What's behind China's territorial spats?
May 25th, 2014
08:55 PM ET

What's behind China's territorial spats?

CNN’s Beijing bureau chief and correspondent, Jaime A. FlorCruz, responds to readers’ questions about recent tensions in the South China Sea, China’s relations with its neighbors and what may be behind recent disputes.

What is the dispute between China and Vietnam over the Paracel Islands about? Is it just about resource claims?

It is about resources. Much of the disputed area is believed to be potentially rich in oil and other natural resources. But it’s more than just a fight over resources – it’s the latest episode of a long-running saga of conflicting territorial claims of the South China Sea. China this time is acting aggressively to assert its claim to most of the oil-rich sea while its neighbors with conflicting territorial claims are angrily pushing back.

It’s also about China’s perception that Asian claimants like Vietnam are nibbling away at islands that China claims is its “indisputable sovereign territories”, as Chinese officials say. China insists it is simply defending its territory, sovereignty and security. It denies that it will impede freedom of navigation, an overriding concern of the U.S. and other third party stakeholders.

It’s a proxy fight, and extension of U.S.-China rivalry, taking place while the United States “rebalances” its defense and foreign policy toward Asia. China thinks some of these claimants, like Vietnam and the Philippines, are colluding with the United States, and are ganging up against China.

The U.S. and China find themselves on the opposite side of the existing political world order. The United States is the established power, the sole superpower, although its ability to enforce its will has been eroded lately. China on the other hand is a rising power – it’s gaining confidence as its economy and military might grow.

The conventional view is established powers, in this case the U.S., seek to retain the status quo and view the emerging powers as potential threats. Rising powers, like China, seek to change the status quo and fear the established power will try to contain its rise. This is the geopolitical context of the ongoing confrontation in the South China Sea.

How has the current unrest in Vietnam – and demonstrations aimed at Chinese – been viewed in mainland China?

The Chinese government, as well as public opinion, have reacted strongly to the anti-China riots and looting. China has suspended some of its plans for bilateral exchanges and has warned its citizens against traveling to Vietnam. Many travel agencies have suspended tours, with offers of refunds.

China has ominously warned of unspecified further punishment, although experts I interviewed think it hints more of retaliation using China’s economic leverage rather than military might.

Chinese reaction in the social media has been strong too. Angry bloggers denounced the outbreak of violence, citing memories of anti-Chinese backlash with racial undertones. “Vietnam is doing this because China did not react when similar anti-Chinese riots occurred in Indonesia,” one blogger wrote on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media platform.  This is the worst breakdown in Sino-Vietnam relations since the two neighbors fought a brief border war in 1979.

Ironically, China was one of Vietnam’s major allies against the United States during the Vietnam War. In the 1960’s through the early 70s, the two neighbors spoke of fraternal friendship sealed by the communist icons Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh. The communist parties of China and Vietnam still have party-to-party ties, but observers say there is now a big “trust deficit” between the two nominally communist nations.

How confident are you that China and Vietnam will be able to resolve their territorial dispute?

There’s little reason to be optimistic that their territorial dispute can be resolved any time soon.

I don’t see Beijing backing down on this, because to them it’s a matter of principle and a matter of “face”. As one retired Chinese diplomat puts it, “we cannot afford to lose one inch of territory that our ancestors bequeathed us.” I cannot imagine Vietnam caving in, either, for the same reason.

China says it is willing to follow the principle of “setting aside disputes and pursuing joint development” on disputed sea territories that belongs to China, which the late leader Deng Xiaoping proposed years ago. However, it’s highly unlikely that China will give up its historic claims without major quid pro quo.

In the long run, these territorial disputes can only be resolved if and when pragmatism – economic concerns, people’s wellbeing, quest for lasting peace – trumps narrow nationalism and jingoism.

Is there any scope for an outside power to help mediate?

I’m hard pressed to find one.

The United States is out of the question because it is a major stakeholder, and an ally of at least two claimants, the Philippines and Vietnam. China will not find the U.S. a neutral and fair mediator.

The Association of East Asia Nations (ASEAN) is a potential institution to mediate, but three of its members are themselves in disputes with China (and each other) over South China Sea territories, so there are limits to what they can do. ASEAN seeks to stay neutral in the U.S.-China rivalry, but these territorial disputes are putting ASEAN’s unity to severe test.

The United Nations, through its Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, doesn’t look like a credible institution to mediate. It has lost its power and credibility. Besides, China is a powerful member of its Security Council but the other claimants are not.

There is the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), with its dispute resolution provisions and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), but its effectiveness is trumped by China’s unwillingness to submit to such arbitration, as is the case in the Philippines case in ITLOS against China. It is also hampered by the fact that the U.S. has yet to ratify the UNCLOS treaty,

China has territorial disputes with numerous neighbors – Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan, India and Malaysia, among others. How concerned do you think the Chinese leadership is to balancing all of these disputes?

