A US Senate resolution which, among other things, urged China to withdraw its giant oil rig from Vietnamese waters has been welcomed by Vietnam and the Philippines, but several analysts say the move may only stoke the already simmering tensions in the region.
On July 10, the divided and partisan US Senate unanimously passed a resolution affirming “the strong support of the United States government for freedom of navigation and other internationally lawful uses of sea and airspace in the Asia-Pacific region, and for the peaceful diplomatic resolution of outstanding territorial and maritime claims and disputes.”
The resolution also touched on hot-button issues like the East China Sea dispute between China and Japan, the constitutional changes allowing Japan's use of the right of collective self-defense, and the Japan-US relationship.
It used strong words to condemn China's "unilateral actions" to change the status quo in disputed waters, particularly Beijing's decision to declare the air defense identification zone over the East China Sea last December.
Analysts are already scrambling to decode the significance of the Senate resolution. Many have disdained it as a toothless but destabilizing wrench thrown into an already tense situation.
“It is a very comprehensive resolution that says a lot more about US perceptions of the maritime security situation in the East and South China Seas than just the freedom of navigation,” Sam Bateman, a maritime security researcher at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, told Thanh Nien News.
“It addresses a range of issue associated with the sovereignty disputes between China and the other claimant countries," he said.
The Senate began debating the draft resolution in April and amended it in late May to include new developments--particularly China's towing of the US$1-billion Haiyang Shiyou-981 oil rig into Vietnam’s 200-nautical exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.
The rig remains roughly 30 kilometers from the Paracels in the East Sea (internationally known as the South China Sea).
China continued to bulk up an aggressive fleet around the rig to chase off Vietnamese police boats, triggering peaceful protests that erupted into violence in central and southern Vietnam two weeks later.
The violence left hundreds of foreign-owned factories vandalized and three Chinese nationals dead.
Japan, a US treaty ally, remains embroiled with China over ownership of islands in the East China Sea. Chinese ships routinely sailed into waters near the disputed islands, while Japan has scrambled fighter jets to chase off intrusions near its airspace, according to an AFP report.
The Philippines (which recently filed a case with an arbitration tribunal at The Hague to challenge China's claims in the East Sea) and Vietnam have been quick to applaud the Senate resolution, urging the US to continue to “make strong, practical, effective and constructive contributions to peace, stability, security, safety and freedom of navigation and aviation in the region.”
China has bristled at the US's strategic “pivot” towards the Asia-Pacific, blaming it for aggravating tension in the region. Several analysts back this argument, saying Beijing sees America’s desire to contain its growth in every move it makes.
Soon after the Senate passed the resolution, Congressman Eni Faleomavaega, a ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, called on the House of Representatives to join the fray in reiterating “our unwavering commitment and support for our allies and partners in the region.
“Left unchecked, I believe China will continue to bully its way through the region, and such provocative action on the part of China will not bode well for the region or the United States,” Faleomavaega said in a statement sent to Thanh Nien News.
China digs in
Beijing routinely outlines the scope of its territorial claims by referring to maps featuring a nine-dashed line--a demarcation that takes in about 90 percent of the 3.5 million square kilometer East Sea.
Chinese maps featuring the line have been emphatically rejected by international geographers. Moreover, the maps fly in the face of competing claims by four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) --namely Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
In late June, Beijing unveiled a new official map that portrayed these contested islets, shoals and waters as integral parts of China’s territorial limits. In recent weeks, China dispatched three more oil rigs across the East Sea, while ramping up a number of land reclamation projects on small islands in the Spratly Islands (also part of the East Sea), where it plans to build airstrips and other long-term facilities.
Game changer or just hot air?
Analysts point out that the Senate’s resolution is not a law, so it is not binding. Given that, the Obama administration is not bound to do anything other than what it is already doing, they say.
The major stumbling block is, according to the analysts, that while the US often invokes the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) -- to which Vietnam and China are signatories -- it has failed to ratify the treaty. At least 164 countries including several major US allies have done so.
“This is the same Senate that continually refuses to ratify the UNCLOS, which makes our condemnation of China's skewed interpretations, seem hollow and hypocritical,” said Zachary Abuza, a Washington-based Asia analyst. “If the Senate really wanted to do something significant, it would ratify the UNCLOS,” he said.
Analysts also say the resolution is “hawkish” in its language with a focus implicitly or explicitly on military activities and it's not difficult to imagine China’s reaction to the resolution and what it will mean for the lingering sea tensions.
“[China] will come out with some strong language criticizing the resolution,” Bateman said. “This will certainly stoke tensions in the South China Sea.”