Region needs US to counter rising Chinese power

Posted on July 24, 2012


As China continues to rise in the face of North Atlantic decline, it is again flexing its geo-political muscle.

The Middle Kingdom has forcefully reiterated territorial claims to the bulk of the resource-rich South China Sea through bold gunboat diplomacy.

>> Armed conflict possible in South China Sea

China only recently stepped back from a month of naval brinksmanship with the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal. Added to this, the Chinese military has authorised the deployment of a garrison to Sansha, the newly created local government unit that will administer territory claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

The latest flare-up in the South China Sea dispute once more raises the dilemma of how far Chinese power should be accommodated and at what point China’s ambitions should be contained.

This is not an academic question for Australia.

Australia’s decision to station up to 2500 US Marines in Darwin on a rotating basis was perceived by Beijing as complicity in a US attempt to contain China. Cui Tiankai, China’s Vice Foreign Minister, recently launched thinly veiled criticisms at Australia’s deepening military ties with Washington, cautioning against ”the resurgence of a Cold War mentality”.

Such Chinese hypersensitivity has raised doubts about the wisdom of our intimate security relationship with the United States, China’s principal geostrategic competitor. Commentators like ANU professor Hugh White and former chief of army Peter Leahy have suggested that our US security partnership risks straining Australia-China relations.

As high stakes as this policy problem might be, White, Leahy and others are wrong to worry. Just as surely as we must accommodate China’s growing military and economic footprint, Chinese ambitions should be contained through an ongoing and substantial US military presence in the Asia-Pacific.

Accommodating China is not just a matter of principle; it is a necessity.

The International Monetary Fund predicts that China’s share of world GDP will equal the US share by 2014, and by 2050, China’s economy will be double that of America’s.

With wealth comes the means to acquire military power.

The Pentagon estimates that after increasing military spending by 11.2 per cent in March, China’s total military budget is between $US120 billion and $US180 billion. Irrespective of the exact number, China is already the world’s second-largest defence spender and is expected to reach US levels by around 2025.

Although we should not seek to check this growing Chinese power at every turn, China cannot expect its power to go entirely unchecked.

The push to counteract Chinese power will admittedly be driven by a US desire to not cede military pre-eminence to a would-be Asian superpower.

The commitment to US military primacy is bipartisan in the United States. In his State of the Union address this year, President Obama rebuffed any suggestion of US decline, while Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, continues to call for an ”American Century”.

Australia is therefore serving the US goal of maintaining its military primacy by being part of US attempts to counteract Chinese power in the Asia-Pacific.

However, despite Chinese rhetoric at its most caustic painting Australia as a US lackey, Asian nations also support the US ”pivot” to Asia.

From south-east Asia to north Asia, the consensus is that great benefits flow from a large US security presence in the region.

As Kantathi Suphamongkhon, former Thai foreign minister, recently indicated, the Association of South-East Asian Nations has always wanted the United States in the region ”as a force for stability”. Similarly, Japanese Defence Minister Satoshi Morimoto has said that the Japanese-US alliance ”plays an extremely important role in promoting peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region”.

Containment versus accommodation is an exciting prism through which to view the rise of China. It makes for poor foreign policy though. Australia’s stance should be neither unyielding containment nor endlessly pliant accommodation.

As difficult as determining the right balance of accommodation and containment might be, it is far from an intractable policy dilemma. It is rather, as it ever was, just the stuff of difficult foreign policy planning.

Benjamin Herscovitch

Vietnam looking to play pivotal role with both China and US

No analyst residing in a country that has gone to war with Vietnam can doubt Hanoi’s commitment to maintaining its own independence. Vietnam has also learned from history that too much reliance on a major power can have negative consequences.

This historical backdrop is a necessary reminder to readers that Vietnam is not aligning with the US to oppose China. Since 1991 Vietnam has pursued a foreign policy to diversify and multilateralize its relations and become a reliable partner to all countries. This has been a success. Vietnam was the Asia’s bloc unanimous choice as its representative for a seat on the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member and it has entered into strategic partnerships with Russia, Japan, India, China, South Korea, Spain, the UK, and Germany.

Vietnam seeks to be the pivot in relations with China and the US. In other words, Vietnam seeks to develop comprehensive ties with each and make each bilateral relationship important in its own right. As pivot, Vietnam wants China and the US to accept Vietnam as a reliable partner. Vietnam wants to shape its relations with both so it does not have to ally with one side against the other.

