Vietnam's Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh (L), Philippines' Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario (C) and Laos' Foreign Minister Thongloun Sisoulith (R) arrive at the foreign ministers' meeting for the ASEAN summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, April 26, 2015. Photo: Reuters
Vietnam and the Philippines have thrown support behind plans to beef up the US military presence in waters near China's newly-built islands in the East Sea, the Vietnamese term for the South China Sea.
“The Philippines believes that the US, as well as all responsible members of [the] international community, do have a legitimate interest and say in what is happening in [the] South China Sea,” Charles Jose, the spokesman for the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, said in a statement sent to Thanh Nien News on Thursday.
The Pentagon is weighing sending US military aircraft and ships to assert the freedom of navigation around China's rapidly expanding artificial islands in the East Sea, Reuters reported Tuesday.
The newswire quoted a US official as saying the US is reviewing options that include sending aircraft and ships within 12 nautical miles (22 km) of the reefs China has been building in the Spratly archipelago, which Vietnam claims as its own.
"We are considering how to demonstrate freedom of navigation in an area that is critical to world trade," the official told Reuters anonymously, adding that any options would require White House approval.
‘Playing chicken with the Chinese’
Recent satellite images show China made rapid progress in building an airstrip suitable for military use in the Spratly Islands and may be planning another, Reuters said. Satellite photos released earlier last month provided fresh evidence of the scale of the Chinese program by depicting a flotilla of vessels dredging sand onto Mischief Reef, according to AFP.
China routinely outlines the scope of its territorial claims through maps featuring a “nine-dash line” that encircles about 90 percent of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer resource-rich sea. The maps flew in the face of competing claims from four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) -- Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei—and drew international condemnation
Asked about Vietnam’s reaction to US plans to crank up military engagement in the Spratlys, Le Hai Binh, spokesman for the Vietnamese foreign ministry, trod carefully.
Binh said every action by every party in the East Sea must comply with international laws and ensure maritime and aviation safety, before adding: “Vietnam welcomes all efforts from the international community, including the US, to maintain peace, stable cooperation and development in the East Sea,” referring to the hearing on maritime issues in East Asia that was called by the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on May 13.
In his testimony at the hearing, Department of State Assistant Secretary Daniel Russel reiterated the US engagement has been crucial in placing the East Sea and maritime cooperation at the top of the agenda in the region’s multilateral forums.
“We also underscore that the United States will not hesitate to defend our national security interests and to honor our commitments to allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific,” Russel said.
One option Washington is considering is to fly Navy surveillance aircraft over the Spratly islands.
By doing so “the US is obviously playing chicken with the Chinese, purposely disturbing the supposed 12-nautical mile boundary by air and by sea. In the past, the US military has usually avoided this kind of provocation,” Richard A. Bitzinger, a maritime analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, told Thanh Nien News.
“I don’t think anyone can stop the Chinese, short of invading the islands and kicking the construction workers out – and that would mean engaging on battles with [Chinese] soldiers and sailors,” Bitzinger said.
“But the US, by engaging in such activities, is laying down a gauntlet: It’s making a statement that it doesn’t recognize any Chinese sovereignty around these artificial constructs.
Vietnam defends its own activities
China's Foreign Ministry Hua Chunying bristled at the Pentagon plan and demanded that the US not take any actions that prove risky or provocative.
Facing diplomatic barbs from the US and Southeast Asian leaders for its massive ongoing land reclamation effort in the Spratlys, China recently snapped back, pointing the finger at Vietnam and the Philippines and others by accusing them of carrying out their own “illegal” construction work.
On May 7, the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) released satellite imagery confirming that Vietnam "has engaged in land reclamation in recent years" on Sand Cay and West Reef, two features in the Spratly Islands.
Vietnam defended its own land reclamation activities on Thursday. Binh, the foreign ministry spokesman, insisted Vietnam's activities were wholly aimed at improving existing physical facilities to serve the minimum daily needs of island residents who are citizens of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
“Vietnam has several times expanded some of the islands which are under its jurisdiction, but on a very small scale, mostly constructing ridges against shore erosion; building a dock and wharf; (and providing) logistics for fishing services. Our construction and expansion efforts haven't changed the status quo," he said.
West London Reef is pictured in the South China Sea in 2015, in this handout photo provided by CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/DigitalGlobe. New satellite images show Vietnam has carried out significant land reclamation at two sites in the disputed South China Sea, but the scale and pace of the work is dwarfed by that of China, a US research institute said on May 7, 2015. Photo: Reuters
International analysts weigh in on the spat in two ways.
On the one hand, they own that China's land reclamation activities dwarf Vietnam's in scope, scale, and speed. On the other hand, they maintain that Beijing has good reason to question US objectivity in this matter.
“If the US is truly ‘neutral’ regarding the sovereignty issue, its 'freedom of navigation' exercises should include other submerged features claimed and enhanced by others -- like Vietnam,” said Mark Valencia, a Hawaii-based expert.
But the analysts also expect that the latest US plans could help assuage fears that China’s reclamation activities in the South China Sea represent a “platform for enforcing an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ)” in the South China Sea like it did in 2013 in the East China Sea, where it had a separate dispute with Japan.
“A Chinese ADIZ that includes some disputed Spratly islands and their maritime space could be very destabilizing. It would be a manifestation of the worst fears of the US, Japan and Southeast Asian nations that China wants to control the South China Sea,” Valencia said.
“Indeed, this is the ‘red line’ that the US has drawn. If China declares an ADIZ over much of the South China Sea it could be the straw that breaks the back of peace and stability there.”
Infamous oil rig looms large
At a regular press briefing Thursday, Le Hai Binh, spokesman for the foreign affairs ministry, said Vietnam has kept a close eye on the path of a giant mobile oil rig that bedeviled Vietnamese-Sino relations last year.
“The Vietnamese Coast Guards said they and other concerned agencies have kept close tabs on the rig to brace for any developments,” Binh said.
On May 6 the China Maritime Safety Administration announced that the Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil rig would operate in the East Sea for ten days. It is currently operating in waters 75 nautical miles southeast of Hainan Island, China's southernmost province.
The Vietnamese Coast Guard told the media on Thursday that, so far, the rig has remained parked in Chinese waters.
On May 2 of last year, China's deployment of the the rig into Vietnamese waters triggered two months of skirmishes between coast guard and fishing vessels. China withdrew the rig in mid-July. Since then the two countries have sought to patch up ties by exchanging high-ranking bilateral visits.