Despite economic turbulence at home and a pushback on South China Sea by the US, China’s president Xi Jinping has not lost the capacity to surprise.
As part of his neighbourhood diplomacy he reached out to Vietnam and Taiwan last week.
While experts have different interpretations for Xi’s motives, most are agreed that the principle aim is to ensure that the US-led coalition in East Asia does not solidify.
The moves come in the wake of a US Freedom of Navigation Patrol (FONOP) which defied Chinese sovereignty claims built around artificial islands in the South China Sea late last month.
Xi’s visit to Vietnam, which began on Thursday, was the first by a Chinese president in almost a decade, was accompanied by a swing through Singapore which featured a meeting with Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, the first between leaders of the two rival Chinese republics since 1945.
In Vietnam, where Xi addressed the National Assembly, the two sides agreed to build a “totally trustworthy” relationship and maintain peace at sea.
Xi emphasised the strong party-to-party ties that the two countries enjoy.
Earlier this year, Vietnam’s Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong became the first Vietnamese party chief to visit the US.
Vietnam has signed defence cooperation agreements with Washington and is also a part of the US-led Trans Pacific Partnership trade pact.
Interestingly, on the same day that Xi spoke to the National Assembly, the Japanese defence ministry announced that its navy had been invited by Vietnam to participate in exercises and use the Vietnamese naval facility at Cam Ranh Bay.
The Vietnamese are carefully balancing their ties. At one level they maintain healthy party-to-party ties with China and seek to boost trade and investment from China, on the other they want to build better ties with the US, Japan and India to offset the Chinese who contest their claim to several South China Sea islands.
As for Taiwan, the Chinese goals appear to be different since Taipei is the original author of the Nine Dash Line which has caused all the problems in the South China Sea.
Xi’s decision to hold talks with the Taiwanese president is aimed heading off trouble with the near certain election victory of Tsai Ing-wen, the head of the Democratic Progressive Party in next year’s polls.
The DPP takes a pro-independence stand. By seeking to stabilise interactions between the two, China draws Taiwan into a closer embrace, an important economic partner of China, whose strategic location makes it important element in the US-led containment of China.
The Indian and Chinese positions on the South China Sea issue are sufficiently ambiguous for China’s foreign affairs spokesperson Hua Chunying to urge India, which she did on Thursday, to play a constructive role on the issue.
She was responding to a call by Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar for a “peaceful resolution of the dispute” made at the meeting of the ASEAN plus defence minister’s meeting in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday.
Parrikar had expressed concern at the recent developments, in particular the FONOP.
India has repeatedly insisted that it supports the freedom of navigation in international waters and the right to passage and overflight in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which both Beijing and New Delhi have ratified.
China insists that it will not abrogate the freedom of navigation by civilian ships and aircraft in the South China Sea, which it claims in its entirety.
New Delhi has also accepted Vietnam’s invitation to explore oil blocks in the areas of South China Sea it claims.
Two months ago, a Chinese newspaper specifically warned India against beginning oil exploration activities in the regions it said were part of Chinese exclusive economic zone.
New Delhi and Hanoi have also stepped up their naval cooperation. During the visit of Prime Minister Ngyuen Tan Dung last year, the two countries signed an agreement to provide Vietnam with naval vessels through a $100 million line of credit.
What we are witnessing is a complicated geopolitical game in which China and the US are fighting for ascendancy in the strategically important South China Sea and the East Sea.
Beijing has made many peace overtures to the ASEAN, even while steadfastly maintaining its maritime claims.
On the other hand, the smaller South-east Asian nations depend on the US to push back against China.
The engaging feature of all this is that all the players are deeply economically engaged with each other.
There are question marks before the US’ staying power and many of the players continue to hedge their bets.
Indeed, a close examination of the Indian position, too, reveals that New Delhi has no intentions of making any significant political commitments to its “Act East” policy.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)
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