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Should the U.S./EU Send Naval Observers to the South China Sea?

Should the U.S./EU Send Naval Observers to the South China Sea?

photo: South China Morning Post

The Boston Global Forum (BGF), a non-profit forum for international scholars, hosted its opening session on July 2, aiming to engage leaders from the United States, Asia, and the United Nations to discuss the crisis in the South China Sea.  BGF Chairman and Co-Founder Michael Dukakis moderated the discussion, with the active participation of Professor Ezra Vogel, Professor Thomas Patterson, Professor Kosaku Dairokuno, Ambassador Shinji Yanai, Ambassador JD Bindenagel, Professor Jonathan London, Deputy Assistant Secretary Michael Fuchs, and Bui Viet Lam of VietNamNet.  The conference was the opening session in a month-long series that will engage various political and thought leaders on how to build a framework for peace and stability in the region.

Back in the South China Sea, the tension between Vietnam and China continued after China arrested six Vietnamese fishermen on July 3 in disputed waters near the Gulf of Tonkin, which lies off Hainan Island.  The same day, a Vietnamese boat was severely damaged by a Chinese ship while operating in fishing grounds near Hoang Sa (Paracel) archipelago.

Both sides have persisted in trading accusations over similar skirmishes, with Hanoi accusing Chinese ships of ramming its fishing boats and Beijing having earlier accused Hanoi of “interfering” 1,416 times with the operation of its HD981 offshore oil drilling rig, which was deployed to the disputed waters in the South China Sea on May 2.  Vietnamese media reports that Beijing now has a fleet of over 110 ships of various types, including four military ships to protect its rig, and is monitoring the situation with flyovers from military aircraft and helicopters.  Despite promises of leaders from both sides to manage disagreements ‘‘using peaceful measures’’, the tension at sea has led to numerous collisions, the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat on May 26, and anti-China riots in Vietnam during which four Chinese workers were killed.

These latest scuffles follow the failure of the two sides to reach agreement during a high-level meeting between Vietnamese leaders and China’s top foreign policy official on June 18.  Yang Jiechi, China’s top foreign policy official, said in Beijing on June 21 that his country “will never trade our core interests or swallow the bitter fruits that undermine our sovereignty, security and development interests.”  In an interview posted on a government website that same day, Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang promised to “defend our land and sea”, even quoting Vietnamese King Le Thanh Tong, “If you dare to concede even a single inch of the land of our ancestors to the enemy, it will be a crime deserving of death.”

With so many boats now or expected in the water, the likelihood of further collisions sparking a war are not farfetched, and both sides are reluctant to be blamed for escalating the crisis.  Indeed, a “blame game” is being played out after members of the Vietnamese media climbed aboard ships last month to record Chinese aggression.  Videos showing Chinese naval vessels striking Vietnamese boats were widely shown on local television and Vietnamese news websites, including many international media outlets.

Beijing now seems willing to document video evidence of Vietnamese aggression, which the Vietnamese claim is being fabricated — showing Chinese ships moving in reverse into the path of Vietnamese vessels in an attempt to make it appear as though the Chinese boats are being rammed. With diplomatic efforts apparently incapable of moving either side off their hardline positions, and the battle for international favor being led by biased and unverifiable national media, what can possibly be done to understand the situation and reduce tensions?

One potential solution to reducing tension and eliminating national media bias in the South China Sea comes from BGF, which “urges the United States and the European Union to deploy naval ships to the region as observers, particularly around the Chinese HD981 oil rig, which has ventured into Vietnamese waters, and risks sparking a war between China and Vietnam.”

While most of us can agree that BGF’s attempt at getting a clearer picture of what is really going on is desirable, sending more naval ships into the disputed waters may be adding fuel to fire, depending on the size and number of the naval ships deployed to the region.  Chinese ships patrolling the waters of an offshore oil rig are likely to feel threatened should these Western naval ships be large, armed or in great numbers.  The Chinese know they stand to lose face if they pull out of the waters, unless they convince their nationalistic critics back home that the drilling activities of the rig were completed well before the August 15 deadline set earlier.  Beijing is already alarmed over the U.S. “pivot” toward Asia, and may send additional ships to the disputed waters, increasing the potential for miscalculation.  Beijing is monitoring the action on the waters closely – Vietnamese coast guard officers reportedly spotted two U.S. reconnaissance aircraft, EP-3 and RC-135, flying just 200 meters above the Chinese oil rig on June 30, and another EP-3 reconnaissance plane was seen flying about three kilometers above the drilling rig on July 2.

Instead of sending more naval ships into the disputed waters, the concerned international community would do better to borrow a technique from the Philippine government.  In late March, Chinese attempts at thwarting their efforts to resupply its military outpost on the disputed Second Thomas Shoal were recorded by international media onboard Philippine vessels, and the Philippines were able to successfully cultivate international opinion in their favor.

The right mix of Western and Eastern media could be far more neutral in documenting future scuffles than would U.S. and EU naval observers, and would be less threatening than Western naval ships patrolling the waters.  While the Chinese may be reluctant to invite members of the international media onboard their vessels, with international media observers onboard Vietnamese ships, Vietnamese bias might be eliminated, and Chinese vessels might be shamed into showing some restraint.  Sending Western naval ships into disputed waters risks escalation of existing tensions — a better preliminary step is to use neutral, non-threatening observers to reduce tensions and enhance the rule of law.



Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Twitter@ForeignDevil666