Professor Chen Jie explains the Spratly triangle

–Note: apologies to email subscribers for the incomplete draft sent out just now. I didn’t realise the Iphone app could interpret an errant finger swipe as an instruction to “publish now”. I will hopefully finish it off today after i’ve spoken to some more friends.–

In the dispute over the Spratly Islands, a China-Vietnam-Philippines triangle of active claimants has taken shape, with external great powers the US, India, Russia and perhaps even Japan lurking, anxious about possible trouble and eager to seize any strategic opportunity. The interview translated here, recorded in November 2011 following several months of intense diplomatic maneuverings, offers an excellent recap of how we arrived at the more direct competition of 2012, as well as touching on the issues raised in the previous post.

The three sections, indicated by the host’s questions in bold, canvass:

  1. Vietnam’s diplomatic triple-dealings with China, India and the Philippines in October 2011;
  2. The connections between great-power politics and Vietnamese ruling-party politics; and
  3. The difference between the Philippines’ and Vietnam’s approaches.

The interview was broadcast by the multilingual Australian SBS Radio with with Jie Chen 陈杰, Professor of International Relations at the University of Western Australia. Professor Chen is an expert on Southeast Asian and Chinese foreign policy who is supervising my PhD project.

Dialogue” with Martin Li 李卫国

November 23, 2011

Host: Since last year, China’s sovereignty issues with its Asian neighbours over the South China Sea have gotten more and more intense. In this whirlpool of dispute, China’s relations with many Asian countries have become complex, convoluted and delicate. On this topic today, I’m pleased to welcome Associate Professor Jie Chen of the University of Western Australia’s political science department to give us some analysis.

Let’s talk first about China-Vietnam relations. In the past 6 months Sino-Vietnamese relations have been constantly tense, and within Vietnam there have been quite a number of anti-China protests and demonstrations. But recently Vietnamese General Secretary Nguyen Phu Truong visited China and appeared to cool things down. The Philippines protested against the cooperation agreement that China and Vietnam signed during that visit, but just 10 days later it was releasing a joint statement with Vietnam aimed at checking China. How do you explain these convoluted and tangled 错综复杂 relationships?

Jie Chen: I think “convoluted and tangled” is a very good way to describe these relationships. In terms of Vietnam’s actions, yes their General Secretary visited China not long ago and held talks about the South China Sea issue with China’s leaders. But when I saw that being reported I didn’t think this was any kind of breakthrough. [. . .]

I think the best they were hoping for with their meeting was to improve relations, help prevent the situation flaring up. As you mentioned, a whole host of other moves followed after the Vietnamese General Secretary visited China. I should also add that during Nguyen’s visit other Vietnamese leaders [e.g. PM Trong Tan Sang] were visiting India, whose warships have appeared in the South China Sea recently. But even more important from Vietnam’s perspective has been bringing the US into the South China Sea equation. Vietnam and the US Pacific fleet are cooperating more and more closely.

So I think this is a very interesting occurrence. On the one hand you have China and Vietnam trying to calm things down — Vietnam wanting to deal with China. On the other hand, Vietnam has long been extremely distrustful of China. I mean, they talk about being comrades and brothers, it’s all very old school, but looking at the past 20-30 years of history, Vietnam’s leaders wouldn’t just sign up with China.

So with this in mind Vietnam’s actions, whether big or small, are quite understandable. Stabilize relations with China, and at the same time bring in external great powers, especially America, bring in the power of India, and form a united front with other ASEAN countries to act as a check on China. I think these are measures Vietnam’s leaders feel they can use.

So even if CCTV emphasises that this single visit is of the calibre of some kind of breakthrough, the South China Sea issue can be summed up in a sentence: increasingly complex, and the chance of conflict increasingly cannot be ruled out.

Host: We mentioned the agreement signed by Vietnamese State Chairman Truong Tan Sang and Filipino President Benigno Aquino III, while China and Vietnam’s agreement was between the Party General Secretaries, Nguyen Phu Trong and Hu Jintao. Does this imply some dissension on the issue within the Vietnamese state?

Jie Chen: Signs of this dissension are easy to find. It goes back several decades to when Vietnam was unified and it found itself oscillating between the two powers of the PRC and the USSR. After the leadership chose the USSR and signed an alliance agreement, a number  [error in translation] one of the Politburo [Hoang Van Hoan] had to flee to China. So it’s not just about the Spratly dispute, Vietnamese leaders have, since that time, always had differences over the big questions of how to conduct relations with China.

