What the China-Viet­nam con­flict rep­re­sents


Vi­o­lent clashes in­volv­ing Chi­nese ships and Viet­namese fish­ing boats are the latest in a se­ries of mar­itime dis­putes which span the vast Pa­cific re­gion. Ac­cord­ing to Viet­nam news sources, on June 7 and 10 Viet­nam’s fish­ing ves­sels were at­tacked in dis­puted wa­ters. In the first in­ci­dent, wa­ter cannon flooded a boat, and a fish­er­man’s leg was bro­ken. In the sec­ond, a fish­ing boat was sur­rounded and robbed.

Such clashes are on­go­ing, in­clud­ing ear­lier Chi­nese use of wa­ter cannon. They have oc­curred near the Para­cel Is­lands, claimed by both na­tions. More widely, China is build­ing per­ma­nent ar­ti­fi­cial is­lands in the South China Sea, greatly ag­gra­vat­ing al­ready strained re­la­tions with Malaysia, the Philip­pines and Tai­wan in ad­di­tion to Viet­nam.

The latest clashes have com­pli­cated for­mal talks be­tween China and Viet­nam dur­ing June 17 to 19. They in­volve Pham Binh Minh, deputy prime min­is­ter as well as for­eign min­is­ter of Viet­nam, and China State Coun­cilor Yang Jiechi. These meet­ings are well-es­tab­lished, but con­tin­u­ing mar­itime dis­putes make them tense.

Re­cent years have wit­nessed es­ca­la­tion of mar­itime con­flicts across the Pa­cific. For ex­am­ple, in April 2014 China author­i­ties im­pounded the Baos­teel Emo­tion, a freighter of Ja­pan’s Mit­sui O.S.K. Lines. The move is part of com­mer­cial claims re­sult­ing from World War II. The two na­tions also both claim the Senkaku Is­lands.

In May 2013, Viet­nam charged that a China ves­sel in­vad­ing “ex­clu­sive ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters” rammed a ship, en­dan­ger­ing fif­teen Viet­namese fish­er­men. Two months ear­lier, Viet­nam ac­cused China of shoot­ing at a fish­ing boat and caus­ing a fire. Con­struc­tion of China oil rigs in dis­puted wa­ters is one el­e­ment in such vi­o­lent clashes.

That same month, Pres­i­dent Benigno Aquino III of the Philip­pines for­mally apol­o­gized for the killing of an un­armed Tai­wan fish­er­man by the Philip­pines’ coast guard. Taipei and Bei­jing joined in con- demn­ing the killing.

China steadily ex­pands in in­ter­na­tional reach, in­clud­ing rapid con­struc­tion of enor­mous new strate­gic naval ca­pac­i­ties. Tra­di­tion­ally, this na­tion has been cau­tious in us­ing mil­i­tary force be­yond the na­tional borders, but that may be chang­ing.

In 2011, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion an­nounced a strate­gic “re­bal­anc­ing” to Asia which has proven largely rhetor­i­cal, but has po­ten­tial. Since World War II the bulk of the U.S. Navy’s ships have been com­mit­ted to this re­gion. We have fought ma­jor wars in Korea and Viet­nam. In­done­sia has the largest Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion in the world, and is to­day a close re­li­able U.S. ally.

Another close ally — the United King­dom — has ex­ten­sive ex­pe­ri­ence with mar­itime con­flicts and com­merce. The UK’s Falk­land Is­lands, claimed by Ar­gentina, were the fo­cus of a war in 1982. The mil­i­tary regime in Buenos Aires seized the is­lands in a sur­prise move.

A Bri­tish ex­pe­di­tion re­cap­tured them, a re­mark­ably im­pres­sive vic­tory, with vi­tal Amer­i­can lo­gis­ti­cal sup­port. A March 2013 plebiscite over­whelm­ingly con­firmed that the peo­ple of the is­lands pre­fer Bri­tish sovereignty.

Great Bri­tain be­fore World War II was the para­mount mar­itime power in the world, and re­mains im­por­tant. Lon­don is a global in­sur­ance and fi­nan­cial hub, with ma­jor firms his­tor­i­cally rooted in mar­itime sal­vage, ship­ping and com­mer­cial ne­go­ti­a­tion.

Ocean com­merce gen­er­ated deeply rooted durable in­ter­na­tional law, which be­comes more con­se­quen­tial with mod­ern glob­al­iza­tion. The UK and the U.S. could as­sertively work to­gether, start­ing at the top, to en­gage na­tions in com­pre­hen­sive co­op­er­a­tion to pro­tect in­ter­na­tional com­merce.

This is not en­tirely utopian. Mas­sive ship­ping tra­verses the South China Sea. A top China mil­i­tary del­e­ga­tion just vis­ited the U.S., re­sult­ing in for­mal agree­ment to foster di­a­logue be­tween our armies. Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distin­guished Pro­fes­sor at Carthage Col­lege and au­thor of ‘Af­ter the Cold War.’ Con­tact him at acyr@carthage.edu

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