Tension in the South China Sea, which has been bubbling away fairly quietly for some time, has threatened to boil over in the past few weeks. The problems are being caused, as they always are, by issues of resource management and ownership, particularly related to that still absurdly popular fuel source, crude oil. Specifically, Vietnam is becoming increasingly aggrieved at the Chinese claim to the Paracel Islands. These uninhabited islands lie almost exactly inbetween China’s Hainan Island province and the coast of Vietnam. In themselves, they are not particularly valuable – but they are incredibly important to both nations because whoever claims them can exploit the oil resources in the surrounding ocean.
In recent weeks, China has begun to finally make good on its claim to the islands, by towing drilling rigs into the area of sea that lies between the Paracels and Vietnam. This has, unsurprisingly, not gone down well with the Vietnamese. The country has erupted in violent protests against the Chinese in the past few weeks, which reached a level of intensity that led many Chinese citizens in Vietnam to flee the country, with China even sending over a boat to collect them and bring them back to safety. As of the time of writing, there appears to be no clear end to the conflict in sight, with both China and Vietnam standing firm about their claims.
This is a highly unfortunate situation, as it demonstrates the potential roadblocks that stand in the way of Southeast Asia becoming a world power on the same level as the European Union or the USA. Certainly in terms of resources – both mineral and human – and taking into account the massive advances that have taken place in recent years in terms of pulling more and more citizens out of poverty and into the middle class, Asia has at least as much in its favor as either of those two superpowers. But its inability to cooperate and overcome ethnic and political divisions in the way that the EU has achieved for most of its existence is holding it back.
Verbal sparring between countries and the working out of borders and territories is inevitable, but whereas Europe and North America have robust treaty organizations in place to help mediate between members who are in dispute, the Asian bloc has no such thing. Currently, might makes right, with China effectively able to do whatever it wants due to its comparative size and power over countries like Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and the Philippines. Ultimately, however, if it wants Asia to emerge as a political power, China may need to put aside some of its ego and work more cooperatively with its neighbours to advance Asian interests throughout the world.
The systems of ‘blocs’, such as the EU, NAFTA, and Putin’s proposed Eurasian Union is here to stay for the considerable future at least. If Asia wants to compete in this world, it needs to cooperate in a similar manner, and that means the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) needs to step up to the challenge and help to mediate a fair and equitable solution between Vietnam and China. If it succeeds, it could be the first step to making ASEAN a cohesive force in international geopolitics – and the potential benefits for the people of Asia are huge.
Article prepared by John Wish