The absence of support for Vietnam by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in the country's contest with China over a drilling rig in the South China Sea raises questions about how seriously nations of the region take the threat of Chinese bullying.
The issue springs from the rise of China as an economic and military power in Asia and in the world. The United States, in President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines and in his policy pivot to Asia, is taking Chinese ambitions seriously and making moves to counter them.
One point of friction is the contested sovereignty over assorted uninhabited islands, perhaps containing petroleum deposits, in the East and South China Seas and claimed variously by Brunei, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam and China. These include the Paracels, the Scarborough Shoal, the Spratlys and what the Japanese call the Senkakus and the Chinese the Diaoyus. During his visit last month, Obama said the United States stood with Japan in its dispute with China.
The most recent skirmish was between Vietnam and the Chinese, who installed a large oil rig near the Paracel Islands, 200 kilometres off the Vietnamese coast, and defended their right to be there with naval vessels.
The Vietnamese expected that the Asean countries, meeting in Myanmar last weekend, would have supported them with a resolution against China. Although four of its 10 members have such disputes with the Chinese, such support did not come. It’s plausible that China exerted economic or political pressure on Asean members, but how much is unknown.
The question for the United States becomes, if nations near China aren’t willing to speak with one voice and defend their interests on issues of sovereignty, then why should the United States?