How pivotal is the US ‘pivot’ to the East Sea dispute?

By An Dien, Thanh Nien News

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US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel meets with Vietnam's Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh (R) before the start of their meeting in Singapore May 31, 2014. Hagel traveled to Singapore to attend the 13th Asia Security Summit. Photo credit: Reuters US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel meets with Vietnam's Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh (R) before the start of their meeting in Singapore May 31, 2014. Hagel traveled to Singapore to attend the 13th Asia Security Summit. Photo credit: Reuters
China has not ceased upping the ante in the East Sea despite the US' words of support for its smaller neighbors, a gesture that has drawn great anticipation in Vietnam
China has begun building a school on an island that it took from Vietnam illegally by force in 1974, two years after establishing a frontier settlement there to administer most of what the rest of the world calls the South China Sea.
The Philippines said over the weekend that it had lodged a protest with Beijing for seizing a disputed reef on the Spratly Islands--the fourth such complaint Manila has filed in three months as Beijing continues to pursue its controversial claim to nearly all of the resources in the oil-rich waters Vietnam calls the East Sea.
China’s relentless, unilateral efforts in recent months to stake out its claims have continued to stoke tensions in the region, leaving smaller neighbors -- particularly Vietnam and the Philippines -- increasingly counting on the US commitment to reinvigorate its military and economic influence in the fast-growing region.
But analysts say such a “commitment” cannot contain China’s rising assertiveness.
“The US is committed as we can see from statements from Washington. The question is, would ‘commitment rhetoric’ stop China?” Yun Sun, a China security policy expert with the Washington-based think tank Stimson Center, told Thanh Nien News. “I personally don’t think so. China is behaving assertively in the South China Sea because it believes it can.”
“This assessment is not only based on China’s growing military capacity, which dwarfs the capabilities of perhaps all other Southeast Asian claimant countries combined, but also on a strong conviction in China that the US will not use its hard power to counter Chinese actions.”
An analytical piece by the Financial Times last month pointed out that to preserve the status quo, the US needs to stop every step China takes, something it has been unable to do.
“China needs merely to pick a few small battles that it knows the US has no wish to fight. Bit by bit, Beijing is creating new facts on the ground, or rather in the sea and in the air. With each new incident, it is throwing down the gauntlet,” the piece said.
‘All available means necessary’
On Saturday, AFP quoted Chinese news agency Xinhua as saying that the school on Chinese-held Sansha (or Woody Island in the Paracel archipelago) will serve about 40 children whose parents work there, adding that construction will cost about 36 million yuan (US$5.8 million) and take a year and a half.
Vietnam has slammed China for a raft of efforts to hunker down in the Sansha garrison. Though the population of Sansha city, established in 2012, is no more than a few thousand--most of whom are fishermen -- it was tasked with administering China's vast claims in the East Sea and its myriad mostly uninhabited atolls and reefs.
The new Philippine protest over China's land reclamation efforts in the McKeenan Reef in the Spratly Islands followed an objection against China in April for its large-scale reclamation and earth-moving activity on Johnson South Reef, which the Philippines said might be intended to turn the tiny outcrop into an island with an airstrip, according to AFP.
Manila later announced a similar challenge over similar reclamation projects on the Gaven and Cuateron Reef. All four reefs were already occupied by Chinese forces but are also claimed by the Philippines.
Beijing routinely outlines the scope of its claims with reference to the so-called nine-dashed line that takes in about 80 percent of the 3.5 million square kilometer East Sea on Chinese maps -- which have been emphatically rejected by international geographers.
China’s claims have pitted it against four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
Analysts say, from a Chinese perspective, that the most transparent and direct explanation of China’s rising assertiveness in the East Sea is simple.
“China believes that its past unilateral restraint has done nothing to improve its position regarding [the sea] disputes and this inaction has in fact resulted in other claimant countries strengthening their presence and claims,” Sun said.
“Therefore, for China to improve its position in the current climate or for future negotiations, it must first change the status-quo through all available means necessary.”
Tug of war
On May 2, China deployed a giant $1-billion oil rig into Vietnamese waters, sparking ongoing confrontations between vessels near the rig and triggering peaceful anti-China protests that erupted into violence in central and southern Vietnam in mid-May.
The two countries have also traded barbs ever since. China, which insisted the rig was in its sovereign waters, has accused Vietnam of sending ships to disrupt the rig's operations. 
