One of the two Vietnam Russian-built missile-guided frigates is seen docked at a bay in Manila November 25, 2014. Vietnam last November showed off its two most powerful warships in the first-ever port call to the Philippines but an official said it was not trying to challenge China's superior naval forces amid tension in the East Sea. Photo credit: Reuters
Vietnam has joined the Philippines in condemning China’s attempts to build islands in the East Sea in what analysts say could be yet another futile verbal effort to stop Beijing.
“Vietnam resolutely opposes China’s illegal construction projects that jeopardize the status quo on the Truong Sa Archipelago,” Pham Thu Hang, deputy foreign ministry spokeswoman, said at a press briefing Thursday, using the Vietnamese name for the Spratly islands.
“We demand that China immediately stop such reclamation work and not repeat similar wrongful actions,” she said, reiterating that Hanoi has indisputable sovereignty over the Spratly and Hoang Sa (Paracel) island chains in the East Sea, also known as the South China Sea.
Since August, after withdrawing from Vietnamese waters the infamous oil rig
that bedeviled Sino-Vietnamese ties, China has continued to pursue a number of land reclamation works around small islands in the Spratlys.
The Philippines has since last year accused Beijing of reclamation work in the Cuarteron, Johnson, Johnson South and Gaven reefs also in the Spratlys.
On Thursday Philippine foreign secretary Albert del Rosario repeated a warning that Beijing was reclaiming land around isolated reefs to turn them into islands which could hold fortified positions or even airstrips, AFP reported.
It quoted del Rosario as saying that the Chinese actions in the Spratly islands would impact freedom to navigate the strategic mineral-rich waters through which large volumes of the world's trade pass.
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 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) -- Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei.
Analysts say the latest statements by Vietnam and the Philippines are just verbal barbs with China showing no signs of backing down from its expansive claims to the East Sea.
“If Vietnam and the Philippines don't complain it will give the impression they are giving in to China,” Dennis McCornac, a professor at Loyola University in Baltimore (Maryland), told Thanh Nien News.
“Thus, the verbal barbs are more for show than anything else and what is more important are diplomatic efforts on all sides to address the issue.”
‘Diplomatic dressing without any meat’
Del Rosario said Thursday that he would raise the issue at an upcoming meeting of AEAN foreign ministers in Malaysia and push for countries involved in the dispute to adhere to a code of conduct to not increase tensions in the maritime region.
"I will re-emphasize this and invite the concern of the ASEAN states because it is a threat to all of us," AFP quoted him as saying.
But skeptics say no one in ASEAN besides Vietnam and the Philippines would take up the gauntlet to confront China. Even host Malaysia, which has overlapping claims, is expected not to make the issue a priority at the forthcoming meeting.
It is in this context that, as ASEAN chair, Malaysia is likely to be buffeted by strong diplomatic crosswinds from China and the US as well as its respective supporters in ASEAN, according Mark Valencia, a Hawaii-based analyst.
“It will be interesting to see whether Malaysia bends and, if so, which way. It must find a ‘Goldilocks’ position - not too fast for China and its ASEAN supporters, but not too slow for the Philippines and Vietnam (and the US),” Valencia said.
“Even if it opts to make no progress at all rather than antagonize China or the US, stresses and strains within ASEAN may lead to more intra-ASEAN quarrelling and enhanced cleavages. This would weaken ASEAN's centrality in regional affairs.”
For the US, which has always tried to reassure Asia that it is a vocal critic of China’s claim to the East Sea, the best it can do is to merely wage wars of words against Beijing.
Zach Abuza, an analyst based in Washington, noted “very little tangible” coming out of the recent US-Philippines security dialogue.
“There were no new pledges of aid and assistance, no weapons transfers, no new policies or programs. It was very diplomatic dressing without any meat,” Abuza told Thanh Nien News.
“The US might have been concerned about the rapid reclamation on the five Philippine claimed features, but it doesn't seem to be willing to do anything to stop it. That leaves the Philippines with nothing else but their legal and diplomatic strategy.
“My feeling is that this is a year of consolidation for China in the [East Sea].”