Vietnam today signed an agreement with Japan for military cooperation and technology transfer, and China did not take it well at all. The agreement comes only two weeks after the visit of US Secretary of State Kamala Harris to Hanoi and is part of the already delicate dispute over the waters of the South China Sea between Washington, Beijing and Tokyo. In fact, in the agreement, Vietnam and Japan underlined the need to protect freedom of navigation and respect for territorial sovereignty in their respective territorial waters.
A new cold shower on the claims that Beijing has been making for some time now on most of the marine expanses of the area, a stubborn attitude that has put it on an open collision course with all the international actors involved, from Japan to Vietnam, in fact, up to in Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei. In addition, of course, to the US and – in practice – to the entire international community, which has always rejected Chinese sovereign claims.
All the nations involved in the dispute contest Beijing’s claim over much of the waters of the South China Sea, claiming that it violates their sovereignty and maritime rights enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The only one to remain stubbornly out of it is Indonesia. Jakarta claims not to be involved in the dispute, even if, in reality, the northern part of the exclusive economic zone of its Natuna islands overlaps the “line of nine dashes”, or rather the border (considered absolutely arbitrary) that according to Beijing delimits the its vast claims, which come to include almost 90% of the disputed waters. “These illegitimate claims were rejected by the 2016 arbitration tribunal decision and Beijing’s actions continue to undermine the rules-based order and threaten the sovereignty of nations,” Harris said bluntly in Hanoi, referring in particular to an unfavorable ruling against China in the Philippine case before the International Court of Justice since 2013.
The announcement of the military agreement between Hanoi and Tokyo has definitely made Chinese diplomacy jump on the nerves which, through the mouth of the powerful Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, has issued a clear “warning” to Vietnam about the risks of “exacerbating the conflict” in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, provocatively inciting other countries in the region to each take their share of responsibility in the dispute, that is, to choose one or the other side. The Chinese one is better, according to Beijing, of course. And in this intricate and very delicate situation we must not forget the role of small Taiwan, “the rebel island”, according to the Chinese, which sooner or later, by hook or by crook (and in recent times it seems increasingly likely that China has recourse to the bad …) will be reunited with the great “Chinese Motherland”.
Even Taiwan, in fact, would be involved in the thorny affair of the disputed waters, because part of these fall into the territorial waters of Taipei. Except that, for Beijing, the problem does not arise, because Xi Jinping and his people have always been united in arguing that there is no territorial waters of Taiwan because… there is no independent nation called Taiwan. But only a “renegade province”, in fact, which is part of that nationalistic totem more than ever dear to Xi and his followers, which goes under the evocative definition of “One China”.
Little Vietnam – a rapidly expanding economy, whose growth potential and market is increasingly tempting, especially China – has long been caught between the two blocs, the pro-Beijing one on the one hand and the American allies on the other. And China does not limit itself to threats, more or less veiled, to push the government of Hanoi to switch to its side but, as is its habit, it puts the load of twenty of its particular “aid” diplomacy on it.
In the case of Vietnam, it has deployed all the firepower of “vaccine diplomacy”, which in times of an unbridled pandemic in that area, appears clearly the most appropriate. In conjunction with the visit of the Chinese Foreign Minister to the Vietnamese capital on 11 September, Beijing announced the donation of three million doses of the coronavirus vaccine, in addition to those previously donated, for a total of 5 , 7 million doses. An offer that, these days, it is difficult, indeed impossible, to think of being able to refuse. And indeed, as Vietnamese state broadcaster VTV reported, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh said on Saturday that the two countries should use dialogue to resolve any differences. An olive branch that clashes a lot with the most recent positions taken by the Hanoi government, which had previously accused China of hindering its gas exploration activities in the South China Sea, where Beijing has built several islands with runways of military landing and installations; not to mention this new military treaty signed with Japan with the aim, declared precisely by Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, to “intensify military cooperation between the two countries of the source of concerns over China’s growing military influence”. Tokyo, for its part, regularly protests against China’s presence near the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, which China also claims and calls Diaoyu.
In short, the waters of the Indo-Pacific area risk at this point becoming the center of a clash – which could easily lead to an open military confrontation – between the two global superpowers, the USA and China, through the involvement of their respective allies, in what The Economist recently called “The most dangerous place on Earth”: the waters of the Taiwan Strait. An escalation of tension that worries American President Joe Biden who, while claiming the correctness of his choice to leave Afghanistan, said bluntly that now America’s interests and concerns have shifted precisely to ‘ Indo Pacific area, with China (and Russia) in first place.
According to reports from the Financial Times in recent days, the Biden administration is considering allowing the name change to the Taiwanese representative office in Washington, which traditionally – as with all representative offices in countries that do not recognize Taiwan due to Chinese pressure – it is called “Taipei”, so as not to make China angry, which, as we have said, does not even want to hear remotely about a “Republic of Taiwan”. And as if this were not enough to raise the tension between Washington and Beijing to alarm levels, the former commander of the American forces in the Pacific, Harry Harris, has openly asked the US government to revise its support policy upwards. military in Taipei. An exhortation that seemed to be caught on the fly, when, on 9 September, the Taiwanese independence president Tsai Ing-wen attended the ceremony for the launch of a new Tuo Chiang class multi-purpose corvette, equipped with innovative weapons such as the missile of the latest generation of Sea Sword II air defense, capable of rapid attacks. The issue of the Strait therefore remains one of the most delicate in US-China bilateral relations, and the phone call on Friday between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping certainly did not help to resolve it – or at least to take some steps towards a hoped-for relaxation. But maybe Joe Biden will be the president who will – in one way or another – get the United States out of the eternal ambiguity towards Taiwan, given that America formally adheres to the Chinese diktat of “One China”, but has spent the past 70 years ensuring there were two of them.