Vietnam in the “go game” of China-Japan-US

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[Translated from Vietnamese by Vietnamnet] During a recent trip of journalists from 14 countries in the Asia – Pacific region to the US, China, the Philippines and Singapore to discuss the East Sea (South China Sea) dispute, VietNamNet reporter Hoang Huong talked with two researchers with the Institute of Southeast Asian studies (ISEAS) of Singapore, Dr. Malcolm Cook (Canada) and Dr. Le Hong Hiep (Vietnam).

Hoang Huong: Relating to East Sea disputes, the Vietnamese Government has repeatedly emphasized “Vietnam will not rely on any country to fight against a third country”. With the current developments in the East Sea, what do you think about Vietnam’s policy?

Dr. Malcolm Cook: I do not think that Vietnam will change its policy over growing tensions with China in the East Sea. These tensions are not new and Vietnam has not changed the policy after previous situations. The East Sea dispute with China is Vietnam’s largest external security challenge.

Vietnam in the “go game” of China-Japan-US

Dr. Malcolm Cook and Dr. Le Hong Hiep.

Dr. Le Hong Hiep: Vietnam’s “three-no’s” principle has advantages but also limitations.

On one hand, this principle helps Vietnam retain independence, self-reliance in foreign and defense policies.

On the other hand, in the context of China promoting its claims in the East Sea, including coercive measures, if Vietnam is absolutely loyal to this principle, Vietnam will face trouble because it cannot take advantage of outside resources and support.

Therefore, while maintaining the “three-no’s” policy, Vietnam needs to boost military and security cooperation with key partners.

Vietnam is moving towards this direction, and I think it is a right and feasible choice, in the context that strategic competition between the major countries in the region is on the rise.

Hoang Huong: International media has been updating the East Sea situation and the US-China “cat and mouse game”. What is your personal view?

Dr. Malcolm Cook: I think the chance of a military conflict between China and the US in the East Sea is low but increasing. Low because the US alliance commitments do not cover any of the claimants’ claims, and China does not want a direct military conflict with the US.

The risk is growing because China’s massive land reclamation activities are military in nature and if China did try to limit the freedom of navigation of US naval vessels in the future in the East Sea, the United States would likely not accept this.

Dr. Le Hong Hiep: Strategic competition between the two powers like the US and China is inevitable. The “cat and mouse game” situation or the confrontation will increase and be more frequent.

But I do not think that the two sides are moving to the brink of a Third World War. Instead, it is likely that they will fall into a strategic situation like the Cold War, whereby the two sides will compete fiercely with each other in terms of strategy, competition for influence in the region, be it an arms race, and try to restrain and undermine each other, but they will not conduct direct conflicts.

The possibility that the two countries conduct conflicts through the hands of others is also not high as during the Cold War. Moreover, significant economic interdependence also prevents warlike intentions from all sides.

In this context, Vietnam preferably maintains the current status, but depending on the changes, especially in China’s actions, gradually adjusts its strategic position accordingly with national interests.

Hoang Huong: What is your opinion about the US’s “power rebalance” strategy in the Asia – Pacific? From the case of the Philippines’ Scarborough, it is quite clear that the US is ready to have an intervention at some level in the East Sea disputes.

Dr. Malcolm Cook:  I think rebalancing and pivoting are unfortunate titles as they suggest major change on the part of the US. But the US has been the major security provider in East Asia since the World War II and a major economic partner as well.

The US continuity not changing should be the focus. The US position on the Philippine claims in the East Sea has been very consistent; they are not covered by the US-Philippine mutual defence treaty. The Philippines made its claims in the East Sea long after the defence treaty with the US had been signed.

Dr. Le Hong Hiep: After a period of hesitation, the recent developments show that the United States is determined to more strongly implement the power rebalance policy in East Asia. The US patrol in the East Sea is an example.

But the US is a global power. They have interests and concerns in many regions in the world, and the East Sea is one of them. The US will not quickly concentrate all resources and political will on the involvement in the East Sea.

