Arthur I. Cyr: China-Vietnam conflict reflects Pacific-wide maritime disputes

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Violent clashes involving Chinese ships and Vietnamese fishing boats are the latest in a series of maritime disputes that span the vast Pacific region.

According to Vietnam news sources, on June 7 and 10 Vietnam’s fishing vessels were attacked in disputed waters. In the first incident, water cannon flooded a boat, and a fisherman’s leg was broken. In the second, a fishing boat was surrounded and robbed.

Such clashes are ongoing, including earlier Chinese use of water cannon. They have occurred near the Paracel Islands, claimed by both nations. More widely, China is building permanent artificial islands in the South China Sea, greatly aggravating already strained relations with Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan in addition to Vietnam.

The latest clashes have complicated formal talks between China and Vietnam during June 17 to 19. They involve Pham Binh Minh, deputy prime minister as well as foreign minister of Vietnam, and China state councilor Yang Jiechi. These meetings are well-established, but continuing maritime disputes make them tense.

Recent years have witnessed escalation of maritime conflicts across the Pacific. For example, in April 2014 China authorities impounded the Baosteel Emotion, a freighter of Japan’s Mitsui O.S.K. Lines. The move is part of commercial claims resulting from World War II. The two nations also both claim the Senkaku Islands.

In May 2013, Vietnam charged that a China vessel invading “exclusive territorial waters” rammed a ship, endangering fifteen Vietnamese fishermen. Two months earlier, Vietnam accused China of shooting at a fishing boat and causing a fire. Construction of China oil rigs in disputed waters is one element in such violent clashes.

That same month, President Benigno Aquino III of the Philippines formally apologized for the killing of an unarmed Taiwan fisherman by the Philippines’ coast guard. Taipei and Beijing joined in condemning the killing.

China steadily expands in international reach, including rapid construction of enormous new strategic naval capacities. Traditionally, this nation has been cautious in using military force beyond the national borders, but that may be changing.

In 2011, the Obama administration announced a strategic “rebalancing” to Asia which has proven largely rhetorical, but has potential. Since World War II the bulk of the U.S. Navy’s ships have been committed to this region. We have fought major wars in Korea and Vietnam. Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world, and is today a close reliable U.S. ally.

Another close ally – Britain - has extensive experience with maritime conflicts and commerce. Britain’s Falkland Islands, claimed by Argentina, were the focus of a war in 1982. The military regime in Buenos Aires seized the islands in a surprise move.

A British expedition recaptured them, a remarkably impressive victory, with vital American logistical support. A March 2013 plebiscite overwhelmingly confirmed that the people of the islands prefer British sovereignty.

Great Britain before World War II was the paramount maritime power in the world, and remains important. London is a global insurance and financial hub, with major firms historically rooted in maritime salvage, shipping and commercial negotiation.

Ocean commerce generated deeply rooted durable international law, which becomes more consequential with modern globalization. Britain and the U.S. could assertively work together, starting at the top, to engage nations in comprehensive cooperation to protect international commerce.

This is not entirely utopian. Massive shipping traverses the South China Sea. A top China military delegation just visited the U.S., resulting in formal agreement to foster dialogue between our armies.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” Contact him at acyr@carthage.edu.