06/03/2013, 00.00
ASIA - UNITED STATES

Beijing against everybody in the South China Sea

Hanoi wants to create a united front among ASEAN countries to counter China's predominance despite the fact that Beijing is also its main ally and trading partner. Domestic protests against Beijing mirror the struggle against the country's one-party state. The United States beefs up its alliance with Japan and the Philippines. China shows restraint ahead of a meeting between Barack Obama and Xi Jinping.

Hanoi (AsiaNews/Agencies) - Hanoi is trying to create a united ASEAN front against Beijing's claims in the South China Sea. At the 12th annual conference on security in Asia, the so-called Shangri-La (SLD) dialogue, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said that the nations of Southeast Asia must stay "united" in opposing China. However, Vietnamese leaders are equally concerned about domestic protests against China's 'imperialism' since its northern neighbour is its main ally. Such are the fears that when 150 protesters came to demonstrate against China in a Hanoi park, security officers outnumbered them. Vietnamese leaders fear that anti-Chinese resentment could turn into a popular movement against their own one-party state.

For its part, the Chinese delegation at the summit called for cooperation to reduce tensions in the Asia-Pacific region, an area of vital strategic interests for the United States. Both the South and East China Seas are important for their oil and natural gas reserves as well as key trade routes.

US Secretary Defence Chuck Hagel, who was also at the three-day meeting, raised the ante, by calling for closer political and trading ties with the Philippines, Indonesia and Japan, much to the disappointment of Beijing.

The Obama administration wants to take advantage of the region's economic growth to boost its own struggling economy.

By contrast, for Beijing, the growing US presence, increasingly tied to Manila and Tokyo, is an attempt to contain China's own growing military and economic presence. However, on this occasion, the Chinese delegation kept a low profile, showing an attitude of greater overture than in the recent past.

At the same time, a charm offensive by senior People's Liberation Army (PLA) officers, less than a week before Chinese President Xi Jinping meets US President Barack Obama for an informal summit, appeared to be designed to tone down China's recent assertiveness by emphasising co-operation and discussion.

For the Philippines, such an approach of overture is welcome. Manila remains a key US ally in the region.

Among the nations of the Asia-Pacific region, China has the most extensive claims in the South China Sea, including the almost uninhabited but resource-rich Spratly and Paracel Islands.

Controlling the area is of vital ​​strategic importance for trade as well as oil and natural gas development.

Beijing's expansionist aims have been met by counterclaims by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, the Sultanate of Brunei and Taiwan.

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