By Ralph Jennings
Leaders in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines take a pragmatic, work-with-me-please view toward China in easing Asia’s widest reaching sovereignty dispute. They all say the South China Sea, or some fragment of it, is theirs and their claims overlap.
China has expanded quickly since 2010 to assert control over almost the entire 3.5 million-square-km (1.4 million-square-mile) sea, putting other countries on the defensive. But one other country is doing the same thing and China can neither ignore it nor neutralize it through economic and trade deals. (That’s what happens to other countries.) It’s almost China’s double. It’s Vietnam.
Vietnam is smaller than China and its military, ranked 17th by the database GlobalFirePower.com, lags China’s at No. 3. But otherwise the two are chasing maritime control in the same ways. Here are five:
Activists chant anti-China slogans as they hold posters reading ‘Gac Ma, our country will never forget’ during a rally in Hanoi on March 14, 2016, to mark the anniversary of a 1988 battle in the Spratly Islands, a rare act of protest over an issue that has come to dog relations between Hanoi and Beijing. (HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)
1. Both make historic claims. Beijing cites maps and documents going back to the Han Dynasty 2,200 years ago to substantiate its claim to the South China Sea. Vietnamese people were using the Spratly Islands, the sea’s biggest group of tiny land features, as long as 1,000 years ago, their story goes. Hanoi has also cited an 1887 Franco-Chinese Treaty as a basis for allocating claims, though U.N. law questions the concept behind it, according to one scholar.
2. China and Vietnam assert more than the customary continental shelf. Vietnam’s claim reaches past a conventional, internationally exclusive economic zone 200-nautical mile (370-km) from its Indochinese coastline into the Spratly archipelago, among other places. Its military units occupy the group’s largest feature, Spratly Island. Claimants Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines normally operate within 200 nautical miles of their shores. China claims nearly the whole resource-rich sea.
3. Both countries are reclaiming land for military use. China has landfilled about 3,200 acres (1,294 hectares) of land to beef up tiny, partly submerged islets. It’s got surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island in the Paracel chain, to cite one example. Vietnam has landfilled 27 islets, more than any other claimant. It is investing now in the extension of Spratly Island’s runway from 2,500 to 3,300 meters, ideal for landing air force maritime surveillance aircraft, and building hangars, the U.S. think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies says. “Vietnam is the only other country there that has overlapping claims with China,” says Carl Thayer, emeritus professor of politics at the University of New South Wales in Australia. “They both claim everything essentially. It’s also the only other country to engage in such a robust defense modernization.”
4. Nationalist crowds at home. The Communist governments of China and Vietnam must please home audiences with a keen sense of nationalism, including a deep historic resentment in Vietnam against the Chinese. The two sides talk of cooperation to avoid a nationalistic spillover such as the anti-China riots in Vietnam in 2014. But each uses is state-controlled mass media to remind an eager public of its claims. Local media cover Vietnamese island reclamation work to stoke excitement, for example, says Mekong Economics chief economist Adam McCarty.
5. Neither side is afraid of a fight. Scores died in 1974, and again in 1988, when Chinese and Vietnamese vessels clashed in the South China Sea. Most of the dead were Vietnamese sailors. In 2014, vessels from both sides rammed each other after Beijing let the Chinese offshore oil driller position a rig in the disputed Gulf of Tonkin. Now Vietnam is preparing for any new fights by accepting maritime patrol boats from Japan and military aid of $18 million from the United States.
U.S. President Elect Donald Trump meeting with japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Trump Tower, November 17, 2016.
Chinese bomber over Scarborough Shoal
Chinese fishing fleet
On July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague said this claim by China was not valid.
Tags: Carl Thayer, China's military, East China Sea, EEZ, fishing, GlobalFirePower.com, Gulf of Tonkin, Indonesia, Japan, Jennings, Malaysia, maritime control, natural resources, oil, oil and gas, Paracels, Philippines, South China Sea, Spratly archipelago, Spratly Island, U. S., Vietnam, Vietnam's military, Vietnamese, Woody Island