With little signs of any let up in China's relentless push into the South China Sea, in a bid to consolidate its territorial claims in the disputed waters, neighboring states, especially Vietnam and the Philippines, are confronted with dangerous possibilities: Either risk confrontation with a mighty China, or consider territorial acquiescence. While neighboring states such as Japan have ample amount of hard power and military hardware to keep China's ambitions in check, the likes of Vietnam and Philippines are far more vulnerable.
"Somewhere in the region, there have emerged preferences for unilateral might, groundless claims, and actions that run counter to international law and stem from imposition and power politics," Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung lamented alt the recently-concluded Shangri-La Dialogue, a top-level gathering of defense officials and experts from across the Asia-Pacific region and beyond. "Looking back at the full picture of the region in the past years, we cannot fail to be concerned over the simmering risks and challenges to peace and security."
Locked in a bitter and increasingly ferocious maritime standoff with China, Vietnam and the Philippines have, especially since 2010, heavily banked on revitalized security ties with Washington to push back a resurgent China.
Where is the Love?
Three solid years into the so-called U.S.' 'pivot' to the Asia-Pacific region, however, it is still far from clear whether Washington could serve as a credible deterrence against China's growing maritime assertiveness. If anything, aside from the U.S.' deepening fiscal woes, the recent cabinet reshuffle -- easing out the main architects of the 'pivot' strategy, namely former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell -- bodes deeper ambivalence as to the pace, intensity, and trajectory of America's hegemonic re-assertion in the Pacific theatre.
Far from re-affirming the wisdom of increased American military presence in the Western Pacific, Secretary of State John Kerry is -- so far and for the foreseeable future -- deeply invested in resolving the deadlock in the Syrian crisis, preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power, and repairing strategic ties with an increasingly assertive Russia under the Putin 2.0 administration.
In light of deepening bilateral mistrust over allegations of Chinese cyber espionage against U.S.' military and civilian entities, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagal, meanwhile, has been focused on containing Sino-American tensions by deepening institutionalized bilateral exchanges among top-level defense officials.
The U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, will soon replace National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon, widely seen as the White House' main force behind the 'pivot' strategy. Samantha Power, a strong advocate of humanitarian intervention, will take over Rice' position. The Susan-Power dyad, representing the "liberal Hawks," perhaps signals a more vigorous push for intervention in Syria in coming months, which, in turn, could precipitate new fissures within the Obama administration by undermining Kerry's parallel diplomatic initiatives.
An Alliance of Necessity
The leadership transition in China, meanwhile, saw President Xi Jinping's swift and firm consolidation of power over the state apparatus -- accompanied by a non-stop escalation in the country's diplomatic and para-military push into the Western Pacific. Backed by a booming military expenditure and grappling with rising popular nationalism, the Chinese leadership has chosen to play the territorial card in order to preserve domestic legitimacy amid growing economic uncertainties and social discontent.
Against such gloomy backdrop, Vietnam and the Philippines, have sought deeper security ties with the two Asian powers of Japan and India to keep a rising China in check. With Vietnam's former Deputy Foreign Minister Le Luong Minh occupying the helm of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung taking an increasingly pro-active position on resolving South China Sea disputes to the delight of Manila and other partners, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's vision of a Pacific alliance of like-minded states is ever-closer to fruition.
The Failure of Regionalism?
Given China's growing economic pie and regional profile, many Asian neighbors, locked in age-old territorial disputes, have, quite naturally, sought to (a) maintain strong bilateral relations with Beijing and (b) find amicable means to prevent direct conflict.
In the last year alone, however, a series of actions by the People Liberation Army's Navy (PLAN) and its paramilitary wing have provided further ammunition for China hawks across neighboring states, who (a) see little benefit in making overtures to China and (b) firmly believe in the necessity of coordinated, sustained counterbalancing measures. Soberly appreciating the limits of American commitment to constrain China's relentless territorial assertiveness, threatened neighbors have moved towards greater intra-regional interaction, self-reliance, and cooperation among like-minded states.
