Beijing is switching to quiet tactics this year following a series of claims over disputed islands that raised concerns across the region, said an expert on the East Sea -- the Vietnamese term for the South China Sea.
“China is now quietly consolidating its presence in the South China Sea through land reclamation, an increased presence of fishing fleets and larger mother ships, larger Coast Guard vessels and more military exercises by the People’s Liberation Army Navy,” Carl Thayer from the University of New South Wales said in an online discussion with journalists last week.
Beijing is advancing a larger agenda through its proposals for land and maritime “Silk Roads”, he said.
He predicted that Beijing will continue to “neutralize” the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), keeping members of the bloc from joining the US-Japan alliance.
“China has close relations with Malaysia, this year’s ASEAN Chair. Malaysia prefers to keep South China Sea disputes quiet. This will suit China,” he said.
Thayer noticed that Beijing enjoyed another advantage as the Philippines has also opted to “a low-key approach" to its dispute with China so as not to jeopardize its claim to a UN tribunal.
In December, Vietnam publicly backed the Philippines in its arbitration case against China at the UN tribunal in the Hague. China has refused to participate. The Philippines expects a ruling early next year.
“This leads me to believe that all will be quiet on the South China Sea front this year,” said Thayer, who has written many commentaries about the South China Sea and Vietnam.
Code of conduct
China routinely outlines the scope of its territorial claims through maps featuring a so-called nine-dash line -- a demarcation that includes about 90 percent of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer East Sea.
But these maps have been emphatically rejected by international experts and fly in the face of competing claims by four ASEAN members -- Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei.
A slew of squabbles between China and ASEAN claimants in the disputed East Sea have prompted protracted negotiations on a formal code of conduct (COC) aimed at easing lingering tensions.
Commenting on the progress of talks between ASEAN and China on the COC for the East Sea this year, Thayer said it is unlikely that the two sides could reach an agreement anytime soon.
All will be quiet on the South China Sea front this year" - Carl Thayer
“So far the ASEAN-China consultations have agreed only on the structure and general form of the COC. Specific details remain to be worked out,” he said.
“ASEAN wants a binding COC. It is unlikely that China will agree to a COC with treaty status,” Thayer added.
Despite improved relationship between Vietnam and the US, Thayer said he did not think there would be any big change in Washington’s policy towards the East Sea.
“The US will continue to be neutral with respect to competing territorial and sovereignty claims. The US will step up its support for Vietnam’s maritime security by aiding the Vietnam Coast Guard. US interests are limited to freedom of navigation, over flight and unimpeded lawful commerce," Thayer said at the live chat, which was part of an online course on Vietnam-US relations run by the Washington-based International Center for Journalists.
"The US will oppose China use of coercion but not militarily. Having said this, China must be careful not to overplay its hand in relations with Vietnam”, he concluded.
Several other analysts have pointed out that since President Barack Obama announced the much-touted "pivot" towards the Asia-Pacific region in 2011, the US has always tried to reassure Asia that it is a vocal critic of China’s claim to the East Sea. But it turns out that the best Washington can do is to merely wage wars of words against Beijing.