Vietnam has maintained that Chinese ships have rammed, sunk and fired water cannons against a fleet of civilian and police vessels attempting to protect their sovereign maritime territory.
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has said his government would consider legal action against China to resolve the dispute over the rig's deployment. In March, the Philippines also submitted a case to an arbitration tribunal in The Hague, challenging China's claims to the East Sea.
At an international press conference held Monday (the fifth of its kind since the deployment of the oil rig) Colonel Ngo Ngoc Thu, deputy commander of Vietnam’s coast guard, shrugged off allegations that Vietnamese ships had rammed Chinese vessels 1,547 times. 
Thu said they've simply reversed the situation: Vietnamese vessels were rammed and damaged; 15 fisheries patrol staff and two fishermen remain injured.
Thu also dismissed Chinese allegations that Vietnamese frogmen dispatched obstacles into the water to disrupt its drilling operations.
Since the oil rig row broke out, the US, which has reiterated its "pivot" towards the economically resilient Asia-Pacific region, and its allies have been quick to condemn China.
The placement of the oil rig came on the heels of US President Barack Obama's visits to its Asian treaty allies, Japan and the Philippines, both of which were bogged down in territorial disputes with China.
But analysts have said the US strategic "pivot" towards the Asia-Pacific will not help defuse the tension. On the contrary, it could aggravate the situation as Beijing sees America's desire to contain its growth in everything it says.
“The US involvement and statements are just fueling nationalistic sentiment in both the Philippines and Vietnam,” Sam Bateman, a maritime security researcher at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, told Thanh Nien News.
‘Words don’t stop the Chinese’
Since tensions over the oil rig flared up, the Vietnamese-language media has remained constantly on the lookout for any US condemnation of China's actions as they believe that any story that carries US criticism will grab the attention of an increasingly nationalistic audience who appear to buy the US's commitment rhetoric in the region.
Analysts say that given the longer periods of French colonialism and Chinese aggression against Vietnam, and given the strategic importance of the US in the world after 1975, it should not come as a surprise that the Vietnamese people and their government were ready to put the past behind them more quickly with the US.
"The Vietnamese have been more willing to forgive the US than other countries with which they have been at war," said Edwin Martini, author of Invisible Enemies: The American War on Vietnam, 1975-2000 and an associate professor of history at Western Michigan University.
In a wide-ranging speech on foreign policy to US military cadets at West Point last month, President Barack Obama said that the “regional aggression that goes unchecked “- whether it's southern Ukraine, or the East Sea, or anywhere else in the world - will ultimately impact American allies, and could draw in its military.
Such statement has apparently raised high hopes among the Vietnamese audience that the US will intervene should an armed conflict break out at sea.
At the Shangri-La Dialogue late last month in Singapore, Asia’s biggest security forum between senior military leaders and experts, a top Chinese military officials bristled at criticism from US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel who described China’s recent actions in the East Sea as “destabilizing, unilateral actions.”
“The Americans are making very, very important strategic mistakes right now. If you take China as an enemy, China will absolutely become the enemy of the US," Major General Zhu Chenghu, who heads the National Defense University of the People’s Liberation Army, was quoted by the Wall Street Journal as saying.
Analysts say there is no desire within the Obama administration for a foreign policy legacy that includes a conflict with China.
“Our commitments and our purpose is not to wage war -- it is to prevent war,” Daniel Russel, the US Assistant Secretary of State, said during a teleconference last week.
Given that, it is not difficult to project the course of action the US is taking should China continue upping the ante.
“Coercion and the threat of force as a mechanism for advancing territorial claim is simply unacceptable, and the US has been outspoken in criticizing and condemning activities that fall into that category,” Russel said.
Analysts point out that in 2012, when China seized control of a disputed reef known as the Scarborough Shoal, preventing Filipino fishermen from getting near the rocky outcrop, the US “did nothing,” even though the Philippines is it treaty ally -- something Vietnam is certainly not.
But still, the US “commitment” has continued to make headlines in Vietnamese-language newspapers, including major dailies. It therefore remains to be seen how such sentiment will unfold.
“If the Vietnamese media and public are fishing for and satisfied with ‘words’ from [the US], I wonder how they will react when ‘words’ don’t stop the Chinese,” Sun, the Washington-based expert, said.
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