A re-emphasis on balance of power politics is due to the inadequacies of an institutional-legal remedy. China has squarely rejected the Philippines' push for international arbitration of the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, despite vocal support by the European Union and the United States. Multilateral measures, under the auspices of the ASEAN, have fallen short of just even developing guidelines for a binding Code of Conduct (CoC) in the disputed waters, leaving member states with the non-binding rhetoric of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC).
While Filipino leaders were quick to claim that the latest ASEAN Summit marked a consensus on resolving the South China Sea disputes, observations by other participating states, however, suggest that there was actually no such clear-cut position by the regional body. After all, without China's consent, it is far from clear how concerned parties could even agree to establish the rudimentary contours of a binding CoC. While contending that it has 'indisputable' and 'inherent' sovereignty over disputed maritime features, basically undercutting any serious attempt at legally disaggregating wide-ranging territorial disputes, China's military has been creating facts on the ground, through a so-called 'cabbage strategy': Chinese Navy (PLAN) supporting a batch of surveillance vessels escorting 'fishermen' to disputed features.
For many experts, it seems that Japan and China have, meanwhile, been sleepwalking into full-scale conflict over disputed features in the East China Sea. On its part, India has not only been alarmed by China's sabotage activities against its joint energy projects with Vietnam in the hydrocarbon-rich areas of the South China Sea, but also caught off guard with the recent 'intrusion' by PLA troops into India's claimed territories along the disputed Himalayan borders.
Vietnam Steps up to the Plate
Among its peers, Vietnam has been the most consistent and pro-active in placing a more tangible leash on the rising tensions across the Western Pacific, while calling to attention China's growing assertiveness. The U.S.' pivot, after all, kicked off under Vietnam's ASEAN leadership, which saw a dramatic re-focus on developing a binding CoC as part of a larger scheme to draw the line against further territorial belligerence by Asia's rising power.
Bearing in mind its bloody history of confrontation with China in the disputed waters, Vietnam has developed a dynamic and diversified set of strategic and security partnership with the likes of Japan, Russia, India, and the U.S., while encouraging peers such as the Philippines to take a more vocal stance within the ASEAN and other relevant international fora. Absent Vietnam's support, the Philippines would have found itself in a considerably isolated position within a regional body largely filled by China's major trade (e.g., Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand) and strategic partners (e.g., Cambodia and Laos) -- making it very difficult for Manila to tilt the scale in favor of a more assertive ASEAN position vis-à-vis China.
Vietnam's leadership, cognizant of the risks posed by China's expanding military capabilities, has also been at the forefront of efforts to constrain China's territorial posturing by rallying regional support for a diplomatic resolution of the disputes. Under the leadership of seasoned Vietnamese diplomat, former Deputy Foreign Minister Le Luong, the ASEAN has gradually reconstituted itself after the fiasco under Cambodia regional chairmanship, which threatened the integrity of the regional body. And Brunei, the new ASEAN chair, seems to have responded positively to Mr. Luong's initiatives, which has gained considerable support from founding members such as Indonesia.
"To begin with, Vietnam has a profound confidence in the bright future of development and cooperation in our region. Yet the trend of increased engagement and competition, particularly by big powers, not only offers positive elements but also involves negative risks that require us to take initiative and work together," declared Vietnamese Prime Minister Dung at the Shangri-La Dialogue. "To build strategic trust, we ourselves need to abide by international law, to uphold the responsibilities of nations, especially of major powers, and work to improve the efficiency of multilateral security cooperation mechanisms."
Earlier this year, the Vietnamese leader also held crucial bilateral talks with Filipino President Benigno Aquino on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit (April), a clear signal of close bilateral coordination on the South China Sea disputes.
For all these reasons, Vietnam seems to be in an ideal position to play a critical role in institutionalizing closer coordination among like-minded states in light of China's relentless territorial push, giving birth to an emergent security diamond in the region.
A similar version of this article was published on Asia Times Online.