In 2003, Vietnam’s Communist Party adopted the terms “to cooperate” and “to struggle” to guide its relations with both China and the US. This formulation overcame an apparent contradiction in Vietnamese ideological thinking: how to explain friction and conflict with socialist China and how to explain areas of common interests with the “imperialist” US. Vietnam decided to cooperate with both but to struggle when Vietnam’s core interests are challenged.

The US has announced a policy of rebalancing its military presence in the Asia-Pacific region. Some Chinese and regional analysts have concluded that the US is attempting to contain China. As part of its rebalancing policy, the US has sought to upgrade its defense relations with Vietnam. Vietnam has been receptive but only up to a point. For example, for the past three years Vietnam and the US have conducted joint naval activities, but these are not military exercises involving the exchange of combat skills.

The best way to view US-Vietnam defense relations is to compare them with China’s defense relations with Vietnam. Vietnam exchanges high-level visits with both countries. Vietnam conducts strategic dialogues with both countries and recently raised the level to that of deputy defense minister with both countries. Vietnam permits all countries to make naval port visits, but restricts this to one visit a year, including the US. In 2010, for example, the USS John S. McCain destroyer visited the Da Nang Port, several months later one of China’s most modern guided missile frigates also called in.

The US would like greater access to Vietnam. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta made that clear during his recent visit to Cam Ranh Bay. But it is highly unlikely that US warships will visit that port soon. Vietnam has opened the commercial repair facilities at Cam Ranh to all navies. The US is the first to take up this offer by sending three military sealift command ships for minor repairs. These ships are logistic vessels, not warships, and are crewed by civilians.

Vietnam’s 2009 white paper on national defense outlines its policy of maintaining independence. I have dubbed this policy “the three no’s:” no foreign bases on Vietnamese territory, no military alliances, and no use of a third country to oppose another country. The US may want to increase navy access to Vietnam but Hanoi will resist a US naval presence to protect its independence.

In 2009, tensions rose in the South China Sea, Vietnam responded by signaling that they supported a US navy presence to counterbalance China. Vietnam demonstrated this in a symbolic way by flying out to US aircraft carriers to observe flight operations. In other words, Vietnam was playing the role of a pivot. It enhanced its cooperation with the US, but did not align with the US to confront China.

Finally, there is another reason why Vietnam will impose limits on its defense relations with the US. An editorial by the Global Times on July 11 captures this point nicely. It states, “Hanoi is counting on China to vindicate its political choices [following the path of China, realizing rapid development by taking the road of gradual reform], but also wants to counter China by leveraging US power.” The commentary notes that Vietnam has to strike a balance between its external relations and domestic political forces.

There are many political leaders in Vietnam who fear that the US has the ultimate objective of regime change through peaceful evolution. Vietnamese leaders are not of one mind on this issue and Vietnam often pursues contradictory policies. For example, Vietnam lobbies the US to remove restrictions on arms sales while repressing bloggers at the same time even though the US has set human rights pre-conditions on arms sales.

In conclusion, the solution to Vietnam’s dilemma, is not, as the Global Times’ editorial advocates, “to coordinate with China to limit the US pivot to Asia,” but to maintain Vietnam’s independence by acting as the pivot between China and the US.

Carlyle A. Thayer

Cold counter to warming US-Vietnam ties

In late May, an analysis of supposed United States intentions toward Vietnam was posted on a popular Vietnamese blog site. The document cited what was purported to be a Vietnamese military intelligence analyst’s report on remarks made by US Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) Claire Pierangelo and three younger American officials named only as Gary, Greg and Chuck.

The blog site, Dan Lam Bao (People Make the News), says the report is one of many leaked to it by an anonymous source. Some foreign experts who have reviewed the document in question believe that it’s a fabrication. Perhaps so, but probably not; a fake would have likely been more expertly done.

The Vietnamese intelligence report’s author cobbles together comments attributed by “sources” to the aforesaid Americans that, he says, provide insight into a supposed US strategy of undermining Vietnam’s communist regime. If so, the analysis is out of step with mainstream views of a budding bilateral relationship.

Vietnam’s rapprochement with the US began in the early 1990s and has developed particular strength in recent years. From the beginning, however, Hanoi’s decision to repair relations with its former foe was controversial within the Communist Party elite.

Party “liberals” argued that the collapse of the Soviet Union left Vietnam with no recourse but to seek to develop its prostrate economy on Western models. “Conservatives” stressed that if the nation shifted to a free-market orientation, as implemented by the doi moi policy, it would be impossible to prevent political and social contamination.

In the 20 years that followed, Vietnam’s economy boomed and relations with the West – including the US – have extended to include vigorous educational exchanges, military cooperation driven by shared wariness of an increasingly assertive China, and a virtually unhindered flood of Western, Japanese and Korean pop culture. It now seems that the predictions of both party factions were correct.