So while in one sense we can see Vietnam as intentionally bringing in America and cozying up with other ASEAN countries, we do on the other hand have reason to believe, or rather guess, that various different actions to some extent reflect different voices in the government.

This applies not only on the South China Sea, but also on the larger issues of how to forge a path between the two powers of China and America, which all the ASEAN countries, and Australia, are grappling with. But for Vietnam, although it’s an ASEAN country, it has some unique feelings towards China. At the end of the day, they’re countries with a common ideology, yet Vietnam is the only country to have fought a war with China over the South China Sea.

Don’t forget that in the 1980s when the PRC for the first time occupied a feature in the Spratly Islands and built those reef fortresses, that was a Vietnamese-controlled feature that China took over, and quite a few Vietnamese were killed in the battle. Then there was the Paracel Islands, which China took by force from South Vietnam in the 1970s. This put Vietnam is in a very awkward position, and its diplomatic operations are objectively more complex than other ASEAN countries.

Host: Let’s talk about another claimant country, the Philippines, which has allegedly been the most vocal, and the most provocative party to the dispute. Is the Philippines breaking away from the pack?

Jie Chen: The reason the Philippines has been so active in the South China Sea dispute, is not just the sovereignty dispute. In terms of sovereignty, it’s China and Vietnam that have the most expansive claims, both claiming the entirety of the Paracels and the Spratlys.

With the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia, the extent of their claims is basically the islands in their backyard. The Philippines now controls 7 or 8 islands, Vietnam 20-something, but Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia’s claims are all, without exception, largely on the basis of the 1982 UNCLOS — a 12 nautical mile territorial sea, and a 200-mile exclusive economic zone. So at least their conflicts with China have some limit. Vietnam and China are different, their basis is historical discovery and use, so the scope is huge.

The reason for the Philippines’ activism is not about how much is in dispute with China. It is because the Philippines sees itself as an American ally with a special relationship with the US, which will prop them up. And to some extent that is quite logical. The Philippines Navy is the weakest in the South China Sea, and the Philippines economy is the worst in Southeast Asia [this may have changed somewhat in the intervening 10 months, but Vietnam is still growing at more than 4% – SCS].

Now, at times their common defense treaty has proved to just be fantasy, like in 1994-95 when China took Mischief Reef from the Philippines by stealth, but America didn’t say anything. But recently, the Philippines has felt different. Since about two years ago the Obama administration has been saying things that make the Chinese extremely worried, like that the disputes directly affect America’s national interests.

The Philippines, as an American ally, apparently took this to mean America would more actively help in the South China Sea. This would explain why its rhetoric has seemed hardline, and a principal reason why it has been more active even than Vietnam.

Vietnam is more cautious. Its relations with the US are still in a period of defrosting and reconstruction after the two countries’ previous enmity. Vietnam invited the US Pacific Fleet to come and do joint exercises [in June 2011], which was a start in developing military and security cooperation. The alliance between the US and the Philippines is established and institutionalised, so as soon as America came out and stated its position, the Philippines understandably felt that with such a powerful supporter it could afford to take a hardline stance.


2 Comments on “Professor Chen Jie explains the Spratly triangle”

  1. Jim C. says:

    In regards to the Philippines activism recently, it has nothing to do with its ally, the US and its Pacific pivot, rather, it is a reaction to PRC actively staking claim beyond the disputed territories in the Spratlys and venturing to other areas such as Reed Bank.

    Chen jie also failed to appreciate that among the three countries, the Philippines is the only democratic country and has multi party political system that affects its policies. in fact, during the term of former Pres. Arroyo, the China-Philippines relation was very high with talks of joint explorations in disputed areas and even Reed Bank. She’s facing criminal charges now, the US made the Pacific pivot, and the Philippine economic growth is phenomenal.

    Further, the professor seems to have a narrow perspective of diplomacy. The Philippines “activism” in the dispute is not based or even dependent on the perceived US stand. It may have been the other way around since china’s expansionism is not limited to the Philippines “backyard”, it encompasses the whole SCS and up to the 2nd island chain. I think it is obvious how this will affects the securities and economies of major nations such as Japan, Australia and the US.

  2. […] that they will strongly influence or even define many viewers’ impressions of this extremely complex, convoluted and vitally important maritime dispute. So amidst the surge of interest, it’s worthwhile […]


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