Beijing’s leadership is concerned about what some describe as a deteriorating security environment surrounding China. Analysts tell me that there are internal debates going on how to respond and handle the situation. The latest move of planting an oil rig near Vietnam, one tells me, may be a reflection of the hardliner faction’s position – to put down Vietnam’s feistiness and call America’s bluff no matter the consequences may be.

But others say this puts China in a quandary, because its efforts to assert its maritime claims undermines its charm offensive and all its efforts to project China’s soft power and make friends overseas. Some experts have also warned that China could get bogged down in the South China Sea imbroglio that will divert and wasted China’s economic resources, political capital and public support at home and overseas.

Much of the tension in the South China Sea appears to revolve around China’s so-called nine-dash line. Has this been misunderstood, or do you get the sense that China is serious about exercising its claim to these large area?

China is dead serious about the nine-dash line, just as it’s serious about asserting its territorial claims in South China Sea and the East China Sea, where it’s locked in a dangerous confrontation with Japan. There is popular support for this hard line in China. But in the long run, reason and pragmatism should prevail, if China seriously wishes to project an image of a benign and constructive rising power. Until then, the drama in the South China Sea will drag on, possibly punctuated by the kind of violent episodes that we witnessed a few days ago.

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Topics: Asia • China • Reader Q&A • United States

soundoff (210 Responses)
  1. PT

    The stupid chinks will never learn do they? When you look thought history for the last 2000 years. Vietnam beat them like a dog in each and every war. That's a cold hard fact. Swallow or eat that stupid chinks. Another lesson to learn from from your superior is comming again.

    May 30, 2014 at 9:05 pm | Reply
    • Allen He

      Dispute aside, what I can find is that Vietnam is a totally ungrateful country. China supported your ass with resources, blood and life, during your fight with France and US. And yet you are like a mad dog that doesn't recognize a bone any more. You just bark mad.

      June 2, 2014 at 5:46 pm | Reply
      • Cassie

        I feel so sorry for you cause what you learnt is totally nonsense. Vietnam and China WERE friends. Vietnam dont forget that China helped during the Vietnam war with France and US as many other communist countries did. But how can Vietnam forget that China turned out to be SUCK friend when they made use of the time when Vietnam was busy with recovering from a lot of pain after the war to try to invase Vietnam and stole Vietnam islands. But of course as good people always win, Vietnam won. China should learn to become a big brother, not a stupid dog always finds chance to beat people.

        June 3, 2014 at 8:40 am |
    • 50% of Vietnamese have Chinese ancestry

      Please don't forget that 50% of Vietnamese people have direct link to Chinese ancestry. During the Vietnam War, it was Chinese Communists that entirely funded and supplied the North Vietnamese to attack the South, to successfully free it from Western domination. Remember, USA lost the Vietnam War, in 1975, and it cost the USA 58,000 lives. The last time the USA fought a proxy war against China, they got their ass kicked............ 🙂

      June 4, 2014 at 2:30 pm | Reply
      • Lam

        Be rational!
        Are you saying that 50% Vietnamese have chinese ancestry (which I doubt) would give China the right to take Vietnam's territory? So what do you plan to do with Singapore?

        Be HONEST!
        You know it well that China was not the only country supporting North Vietnam in the war.
        By the way, talking about this issue. Vietnamese soldiers and Vietnamese people still talk about how Chinese people devoted their blood and resources to their Vietnamese comrades. We appreciate what that generation of Chinese had done, but not what Chinese governent is doing.

        We understand well the different between Chinese citizen and Chinese goverment.
        And I think you understand well enough how your goverment treat its own citizens and how it treat its neibourgh.

        In order to have a more objective debate, PLEASE read history from some international sources, other than just the history created by your government. You might find out what year China invaded these islands and how your government created the disputes in the region.

        Best Regards,

        June 11, 2014 at 1:46 pm |
      • Rosenei

        I want to describe my worst meromyIt’s the first time I’ve lost my precious thing in my life in a ridiculous situation. My bike was stolen when I went to a game centre. In spite of studying at class, I were absent and enjoyed my hobbies. Having a day-off made me overexcited. Instead of spending 2 hours on boring lessons, I rode my bike to everwhere I like. I went for a walk around the park, ate ice-creams, met friends and so on. Last destination of my day-off is a game centre. Because of being overexcited, I forgot to take out my key after locking my bike by mistake. As usual, I had a seat and the games addicted me very much. When I paid, i realised that my bike disappeared. Immediatedly, I checked my packbag to find my key but I do search in vain. Outrageously, I asked all the people in panic. Some people felt angry, the others cared about my problem and gave me some advices. But I didn’t remembered taking them owing to being out of control myself. I went around with empty mind finding my bike in vain. I didn’t believe that I go too far like that to find a trace of my properities. Finally, I knew that I actually lost my bicycle, I walk home with disappointed emotion.

