These last few weeks, China has extracted a great deal of satisfaction from the disarray of those who would curb its territorial ambitions in the seas stretching south from Hainan Island. Its deployment of the deep sea oil drilling rig Haiyang 981 into disputed waters off Vietnam's coast was tactically brilliant.
Yes, Beijing has been generally condemned as an aggressor. How can the rig's deployment not be regarded, as an American spokesman put it, as "provocative…part of a broader pattern of Chinese behavior to advance its claims over disputed territory in a manner that undermines peace and stability."
The question is what, if anything, can be done about it.
Caught by surprise, the Vietnamese have managed to avoid being drawn into a shooting war, but that's their only success. While Chinese oilmen drill test wells, screened by more than a hundred naval and paramilitary vessels, Vietnamese patriots are reduced to bickering amongst themselves, beating up Chinese factory foremen and vainly scanning the horizon for the arrival of the American warships.
The 7th Fleet isn't coming. Unlike its predecessor, the Obama Administration is chary of foreign entanglement, and well it should be. There's just no domestic constituency for taking on distant bad guys. The American public's not just disenchanted by the misguided foray into Iraq and the seemingly endless conflict in Afghanistan, it's also been battered by a wrenching recession and a recovery from which only the already well off have so far profited. Reading the public's mood, Obama's refused to engage in Syria, let alone Ukraine, and there's just no compelling narrative that would justify another American commitment to Vietnam, notwithstanding its lodgment in American consciousness.
Dealing here with hypotheticals, two things might have drawn the Americans in.
First, if the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) had joined in rejecting China's virtually groundless assertion of sovereignty over the seas stretching far to the south of Hong Kong and Hainan Island, the US might have had a place to anchor a tangible commitment to regional security.
Second, were it possible to portray Hanoi as moving towards an open political system that accorded basic human rights to every citizen, Obama could have made a case for the idea that aiding Vietnam was the right thing to do to repair wounds now half a century old.
Neither has happened. Thus, while Washington seems prepared to draw a line around Japan, Korea and also, probably, Singapore and the Malacca Straits, the US Navy is giving the confrontation off Vietnam's coast a wide berth.
Arguably, the US is prepared to see Vietnam "finlandized."
Worse things could happen, perhaps. Finlandization is a term, born in the early years of the Cold War, that acknowledges that the proximity of smaller countries to great powers puts constraints on their sovereignty. Those with long memories will recall that by pledging not to align against the USSR, Finland escaped the more oppressive servitude inflicted on Russia's east European satellites.
In fact, Finlandization fairly well sums up the posture that the more conservative and ideological wing of Vietnam's ruling Communist Party has consistently advocated for Vietnam. Whether that's a viable policy remains moot. China's deployment of the Haiyang 981 into Vietnam's EEZ, just the most recent and dramatic of steps that assert its dominion, suggests (as I argued in Asia Sentinel on May 7) that the conservative wing's efforts to win Beijing's trust have failed entirely. However, the conservatives' conclusion from the present crisis may be that their sincere effort to establish harmony was sabotaged by a subversive alliance of non-Party intellectuals and relative liberals within the Party.
The game's not over yet, however. Come August, the beginning of the typhoon season, Chinese tugs will tow Haiyang 981 back whence it came. During this respite, it's just possible that Vietnam and its neighbors can form up a credible posture against further Chinese aggression.
Hanoi has invested a lot of its political capital in ASEAN, regarding it inter alia as a bulwark against Beijing's quest for suzerainty over the South China Sea (SCS). Trouble is, ASEAN is not a collective security entity, and as an organization it has been near-deaf to the pleas of Vietnam and the Philippines for backing against Chinese aggression. Each of the other eight ASEAN members has to a greater or lesser degree regarded Vietnam's quarrel with China in the northern part of the SCS as not its problem. Rather than offend China, Cambodia and Thailand in particular have frustrated efforts to form up a strong ASEAN position on management of territorial disputes in the SCS.
If a consensus of 10 is impossible, why not a consensus of six? Why should those ASEAN members with a direct interest in fair and harmonious exploitation of the South China Sea and its seabed resources continue to defer to members who do not sense the same threat from China? From the margins of the annual ASEAN leaders meeting, which convened in Napyidaw (Myanmar) just after China deployed the Haiyang 981, came reports that the ruckus off Vietnam's coast has been a wakeup call for Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. They, along with Brunei, the Philippines and Vietnam, must conjure with the imminent possibility of a Pax Sinica in nearby waters, something that none would find congenial.
Will China flinch if these six SCS littoral nations resolve to pursue a UN Law of the Sea-based sorting out of conflicting claims in the southern part of the SCS, or to single out China as the aggressor? Probably not flinch, if that's all there is, but Beijing surely will seethe. As it has nibbled its way south, China has insisted that it will only discuss rival SCS claims one-on-one. This week it warned Vietnam and the Philippines to desist from forming a "strategic partnership."
And what of nations with a vested interest in sustaining the international order, particularly the US? When will they give up trying to deal with Beijing as though it were the government of a normal nation (albeit one with "growing pains") and a prospective partner? When will they recognize that China is so persuaded that it has been victimized and denied its rightful place that it repudiates the “rules” governing international relations whenever it perceives advantage in doing so?
In the South China Sea, the Chinese juggernaut is rolling. It can still be stopped at the Paracels, but only if the targets of Chinese aggression and their friends resolve to push back vigorously and in concert -- in international tribunals, in the court of public opinion and, should it become necessary, on the high seas.
David Brown is a former US diplomat with wide experience in Southeast Asia and is a regular Asia Sentinel contributor