Anyway, I think that the US involvement will be increasing, depending on the level of threat caused by China’s actions in the East Sea. If China conducts military conflicts with the claimants then surely the US response would be more drastic; at least the US can apply economic sanctions as it has imposed on Russia.

But it is more likely that China will continue to apply the “salami slice” tactic as it has been doing, promoting its claims but not to a level to cause conflict. In that case, the US will only apply measures to challenge China’s claims.

Hoang Huong: It seems that ASEAN countries are divided in related to the East Sea issue because of China’s influence. Do you think that ASEAN can maintain its independence and stance on the East Sea issues?

Dr Malcolm Cook: I think even the East Sea claimants in ASEAN are divided with Vietnam and the Philippines willing to act like front-line states against China, while Malaysia and Brunei do not, despite Chinese incursions into Malaysian waters.

So if ASEAN member states with claims in the East Sea are far from united in their approach to China, ASEAN as a whole cannot be except in very general terms.

Dr. Le Hong Hiep: It is true that ASEAN is somewhat divided in how to deal with China. But we need a clear distinction of the two fields of economics and politics.

Economically, most of the countries in the region are dependent on China, and they want to have good relations with China to take advantage of the opportunities offered by this country. Strategically, most of them are afraid of the rise and growing assertiveness of Beijing.

Malaysia is an example. Previously, Malaysia was considered to be “close” to China. Recently, their attitude to China has changed. On May 25, Malaysia signed a declaration establishing a strategic partnership with Japan, which emphasizes defense cooperation. Many observers believe that the driving force behind this decision was a common concern for China.

Considering the balance of influence, economically most countries in the region are in favor of China; but in terms of strategy, most of them are in favor of the US, or at least they are trying to escape from the orbit of China, except for a few special cases.

In this context, ASEAN still plays an important role in helping countries cope with the rise of China. In the East Sea disputes, ASEAN’s role may not be as big as the wish of many countries, but obviously that role is still undeniable.

In other words, ASEAN is only part of the solution for countries like Vietnam in the East Sea issue. The rest is in other places, including internal resources and bilateral relations with key partners.

Hoang Huong: Japan announced its plans to give $110 billion for infrastructure in Asia, immediately after China started to grant $100 billion to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. How should we understand about Japan’s move?

Dr Malcolm Cook: It is a good time for Southeast Asian states with both Japan and China competing for influence and offering large sums of the money to support infrastructure development in Southeast Asia. Southeast Asian states should take the money on offer from both Japan and China.

Dr. Le Hong Hiep: The current time is a special period in East Asia when both China and Japan are strong. Previously, only China or Japan was strong. This situation makes the competition for influence between China and Japan understandable. Japan’s plan shows that Japan will challenge China’s ambitions to use the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to leave the Asian Development Bank (ADB), an institution dominated by Japan.

Japan’s commitment is part of a broader response, including political and military aspects, to gradually untie Japan, to help this country have a greater role and a better position to restrain the rise of China, especially when that rise is threatening to topple the regional order that has long benefited Japan.

Hoang Huong: Do you anticipate an “economic war” between Japan and China? If so, how will it affect the Vietnam economy?

Dr. Malcolm Cook: I think that Japan and China are involved in an economically focused competition for influence in South East Asia.

Dr. Le Hong Hiep: The role of Japan in general is laudable because Japan provides other resources to balance the rise of China.

For Vietnam, Japan has an important role. I can say that Japan is the most important partner of Vietnam at present, because Japan has real power, and the will to help the countries in the region to cope with pressure from the rise of China.

Vietnam – Japan relations also have a solid economic foundation. Particularly, Japan is a country in the region, so they are also affected directly from the rise of China. So the share of strategic interests of Japan with countries like Vietnam is huge and strong. A distant power may neglect in engagement with the region, but for Japan, it is very unlikely to happen, because it involves vital interests of Japan.

In this context, competition for economic influence between Japan and China is likely to continue, especially if Japan’s Abenomics economic reform program is a success.

If so, the countries of the region including Vietnam will benefit because they will have more resources and more options to access, while the risk of too much dependence on one power will reduce.

Hoang Huong

Source: Vietnamnet Bridge

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