        July 5, 2014 at 11:25 pm |
      • Raaz

        Geez, that's unevliebable. Kudos and such.

        July 21, 2014 at 11:32 am |
      • Kirsten

        I've been loinkog for a post like this for an age

        July 25, 2014 at 6:41 pm |
      • Tim

        China helping N VN??
        I remember well during the VN war, the Chinese ripping off a good amount of Russian armament aid destined for Hanoi, while they were passing overland through China.

        July 29, 2014 at 12:12 am |
    • zzb

      the American dog never read history,because they can only read dog language.for 2000 years mostly Vietnam was a province of China.

      July 29, 2014 at 3:17 am | Reply
  2. dokhoasg

    Chinese is insidious ! From their government to their citizen.

    May 31, 2014 at 5:31 am | Reply
    • Howard

      This kind of language should not be displayed in the public domain. Generalization with hatred is not productive and will not contribute anything to the society and world peace. I am not a Chinese and I believe inflammatory remarks tends to lose insights and result in unnessasary violence.

      June 1, 2014 at 12:55 am | Reply
  3. daber

    China and it's claim to waters more than 1000 miles from their mainland needs to be addressed in the United Nations to publicly support UNCLOS and publicly condemn China's "Nine Dash Line". This United Nations public rejection of China's Nine Dash Line needs to be condemned at the same time with A strong American Leadership with an eraser.

    May 31, 2014 at 9:38 am | Reply
    • Allen He

      You wished a lot of things. The fact of the matter is China genuinely consider most of those island groups as part of China and therefore, like your country, has the indisputable right to defend it. So China is in no sense more wrong than your own country.

      June 2, 2014 at 5:51 pm | Reply
  4. Peter Choi

    Americans are stirring up more trouble wherever they go... Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Ukraine ..... and now don't come to Asia. Don't stick your nose on other people's affairs.

    June 1, 2014 at 6:10 am | Reply
  5. Marcial Bonifacio

    Gate of preserving Harmony, Tower of Heaven, Square of Heavenly Peace...
    What happened to these beautiful names you emblazoned in your Chinese cities?

    June 1, 2014 at 7:27 pm | Reply
  6. Joe

    The nine dash line claimed by China is a joke and a disregard of international law and common sense. The Chinese are trouble makers and true bully. Shame on china. Their people need to be civilized to open their eyes and know the truth about their ridiculous claims.

    June 2, 2014 at 12:13 am | Reply
    • Frank

      you are a joke. When China claimed its dash lines, that was just after WII. The international law regards to the ocean part wasn't even exist by then. Due to the treaty among those victorious nations, south china sea is returned back to Chinese government. The only reason U.S is against China now is the communist beat the current Taiwan government. otherwise, even U.S won't say a world about the dash line.

      June 20, 2014 at 12:03 am | Reply
    • Neal

      Joe, An exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is one of the United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea was implemented by the western power to anti-China's interests and it is one of the tactic of western power to unstabilize the politics in that region. In those old days, China must sign this unfair jurisdiction; otherwise, western power would bomb China for regime change. Western power had underestimated China which is capable to invalid this unfair jurisdiction in their front yard.

      Those countries like Vietnam and Philippine are very naive. Without China existence in that region, those oil and gas may not be available in that region geologically. Without china existence in that region, the western power would not implement Exclusive economic zone (EEZ) for their interests in that region.

      What make Vietnam and Philippine think that they can challenge western power and access those natural resources without China existence or EEZ jurisdiction?

      From my opinion, Filipino people should EEZ in their Philippine Sea instead pushing over South China Sea, Filipino people do have to have responsibilities bring peace to that region.

      July 28, 2014 at 1:21 am | Reply
  7. Jimmy

    Stop lying China knows we the United States are not colluding with anyone, thats the lie what China is doing is a spark, with Russia to loose 50 – 100 million of it citizens through a world war, Their history shows that they had done this before so the value of human life is not like the rest of the world.

    So stop with the lying. Tell us the truth If I am wrong show me were I am wrong.

    June 2, 2014 at 6:21 pm | Reply
  8. Fred W

    CNN, this is a fairly comprehensive article.

