HANOI – U.S. – Chinese confrontation in the South China Sea is a matter of great concern to the leaders and people of Vietnam.
The concern was driven home May 18 when U.S. naval aircraft began flying over Fiery Cross and other reefs in the Spratly Islands, directly challenging territorial claims to the air space and seas surrounding artificial islands and possible military airstrips China is building there.
“Everyone feels insecure,” Tran Dac Loi, Deputy Head of the Communist Party of Vietnam’s Commission on Foreign Relations, told a group of anti-Vietnam War activists visiting on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the end of the war. “Vietnam wants a sea of peace, not a venue for a power struggle.”
“We don’t think this would be good for China either,”” Loi told the group including this writer, during a meeting at the Party’s Central Committee office here April 20. “We don’t want a new Cold War or the type of situation like the Middle East.”
Blocked on the west by mountains, Vietnam runs the entire length of the western side of the South China Sea. Ports like Da Nang in the central Vietnam, are leading the country’s phenomenal peacetime growth, averaging seven per cent annually. “The Sea is critical,” Loi said. The problem is that China, using a vague doctrine called the “nine-dash line,” first published in 1947 by the pre-revolutionary Kuomintang government, claims 90 percent of the Sea, a claim without standing in international law or recognized by any other country except Taiwan.
“One-third of the world’s trade is affected,” Loi added, including half of the world’s oil tankers.
The defeat of the U.S. in Vietnam greatly weakened the U.S. military presence in the region, he said, and for several decades there was “relative peace and stability.” During this time “China rose peacefully as did Vietnam and the other nine members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). But now there is a new situation. In the past five years there has been a huge military buildup by China. The situation is unbalanced. Chinese economic and military capacity is unrivaled. China is no longer peacefully rising. It is becoming more and more aggressive and using its military power,” he said. “This is creating new dangerous conditions including for a return of the United States.”
“Objectively, there needs to be a balancing,” he said concluding that ASEAN is critical to a peaceful resolution. “Right now there is a convergence of interests between ASEAN and the U.S. and to that extent the role of the U.S. is positive,” he said. “But it all depends on how it is resolved. If it is to support ASEAN and the rule of law, that will be good, but if it is to reimpose U.S. control, that would be negative.
The U.S. has no position on the post-World War II claims by China or other countries in the region to islands, rocks, reefs, and coral atolls in the Spratlys, but insists man-made islands have no standing in international law regarding territorial rights and opposes any Chinese military build-up that could conflict with maritime trade and other U.S. aims and interests. Unfortunately the United States has never ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which provides the peaceful means to settle such disputes.
Loi said rising nationalism in China is directly connected with the large capitalist sector in its economy. Since 2012 when Xi JIngping was elected General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, he has led a massive campaign against “western influences” especially corruption reportedly resulting in disciplinary action against 200,000 party members, with many sentenced to prison.
The campaign is wildly popular in China according to a March 8 New York Times report and has completely befuddled U.S. China watchers, who predict it will bring the imminent demise of Communist Party rule in the country. But the China watchers rely for information on their capitalist contacts who make up only a small fraction of the 85-million-member CCP.
Xi says his efforts are based on an extensive study by the leadership of the mistakes of the Cultural Revolution and the overthrow of socialism in the USSR both of which involved a destructive weakening of the Communist Party. Xi claims the aim of this reform is just the opposite – to strengthen and preserve the Party.
Although he called the domestic developments in China “a Black Box,” Tran Truong Thuy, Vice Director of Vietnam’s Diplomatic Academy told our group, it is nonetheless clear this is “the most far-reaching reform of the party in China’s history.”
If that is true, we can only hope the campaign against “western influences” will develop an ideological dimension and, instead of bourgeois nationalism, will reaffirm the fundamental Marxist ideals of peace and working class internationalism.
If that turns out to be the case, then Vietnam may realize its dream so that the South China Sea can, in fact, become a sea of peace.
Photo: U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, left, shakes hands with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in Hanoi, Vietnam, May 22. Ban, who was on a two-day visit to Vietnam, called for peaceful solutions to territorial disputes in the South China Sea, where China’s assertiveness has alarmed its smaller neighbors. (AP Photo/Tran Van Minh)