Tectonic plates of instability in the Asia-Pacific region shifted on the margins of the World Economic Forum (WEF) on East Asia in Manila last week, heralding the emergence of a new security alliance in response to the aggressive occupation by China of di
A war of words between China and the United States, as well as its allies in the region, including Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, over increasing Chinese incursions into their territories dominated the backdrop of the forum, regarded by the Philippines as a showcase of its turnaround from being the “sick man of Asia” to becoming the “next Asian economic miracle”.
Unfortunately, security concerns over maritime disputes escalating into armed conflicts dampened the celebratory mood.
China’s decision to boycott the forum loomed, a menacing shadow overshadowing the conference theme, “Leveraging Growth for Equitable Progress”.
The theme was all but lost, as forum officials pointed out that “economies in East Asia face significant risks to their continued prosperity, in particular the challenge of inequality and threats to peace and stability in the region”.
The forum opened on an acrimonious note – the threat posed by recent incursions by well-armed China Coast Guard ships into disputed waters.
After talks, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and President Aquino, in a rare show of solidarity, issued a joint statement declaring that Vietnam and the Philippines would jointly oppose “illegal” Chinese actions in the South China Sea.
Dung called on the world to condemn China for causing what he called an “extremely dangerous” situation in the South China Sea by deploying an oil rig near the Paracel Islands, putting it in conflict with Vietnam and the Philippines, and providing the anchor for a Manila-Hanoi security alliance.
“The two sides are determined to oppose China’s violations and call on countries and the international community to continue strongly condemning China and demanding China to immediately end the violations,” Dung said.
The Philippines, a US treaty ally, has been more vocal in opposing China than Vietnam but Hanoi was incensed by the deployment of the oil rig, triggering anti-China rioting in Vietnam.
Vietnam appears to be shifting its approach by joining hands with Manila in aligning its legal move with the Philippines. Manila last year filed a case against the Chinese claims in the United Nations International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in The Hague, the Netherlands.
Dung on Thursday said that Vietnam was considering legal action against China. Dung told AP that Vietnam would fiercely defend its territory but would never resort to military action “unless we are forced to take self-defence action”.
“Like all countries, Vietnam is considering various defence options, including legal actions in accordance with international law,” Dung said after talking with Philippine officials. He did not specify what legal action Hanoi was considering.
When asked if Vietnam would risk going to war over disputed waters, Dung said: “Military solution? The answer is no. Vietnam has endured untold sufferings and losses from past invasive wars … We are never the first to use military means and would never unilaterally start a military confrontation unless we are forced to take self-defence action.”
Aquino did not mention the Philippines’ territorial disputes with China when he and Dung faced journalists, but said he and Dung discussed how their countries could enhance their defence and economic ties.
“In defence and security, we discussed how we can enhance confidence-building and our defence capabilities and interoperability in addressing security challenges,” Aquino said.
Against these statements, China maintained a belligerent stance. Reuters reported on Friday that China warned Japan to stay out of the growing dispute between it and its neighbours, apparently in an effort to blunt the formation of an expanded security alliance among Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines backed by the United States.
The warning came after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed concern over regional tensions that he said were stoked by China’s “unilateral drilling”, referring to China’s parking of the giant rig near the Paracels, which are claimed by Vietnam. The Philippines joined the fray by blaming the slowdown in talks to end the disputes on China’s activities in the South China Sea.
The Philippines has been pushing for a “code of conduct” in the South China Sea that will prevent the territorial disputes from erupting into conflict.
But a Philippine Foreign Ministry official said that there had been “changes” on the ground since the talks began.
“There are a lot of build-ups, a lot of construction going on … we realise that people are already doing some kind of fencing,” the official said, referring to China’s land reclamation on Mabini Reef (Johnson South Reef) in the West Philippine Sea.
Last week, the Philippines released aerial surveillance pictures showing the transformation of the reef into an islet where the Chinese appeared to be building an airstrip.