    But there is one more Q&A you should add:
    Q: Is China PRC being aggressive or expansionistic by claiming the “9-dash-line” zone in South China Sea?
    A: No. Logically you CANNOT say China PRC is aggressive or expansionistic by this claim. Because China PRC inherited this claim from China ROC more than 60 years ago. So it is defending its inheritance. (Although you can logically argue about its validity, since this 9-dash-line was never internationally recognized.)

    June 3, 2014 at 6:47 pm | Reply
    • Lam

      Oops, China ROC???
      Do you mean Republic of China, a.k.a. Taiwan? (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taiwan)

      Since when did Taiwan give China that invalid so called nine-dash-line for inheritance?
      Such irony

      June 11, 2014 at 2:22 pm | Reply
  9. Huey

    "What the Chinese says is far from what the Chinese will do".
    My Chinese friends are also disgusted with their Chinese greedy government never mind us.

    June 8, 2014 at 4:12 am | Reply
  10. Frank

    The Vietnam government admitted that Paracel Islands are part of China. It was even written in their geography book. Now, those ugly Vietnamese is trying to deny this just because Uncle Sam is backing it up. It's the same as U.S supporting dalai lama, Uygur separatists to against communist China. U.S just wants to do the same thing to China as what they did to Soviet Union. But, it will not happen.

    June 20, 2014 at 12:08 am | Reply
    • Sam

      If China collapse, it'll collapse from inside, since its government is incapable of resolving many issues in this country. No country could destroy it simply because it is such a big elephant.

      July 28, 2014 at 1:14 pm | Reply
  11. Open

    i updated-now it's your turn. i even cretaed a second blog; an attempt to see how popular my pictures can become! i miss hanging out hope that you're having a good week though

    July 6, 2014 at 5:34 am | Reply
  12. Neal

    An exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is one of the "United Nations Convention on the Law" was implemented by the western power to anti-China's interests and it is one of the tactic of western power unstabilize the politics in that region. In those old days, China must sign this unfair jurisdiction; otherwise, western power would bomb China for regime change. Western power had underestimated China which is capable to invalid this unfair jurisdiction in their front yard.

    Those countries like Vietnam and Philippine are very naive. Without China existence in that region, those oil and gas may not be available in that region geologically. Without china existence in that region, the western power would not implement Exclusive economic zone (EEZ) for their interests in that region.

    What make Vietnam and Philippine think that they can challenge western power and access those natural resources without China existence or EEZ jurisdiction?

    From my opinion, Filipino people should EEZ in their Philippine Sea instead pushing over South China Sea, Filipino people do have to have responsibilities bring peace to that region.

    July 28, 2014 at 12:58 am | Reply
  13. george

    Modern-day China is a creation of the United States when Nixon and Kissinger opened trade relations with Chairman Mao about 40 years ago. Because of this, China became powerful economically and militarily, and now poses a potential threat to the United States itself. But, in the meantime, China will pick on its little neighbors to see how powerful it really is by intimidating and bullying them. Claiming the large South China Sea is like France claiming the Mediterranean Sea. The US never even claimed the Gulf of Mexico, and neither did Mexico. China is a bully and will do anything to get what it wants, just the same way they do business.

    July 28, 2014 at 10:20 am | Reply
    • Neal

      George, China did not come to the point that they won't share any interest with US in South China Sea. Chinese is always appreciated the opened trade that US offered. The natural resources in South China Sea can worth 30 to 40 trillion of US dollars. US can't just offer cheap labor opened trade for China and expect to get great interests in South China Sea. Indeed, the Chinese is good in Math. China is 32 times bigger than Philippine. The Chinese are fighting for the fairness and existence beside South China Sea is their front yard. In my opinion, US should deal with China directly instead of going through the Philippine's tunnel if they want a slice from that pizza. Philippine Sea has no gas and oil at all; Filipino people were born being poor in everything. I remember Tony Blair said, it is meant to be that China is becoming a super economic power house. For those of you don’t want to see this happening, it is too bad.

      July 28, 2014 at 1:38 pm | Reply
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  15. Daniel

    The Chinese have a bully mentality. It's funny how they try to justify aggressive bad behavior by citing examples of it in the past. That's what kids do. Just because unfair things have been done in the past does not justify you doing it now in the 21st century. Very small minded mentally. Oh yeah and bragging about the 1000's of years of history makes you look stupid if your barely catching up to a country that's only been around for a little more than 2 centuries and is a lot smaller. Sounds like 1000s of years mistakes and errors. Quit beeing so annoying and greedy or you just might find yourselves becoming the future Chinese nazis of the world.

    August 2, 2014 at 3:54 pm | Reply
  16. A CN person only

    扬我打中华 支持共产党

    August 7, 2014 at 9:26 pm | Reply
  17. A CN person only

    南海是中国的 支持共产党

    August 7, 2014 at 9:27 pm | Reply
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