While liberals now celebrate what some refer to as a “strategic relationship” with the US, party conservatives lament a progressive weakening of public morality and the party’s authority. From the perspective of party liberals, the comments attributed to the Americans in the leaked document are hardly outrageous. From the perspective of conservatives, however, their tone, alternately celebratory and disparaging, is likely viewed as offensive.

DCM Pierangelo is quoted as saying the biggest problem with the Vietnamese economy is the leadership’s short-term focus and its incestuous relationship with inefficient state enterprises. “Economic restructuring … is an empty phrase. The government knows its problems, but private and parochial considerations blur their vision and slow the pace of change.”

“Corruption has become a serious disease,” the American DCM allegedly adds, pointedly implicating Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and unnamed ministers, “to the point that the people attribute all bad things to ‘Communism’.” She is said to conclude that the regime’s failures put it on a collision path with the aspirations of an Americanized younger generation.

The economic assessment is consistent with the opinions of experts from international development banks and has long been standard critical fare for op-eds in Western newspapers. It’s what Pierangelo – trained as an economic specialist – might say if giving a private briefing to a group of visiting American businessmen.

In the leaked report, however, she also sounds strangely smug: “The US was worried about the solidity of the China-Vietnam relationship, but [because of the penetration of American culture] now Vietnam has escaped the influence of Chinese culture.”

“Vietnam’s problems are of its own making. … Before, we thought we’d have to spend a lot of money to accomplish our objectives, but that’s no longer necessary … We’ll press Vietnam’s government on human rights issues in order to achieve our [other] strategic objectives.”

Lastly, Pierangelo allegedly sums up: “With all that’s going on in Vietnam right now, the face of the country will change greatly in the next twenty years … It’s very possible that the Communist regime will not endure.”

Naive assessments
Interspersed with the diplomatic bomblets attributed to Pierangelo, Gary (identified as a State Department political officer), Greg (said to be a US Army major) and Chuck (a Marine captain) provide comparative comic relief. These three are apparently recent graduates of the Washington DC-based Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), which is identified by the analyst as an “incubator for CIA agents”.

The three men seem to have been sent to Hanoi on brief “familiarization” assignments. Attributed to them is the sort of commentary one might expect from newbies: (1) people they’ve met in cafes and beer halls are fed up with petty corruption and criticize the government for not standing up to Beijing on South China Sea territorial claims; (2) Vietnamese really hate China, and not just because it plays dirty on the territorial issue; and (3) the Vietnamese are fast becoming Americanized and are real friendly to Americans.

Greg, the supposed State Department official, disclosed, “that if American policy makers understood the situation in Vietnam better, as we do, then surely Americans would regard Vietnam very differently. Americans don’t know much about Vietnam because they haven’t had opportunities to come here and meet the people. Our job [ie, his, Gary’s and Chuck’s] is to help Americans understand Vietnam better. Vietnam now is very close to us.”

To Colonel Nguyen Tan Tien, under whose signature the supposed report was forwarded to the head of military intelligence, the implications of these remarks are clearly sinister: the Americans believe that their “peaceful evolution” policy is succeeding so well that all they have to do is wait for the regime to collapse.

“What’s especially significant,” he says, “is that [they think] the weaknesses and shortcomings of our economy and society, as well as the emergence of pro-American, anti-Chinese thinking, is causing the people to lose confidence in the Party and the regime.”

The reports says: “That establishes a foundation for Vietnam’s ‘self-transformation’, and all it will take to collapse the regime is a nudge by the Americans at the appropriate time. In the short run, the US (particularly the embassy in Hanoi) is finding ways to set up a social network in Vietnam, enticing and converting the younger generation, vigorously propagandizing, causing contention between China and Vietnam … aiming at transforming [and/or] overthrowing Vietnam’s regime within the next 20 years.”

If a novice analyst were making these deductions, diplomatic observers would conclude that he was out of his depth. Colonel Tien, however, is presumably a veteran. The self-serving and overwrought conclusions he extracts from the remarks attributed to DCM Pierangelo and the three other Americans seem calculated to reinforce the suspicions of conservatives among the ruling elite, to wit, that the perfidious Americans are bent on poisoning Vietnam’s relations with China and replicating an Eastern European-type “peaceful evolution” in Vietnam.

Of course, the report may not be genuine after all: there are some who might have both motive and capability to manufacture and disseminate such disinformation. That could include members of the Viet Tan party, an underground/exile group of dissidents which the Hanoi regime insists are criminal terrorists.

