In the face of fierce criticism from the international community, China perhaps had no choice but to suspend its attempt to "change the status quo by force" when it ended its operations to drill for oil near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.
The operations were originally scheduled to continue through mid-August but ended earlier because “work proceeded smoothly,” according to China’s explanation. Undoubtedly, however, China bowed to the international pressures and curtailed the operations.
In early May, China unilaterally started drilling for oil in a sea zone also claimed by Vietnam, which strongly urged it to halt its operations. Chinese and Vietnamese vessels rammed into one another repeatedly, sinking a Vietnamese boat in one instance and escalating the tension to a dangerous level.
Large-scale anti-China demonstrations erupted in Vietnam one after another, while its government waged an international campaign denouncing China for its unjustness. Perhaps China had not expected that Vietnam – increasingly becoming economically dependent on China – would put up such fierce resistance.
Exposing a greater miscalculation by China was the fact that Japan, the United States and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations swiftly rallied behind Vietnam to strengthen their cooperation to counter China.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe criticized China for its self-righteousness at international conferences and on other occasions by repeatedly underscoring the importance of the rule of law in light of China’s territorial claims, which have no grounds in international law. His assertions were widely accepted in the international community.
Stronger Japan-US ties backed
Strengthening the Japan-US alliance through the approval of the exercise of the right of collective self-defence has won the support of many countries concerned.
With its policy of focusing on Asia, the United States made it clear it is willing to actively engage in South China Sea issues. At a time when Beijing is trying to exclude the United States from building an Asian security order, it is significant that the United States is squarely challenging such Chinese endeavours.
At their foreign ministerial talks in May, Asean members – whose stances toward China usually differ – took the concerted action of expressing “serious concerns” about the dangerous situation in the South China Sea.
China’s isolation could not have been any clearer.
A series of international meetings awaits China. The Asean Regional Forum, which will be joined by Japan, the United States and China, will be held early next month, while China will host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meeting in Beijing in November.
China apparently wants to avoid being the target of criticism in these forums. Some observers predict that the country will exercise self-restraint for the time being.
Even so, China will surely not change its strategy of expanding its territories and maritime interests in the South and East China seas.
Japan and the United States must brace themselves for a prolonged, hegemonic campaign by China.
It is notable, however, that accumulated efforts by the international community have borne some fruit this time around. Factoring this experience in, the nations concerned should try to persuade China to constructively participate in an initiative to build a new Asian order.