TAIPEI – A growing network of crisis defusing hotlines between China and other Asian countries shows Beijing’s intention to strengthen these relations but fail to resolve broader disputes that could spark conflict, analysts say.
Beijing officials expect these phone connections to show “we are cooperating” but without policy changes that would calm his neighbors, said Alexander Vuving, professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii. Most of the acts that anger other countries in contested waterways are planned rather than sudden, he believes.
“In reality, it doesn’t really reduce the tension, because the tension is mostly deliberate,” Vuving said of Sino-Vietnamese relations. “China and Vietnam are also careful to keep the tension below the threshold of open conflict.”
The navy hotline will guarantee Sino-Vietnamese goodwill until the next scheduled upheaval, analysts say. Each side has grown angry over the past seven years as they explore for oil under or near disputed areas of the South China Sea. Vietnam last year protested to China against the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat.
“I think they’re just responsible for having a secure line of communication in case something happens. It doesn’t mean that relationships are better or worse, ”said Jack Nguyen, partner at Mazars business consultancy in Ho Chi Minh City. Regarding the Sino-Vietnamese relationship, he said, “I think overall it is stable, as stable as possible.”
Beijing claims about 90% of the 3.5 million square kilometers of the South China Sea, which is popular for fishing and fossil fuel reserves. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam claim parts of the sea, and Taiwan claims most of it. China is the most advanced militarily.
Southeast Asian states are after China’s landfill of small islets in the sea for military purposes and the passage of ships through waters they call their own. China cites historical usage records to support its claims, including in exclusive economic zones in other states.
Tokyo and Beijing are arguing over parts of the East China Sea, including a chain of uninhabited islets under Japanese control.
Hotlines are a common solution for China. Military hotlines “provide a means of communication, which can improve dispute management and reduce the risk of conflict,” China’s state-controlled Global Times news site said on its website in 2018. , citing a researcher from Tsinghua University in Beijing.
Chinese and Vietnamese naval chiefs agreed earlier this month to work on setting up a hotline to reduce the risk of conflict over competing claims in the South China Sea. Foreign ministers of the two countries opened their own line in 2012 to discuss sea-related issues as needed.
Defense ministers of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations agreed in 2017 to set up a hotline for what China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency calls “rapid response cooperation in emergency situations, in particular in maritime operations”. A year later, China and its former World War II rival Japan agreed to establish a hotline to discuss any conflict at sea and one with India following a border standoff.
Experts know of no time when low-cost facilities have ended a conflict and believe China is not taking its hotlines at crucial times.
“It’s always an extreme danger if you pick up the phone on the Chinese side,” said Alexander Huang, professor of strategic studies at Tamkang University in Taiwan. “If things are going well you have nothing but any communication problem then you are the guy [held responsible] because you forgot to ignore the ring.
China prefers to work directly with countries, including through offers of aid and investment for the poorest, to allay differences, analysts said. They cite the Philippines as an example over the past four years. China has other channels of communication with Vietnam in particular, including informal talks between ruling Communist parties, they add.
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“China and Vietnam have never failed in the past to intentionally set up a special hotline to deal with the two-way issues of the South China Sea, as the platforms used by the Chinese and Vietnamese Communist Parties, compared to other Southeast Asian countries ‘channels, are very many,’ said Huang Chung-ting, deputy researcher at the Taipei National Defense and Security Research Institute.
The recently established Navy hotline is a “symbolic and iconic movement” that is unlikely to produce a “substantial result,” he said.