garner others’ sympathy that China has to be treading a little more carefully.
On the flip side, Vietnam takes the first ever preemptive move over the 32 years to infuriate China, which is not only unusual, but thought-provoking. One reason might be Vietnam, like other countries on the periphery of South China Sea, still cherishes high illusions of the U.S. helping hand, once the spat exacerbates into a war.
Vietnam has for its part announced details of a military draft to take effect from August 1. The decree, announced by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, outlines who would be exempt from any call-up, in what has been interpreted as a message for a domestic audience that Vietnam will “stand up for its rights against an aggressive China.”
Also, Vietnam has announced an 8.1-billion-dollar plan to develop tourist routes to the Nanshas (Spratlys) and another archipelago to the north, the Xishas (Paracels), attracting the high-income groups and “patriotic personage”.
The archipelagos are considered strategic outposts with potentially vast oil and gas reserves and rich fishing grounds, and now the center of a sizzling squabble.
Meanwhile about 300 Vietnamese launched a third week of protests against China amid escalating tensions in the South China Sea. They gathered near the Chinese Embassy in the capital, Hanoi, and marched through the streets, yelling “Down with China!” and demanding the “powerful northern neighbor stay out of Vietnam’s territory.” Crowds also gathered in southern Ho Chi Minh City.
Some Vietnamese politicians also said or wrote funny pieces calling on China to seize the “moral high ground” and suspend its routine patrol activities in the disputed areas to avoid any possible accidental conflict. So far, though, both sides are digging their heels in.
As to “moral high ground”, it generally refers to the Chinese proposal in Deng Xiaoping’s day of “setting aside dispute and pursuing joint development”.
When China entered into diplomatic relations with the Southeast Asian countries in the 1970s and 1980s, during talks with the leaders of these countries, Deng Xiaoping made the above reasonable proposal for resolving disputes over the Nansha Islands: The Nansha Islands have been an integral part of China’s territory since the ancient times. But disputes have occurred over the islands since the 1970s. Considering the fact that China has good relations with the countries concerned, we would like to set aside this issue now and explore later a solution acceptable to both sides. We should avoid military conflict over this and should pursue an approach of joint development.
Deng Xiaoping once again brought up this idea when he met visiting Filipino President Aquino in April, 1988. Deng said: “In view of the friendly relations between our two countries, we can set aside this issue for the time being and take the approach of pursuing joint development.” Both President Aquino and Vice President Laurel responded positively to Deng Xiaoping’s initiative.
The concept of “setting aside dispute and pursuing joint development” has the following four elements: 1. The sovereignty of the territories concerned belongs to China. 2. When conditions are not ripe to bring about a thorough solution to territorial dispute, discussion on the issue of sovereignty may be postponed so that the dispute is set aside. To set aside dispute does not mean giving up sovereignty. It is just to leave the dispute aside for the time being. 3. The territories under dispute may be developed in a joint way. 4. The purpose of joint development is to enhance mutual understanding through cooperation and create conditions for the eventual resolution of territorial ownership.
However, after years of discreet and patient diplomacy over bickering over the South China Sea, both China and ASEAN are showing signs of fatigue as there has been no progress yet towards a resolution.
But, that does not mean it is currently an opportune time for Vietnam or other “claimants” to pounce on “the chance” to “settle an old account” with China. Indeed, China has won the approval of ASEAN for peaceful settlement of the disputes, but no agreement on punishment for anyone who violates the principle. And indeed, China has said it will never turn to the use of force to settle the disputes with neighbors, although China has warned other countries to stay out of an ongoing dispute in the South China Sea, following a request by Vietnam earlier this week for international involvement in the dispute.
Nevertheless, it could never be “the chance” at the disposal of any country with boundless ambition, Vietnam included. China proposes to settle disputes through peaceful negotiations, but never fears challenges from outside. Moreover, China will never move an inch on its core interest of sovereignty and territorial integrity and will always stand up for that at any cost.
Therefore, it is highly advisable for Vietnam to rein in its overreaching ambition over the South China Sea, and dim its hope pinned on the U.S., for the simple reason that once the U.S. feels its own interests threatened, it will readily sacrifice the interests of the Asian countries on the periphery of South China Sea.