Since it published the report described above, the Dan Lam Bao blog has, up to June 3, published three other texts that it claims to have received from the same anonymous source. Two are reports of Vietnamese diplomatic contacts with Chinese counterparts in Beijing, and the third is a memorandum summarizing preparations by the American Chamber of Commerce for a meeting in February with visiting Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell.

The ordinariness of the three other reports suggests that the leaked documents are genuine, not disinformation. Evidently Dan Lam Bao plans to publish about one document per day. A researcher who regularly monitors Vietnam’s blogosphere says that the disclosures haven’t attracted particular attention in the online community of political pundits.

Put another way, it seems that the indiscretions attributed to DCM Pierangelo and the other Americans are of special interest only to those who suspect that America’s real intention in Vietnam is to bring down its government.

Adam Boutzan

Oil could ignite this powder keg

South China Morning Post June 29, 2012 Friday

While talk of disputed islands hogs the headlines, it’s what lies beneath the waves that deepens tension

Greg Torode, Chief Asia Correspondent

For all the Sino-Philippine tension at sea over disputed reefs and the megaphone diplomacy in recent days between Beijing and Hanoi over the Paracel Islands, it is the prospect of an intensifying dispute about international oil exploration in the South China Sea that alarms strategic analysts and diplomats.

The worst-case scenarios are not hard to conceive – rival exploration involving the assets of international firms and flanked by naval ships and paramilitary vessels, all carrying the risk of accident as well as the involvement of larger powers. “We are talking about a powder keg…this could be the big one,” said one veteran military attache. “Tensions over disputed oil exploration could easily degenerate into something far worse.”

The move, announced at the weekend, by the state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation to tender for exploration bids in blocks already being explored by international firms in deals with Vietnam is being seen as a reflection of deepening concern by Beijing about disputed waters that are close to some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

For several years, Beijing has publicly and privately objected to exploration deals between Hanoi and some of the world’s largest oil firms off its coast in waters bisected by China’s controversial nine-dotted line. There have been public expressions of protest, formal diplomatic complaints and, as the South China Morning Post first reported back in 2008, discreet warnings by Chinese envoys to oil firms. The message from Beijing has been clear – the firms are encroaching on Chinese sovereignty and could harm their Chinese interests. Hanoi, obviously, disagrees.

Some firms, including the British giant BP, have pulled out. America’s ExxonMobil – the world’s biggest oil firm – is still there and Indian, Russian and Japanese giants have also moved in, lured by Hanoi as part of its broader policy of internationalising the South China Sea issue.

Beijing’s threats to ExxonMobil played into mounting Washington concerns about reports of Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea. The PetroVietnam conglomerate, meanwhile, is to open talks with more Japanese firms next month, according to diplomatic sources.

Now, after years of frustration, CNOOC is putting nine of its own blocks up for tender. For several years now, mainland oil industry officials have expressed internal concern that they could miss out on potentially lucrative contracts as the South China Sea dispute drags on. Vietnam has repeatedly said they are welcome – but only as a foreign investor, along with other international firms.

“There are highly likely to be future clashes should there be actions taken by any of the countries concerned to try and explore within those blocks,” Professor Clive Schofield, director of research at the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security told Bloomberg. “The designation of blocks is in a sense a proxy way of states trying to reinforce their jurisdictional rights.”

CNOOC’s nine blocks cover some 160,124 square kilometre of ocean – overlapping, according to PetroVietnam officials, Vietnamese blocks held by Exxon, Russia’s Gazprom, India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corp and Talisman Energy of Canada. Chinese surveillance vessels last year clashed with Vietnamese exploration vessels in some of the blocks and also attempted to stop exploration in disputed waters off the Philippines.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei this week described CNOOC’s move as “normal corporate activity”, and urged Hanoi to “immediately stop oil and gas activities that infringe on rights in relevant waters”. Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Luong Thanh Nghi said the move had “seriously violated” its sovereignty and insisted the firm “immediately cancel” the tender.

The two sides also formally exchanged protests over a series of bureaucratic and legal moves in recent days, while Vietnam launched regular patrols across the disputed Spratly Islands by its Su-27 jet fighters.

The sudden burst of rhetoric and action has puzzled some analysts who have described an easing of Sino-Vietnamese tensions amid a flurry of diplomacy and co-operation in the last year. Outlining these connections to a conference in Washington this week, veteran South China Sea scholar Professor Carl Thayer nonetheless warned of potential trouble. “Both China and Vietnam continue to expand their civilian maritime enforcement agencies, and more significantly, modernise their naval and air forces in the South China Sea. … As the “bathtub” of the South China Sea becomes more crowded, the probability of an accidental naval clash rises.”

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