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The October 2011 accord between Hanoi and Beijing to resolve their territorial and maritime disputes in the Southeast Asian Sea (SEAS) in a peaceful manner[1]was initially greeted with smiles, largely because it seemed to promise a respite from worsening tensions between the neighboring Leninist states. But nervous smiles in the high politics of East Asia have never been particularly informative. And from the standpoint of 2013 it is apparent that that paper accord has not resolved underlying causes of the tensions and, indeed, has failed even to “paper-over” the dispute. Just one month after the accord was signed an unknown Vietnamese source broadcast video footage of a Vietnamese coastguard vessel ramming a Chinese surveillance vessel in an undisclosed location. The incident was met with official silence from Beijing; an indication the incident occurred quite close to Viet Nam indeed. Just a few days later Vietnamese and Chinese officialdom assembled in Honolulu at the APEC meetings. There, President Obama and Hu Jin Tao continued their tense dialogue, followed by an announcement by Mr. Obama that the United States was nearing completion of a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that would form an economic community exclusive of China and inclusive of Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Singapore, Chile, Peru and, notably, Viet Nam. Japan is expected to join soon. With some justification, Beijing sees the TPP as an indication of Washington’s efforts to limits its power and has responded with various efforts to mitigate any adverse impacts, largely by signing bilateral trade deals with Korea, Japan, and other partners. Other developments, most notably Sino-Japanese tensions, work against the latter scenario.

In the 18 months since the APEC meetings, much has occurred, but absolutely nothing of a sort that has diminished tensions in the Southeast Asian Sea. Indeed, it will be argued here that Beijing’s behavior over this period can only be understood as a process of neo-imperialist expansion of the gunboat diplomacy sort. The first was the Chinese-Philippine standoff at Scarborough Shoal, in which the Chinese occupied waters and land features long claimed by the Philippines and refuse to leave. The second was the spectacular collapse of ASEAN’S relevance in diplomatic affairs, occasioned by Phnom Penh’s demonstration that its stance on the Southeast Asia sea I whatever Beijing dictates it to be. Third was China’s formalization of its illegitimate “cow’s tongue” claim over  80 percent of the Southeast Asian Sea through its establishment of “Sansha City,” a jurisdiction with zero basis in international law. (Imagine any other country, including the United States in its imperialist heyday doing the equivalent. Ok, perhaps a bad example!). The cow’s tongue now adorns Chinese passports, maps (including some sold in the Philippines) and official Chinese seals. Fourth has been the intensification of provocative naval maneuvers since 2008 including ‘increased patrols’ over waters with 24 additional marine surveilance ships of which almost a half was tranformed from warships that “… have no other mission but to harass other nations into submitting to China’s expansive claims” [2] on the cow’s tongue over which Beijing has no legal claim. Finally, but not least worrisome, is the continued promotion of nationalism and “manifest destiny” as a means of fomenting domestic support. A tendency which not only emphasizes the need for “regional stability” (on Beijing’s terms) but regularly appears to invite ultra-nationalist and even fascistic tendencies in Chinese politics; this is no exaggeration.

Nor are other developments in the region easing tensions. The most obvious example is the standoff around the Senkaku/Daiyou Islands, which Beijing seems willing to pursue at any cost; within the last year the dispute has worsened with no signs of abating. If that conflict should spin out of control the entire region will be transformed. There is, in addition, a great deal of uncertainty as to how the US would respond. The situation with the DPRK also has implications for the US security posture. There are already indications that the Philippines desire a return of some substantial sort of US naval power to Subic Bay. Finally we have seen the development of a real arms race in East Asia, in part fueled by Beijing’s somewhat predictable military expansion. The big beneficiaries here seem to be Russia and the U.S. The loser is regional security and the range of worthy causes on which money will not be spent. Perhaps the most worrisome factor in regional politics is the seeming inability of political elite to transcend the ‘politics of face,’ a deep-seated cultural attribute of East Asia that has long outlived its usefulness. All of the above has even cautious observers worried about regional tensions.

The persistence of tensions in the Southeast Asian Sea in the context of a dynamic regional and geopolitical landscape gives occasion to review the merits and demerits of the Vietnamese and Chinese states’ rival claims in the Southeast Asian Sea, to explore the domestic and international political dynamics that animate the conflict, and to ponder conditions under which the conflict might be resolved nonviolently.  As we are most familiar with the Vietnamese case, we will devote particular attention to unpacking the politics of Viet Nam’s position in the conflict. Moreover we do so from a perspective that is trained on a Vietnamese perspective and assumes, in light of the evidence, that Viet Nam’s claims are indeed legitimate. We probe ways Viet Nam can promote its interests in the face of Chinese imperialism.

Overall we contend that another Sino-Viet war would be disastrous. But that it remains difficult to imagine how a peaceful resolution can be achieved without basic changes in the existing political calculus. To better understand the conflict and why Beijing’s designs on the region are unacceptable requires historical perspective on the disputed claims, attention to attitudes and behaviors that have underlay recent troubles, and a reminder of just how grandiose and illegitimate Beijing’s claims are. No doubt, China is a large and powerful country and an emerging superpower to boot. But this must not mean that Beijing can simply do as it pleases. The only solution, it would seem, would be for Beijing to relinquish its illegitimate claim under the banner of a regional, multilateral treaty and a binding code of conduct. Achieving such an outcome will require the promotion of disincentives to kinds of expansionism and gunboat diplomacy that Beijing seems intent on practicing. It will also require leaders in Viet Nam to more energetically cultivate international and domestic legitimacy.