Here's another one to file under "Life's little ironies." Vietnam's Communist Party boss Nguyen Phu Trong (the country's "paramount leader") meets with Obama at the White House—a first, coming exactly 20 years after US-Hanoi diplomatic relations were restored. Why now? The Washington Post flatly states that Obama "is seeking to reconfigure a historically difficult relationship with Vietnam into a strategic partnership against China." White House officials "said Hanoi has been signaling interest in forging deeper economic and military ties with the United States," and also emphasized that Vietnam "is among the 12 nations involved in an expansive Pacific Rim trade pact." That's the Trans-Pacific Partnership—which is nearly openly conceived as a counter-measure to China's economic rise.
Not at all coincidentally, Trong's visit comes as tensions are again rising in the South China Sea. Just as Trong arrived in Washington, China's ambassador to the Philippines, Zhao Jianhua, announced that Beijing will not participate in Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) hearings over disputed islands and shoals that Manila says China has annexed illegally under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. China holds that the PCA lacks jurisdiction, while saying it would be open to bilateral negotiations on the issue. When it convenes this week, the PCA will first consider whether it does have jurisdiction to consider the case. (Jurist) (Note that Manila calls the South China Sea the "West Philippine Sea.")
Tensions have mounted since the Philippines, Vietnam and other claimant nations discovered that China has undertaken massive "island-building" projects in seven reefs and atolls in the disputed archipelago called the Spratlys. Vietnam claims the Spratlys had been under its control since the 17th century, but they were seized by China in World War II when Vietnam was under Vichy-Japanese occupation. After the war, the colonial French drove off the Chinese and re-established control. But Vietnam apparently did little to hold the archipelago subsequently, and China has been in effective control of most of the islands for some 20 years. The situation is further complicated by Manila's claims, yet other claimants (Malaysia, Brunei)—and the de facto "two Chinas" situation. Itu Aba, the biggest island in the Spratlys, is held by Taiwan. (Philippines Inquirer)
Then there's the nearby and also disputed Paracel Islands. China announced last month it has brought the deepwater oil rig Haiyang Shiyou-981 back to waters near this archipelago, which Vietnam calls the Hoang Sa Islands. When the rig was first put in place last year, it sparked a crisis. In May, China withdrew the rig from disputed waters, and things de-escalated. Now it is back. (Thanh Niem, June 26)
Also last month, a Vietnamese fishing crew said they were attacked by a Chinese vessel using water cannon in disputed waters near the Paracel Islands. In a separate incident, another Vietnamese fishing boat in the same area was surrounded by four Chinese vessels and had its equipment and catch seized, according to Vietnam's state media. (AFP, June 15)
The month before that, the Chinese navy issued warnings eight times as a US surveillance plane swooped over the Spratly Islands. It all seems a little scripted. A CNN crew was conveniently aboard the US P8-A Poseidon spyplane, and (now famously) heard the radio message: "This is the Chinese navy… This is the Chinese navy… Please go away…to avoid misunderstanding." China lodged a diplomatic complaint over the incident, and CNN notes that Beijing's new "White Paper" on military policy calls for taking naval operations to the open seas. CNN also quotes Chinese military spokesman Col. Yang Yujun charging that the overflight was done to "dramatize regional tensions" and to "find an excuse for a certain country to take actions in the future." Very subtle. (CNN, May 27)
Ahead of a June meeting of the Shangri-La Dialogue, aimed at easing US-China tensions, US Defense Secretary Ash Carter singled out Beijing as a source of instability in the region and called for "an immediate and lasting halt" to the island-building. "The United States is deeply concerned about the pace and scope of land reclamation in the South China Sea, the prospect of further militarization as well as the potential for these activities to increase the risk of miscalculation or conflict among claimant states," Carter said. (CNN, June 1) The US has also accused China of moving two large artillery vehicles into one of the artificial islands. (The Guardian, May 29)
Vietnam's current tilt to Washington is certainly an historical irony, but it is a reaction to a resurgent China treating Southeast Asia as a "backyard"—just as Nicaragua tilted to the Soviets in the 1980s in response to the US treating Central America as a backyard. The sabre-rattling on both sides is pathological, and to be opposed. If the CNN report is to be believed, social media users in China are waxing bellicose in support of their government, much as commenters on Fox News are spewing the predictable Sinophobic, jingoistic swill. It would be nice to find some anti-war dssidents in China who oppose their government's expansionism, and loan them some support. Instead, we can trust the stateside Idiot Left to uncritically rally around the Beijing regime, which is utterly unhelpful. We continue to say that the real progressive demand is that all sides stop their dangerous brinkmanship, and that China, Vietnam and the Philippines alike leave the Spratly Islands oilfields alone. Risking world war for the privilege of spewing more carbon into the atmosphere? Really?