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Is this the end of Beijing's friendly neighbour policy?

Thousands of protesters march in Ho Chi Minh City last Sunday, angry at Beijing

Thousands of protesters march in Ho Chi Minh City last Sunday, angry at Beijing

Planting of giant oil platform in disputed territory off Vietnam signals attempt to re-establish a China-dominated regional order in Southeast Asia

In the run-up to last weekend's Asean Summit in Myanmar, member states were mulling Premier Li Keqiang's proposal for an Asean-China Treaty on Good Neighbourliness, Friendship and Cooperation, and joint plans to forge a peaceful Maritime Silk Road for the 21st century.

Then, just before the summit, China's iron fist emerged from the silk glove to deliver Asean a gift: it sent its billion-dollar oil rig deep into Vietnam's exclusive economic zone and continental shelf. It then rammed Vietnam's surveillance vessels and bombarded them with high-powered water cannon, severely injuring several crew members. At the same time, the Chinese media urged its leaders to teach Vietnam a lesson if they dared protest China's infringement of their "sovereign rights".

Beijing's actions were completely contrary to the diplomatic steps it had taken since 2013 to improve Asean-China relations and bring back confidence in the region, charming its neighbours with promises of restraint and win-win cooperation. China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi's choice of Southeast Asia for his first trip overseas as minister in May last year had raised hope among Asean members that Beijing was prioritising regional diplomacy and that China viewed Asean as a valuable strategic partner.

Then, Asean member states wholeheartedly welcomed the visits of China's President Xi Jingping and Premier Li Kejiang to Southeast Asia in October. Southeast Asian leaders were enthusiastic and hopeful about China's proposals and ideas on the future of the region. They hailed President Xi's address to the Indonesian parliament as historic: that Asean and China should build "trust and develop good neighbourliness" and "stick together through thick and thin".

Asean was further encouraged by Premier Li's proposal on the 10th anniversary of the Asean-China Strategic Partnership to turn relations from a "golden decade" to a "diamond decade" with a Treaty of Good Neighbourliness, Friendship and Cooperation, which advocated adoption of "common and cooperative security" arrangements. China also said that its "Maritime Silk Road for the 21st century" initiative was inspired by Admiral Zheng He's peaceful voyages to Southeast Asia in the 15th century, in which commerce and cultural ties left no place for territorial conquest.

These positive diplomatic statements inspired hope that China was changing its approach to its maritime disputes with its neighbours. Asean leaders were closer to becoming convinced that the "China dream" could also be made "Southeast Asia's dream".

Asean responded in kind, seizing every opportunity to build confidence and cement good relations by showing enthusiasm for China's proposed Friendship Treaty and supporting the Asean-China Maritime Cooperation Partnership.

The regional bloc also agreed to implement the Asean-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), and actively proposed confidence-building measures. Furthermore, Asean and China began consultations and made progress on the much-awaited binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC).

For the first time in years, the situation in the South China Sea was relatively calm, with both sides exercising restraint. There were fewer incidents, despite China issuing new Hainan fishing regulations and raising the prospect of an Air Defence Identification Zone in the South China Sea.

So it was a complete shock to Asean and the international community when China sent its largest oil rig into its neighbour's backyard, claiming the sea territory as its own. China attempted to cow Vietnam with a powerful fleet of both military and paramilitary vessels. At the same time, it dismissed calls to resolve the dispute through dialogue and other peaceful means.

China's escalation of aggression in the South China Sea has mobilised vessels from various agencies and provinces in China. This suggests that its actions are deliberate, well-planned and coordinated from Beijing.

These activities threaten regional peace and stability. They are not only inconsistent with international law, they also disregard China's own pledge to fully and effectively implement the DOC. Furthermore, they are totally contrary to friendly gestures made to Asean by Chinese leaders since 2013.

Beijing's latest highly provocative actions in the South China Sea prove that it is no longer a status-quo power, but is actively seeking to re-establish a China-dominated regional order in Southeast Asia.

Chinese leaders must ask themselves what kind of great power they want China to become. Is it really in China's long-term interests to undermine its own credibility and image by acting completely contrary to its own leaders' pledges to the region and the world? Is it in China's interests to stir up regional tensions and jeopardise the cooperative environment that had been built up since 2013?

Beijing often says that a peaceful and cooperative environment in the region is a prerequisite for Chinese development because it will allow China to focus on domestic issues, in particular on economic restructuring and reform, and to seize the "strategic opportunity" to catch up economically with the United States and the West.

Beijing must consider that Asean has been serious about building good neighbourliness, friendship and cooperative relationships with China. If China loses Asean's trust and friendship, it could be the first country in history to seek great power status with no true friends among its neighbours.

Nguyen Hung Son is deputy director-general of the Institute for South China Sea/East Sea Studies at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam.


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