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What are China’s ambitions in escalating dispute with Vietnam?

May 14, 2014 at 6:38 PM EDT
Judy Woodruff talks to Kenneth Lieberthal of the Brookings Institution and Gordon Chang, a Forbes.com columnist, about the historical rupture and motives underlying a dispute over a Chinese oil rig placed in waters claimed by Vietnam.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what does this latest flare-up mean for the two countries and the region?

I’m joined by Kenneth Lieberthal. He was senior director for Asia on the National Security Council staff in the Clinton administration. He’s now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution focusing on China. And Gordon Chang, he’s a columnist for Forbes.com and author of “The Coming Collapse of China.”

And we welcome you both back to the NewsHour.

Gordon Chang, what exactly happened in the South China Sea that got the Vietnamese so upset?

GORDON CHANG, Columnist, Forbes.com: Well, this is pretty simple.

The Chinese towed a billion-dollar oil rig about 130 miles off of Vietnam’s coast and they have started to drill. Now, this is clearly within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone. And what’s important is that China actually ratified the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which make it pretty clear that this is Vietnamese waters.

What the Chinese have done is an aggressive act. They have certainly roiled Vietnam. And if the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman wants to stop these protests in Vietnam, it’s very clear what can be done. The Chinese can take the rig away.

China has these territorial claims with all of these countries in the region. They all have a problem with China, not just Vietnam.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes. And we want to get into that.

But, Ken Lieberthal, we heard the Chinese spokeswoman say it’s clear who was the aggressor here, that she meant the Vietnamese. Who is telling the truth?

KENNETH LIEBERTHAL, Brookings Institution: I think both sides think they’re telling the truth.

Frankly, I think the Chinese side acted very assertively here, not a good situation. Having said that, this is disputed waters. It falls within the exclusive economic zone of islands that China claims. And so simply pointing fingers and saying it’s the other side’s fault isn’t going to get us very far.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, at the very least, didn’t China know in putting this rig in these disputed waters that it would not only get — that it would the Vietnam government upset? Did they also realize they would get the people of Vietnam upset?

KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: I cannot imagine that they thought that Vietnam would accept this without a lot of protest and that they thought that the people of Vietnam wouldn’t be very angry about this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In that case, Gordon Chang, why were the Chinese prepared to go ahead and do this if they knew the Vietnamese were going to react this way?

GORDON CHANG: Well, I think there are a couple things at work here.

First of all, you got a Chinese political system in distress. They’re falling back on nationalism to bolster legitimacy. And the best way to show nationalism is to pick on a neighbor, and especially Vietnam.

And also I think what they were trying to do is test President Obama, because they put this rig into Vietnamese waters about a week after the president left on his eight-day trip to the region, a trip of reassurance. And what they’re doing is, they’re saying to the region, look, the U.S. can’t do anything. You’re going to have to fall in line behind us, China.

So, I think that there’s those two things that are working. And also China has these territorial disputes with everybody, so they need to try to assert their claims.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ken Lieberthal, do you agree they were trying to send a particular message to the United States here?

KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: I’m not sure.

This kind of operation would have to be planned well before the Obama trip to Asia. So I’m not — I don’t buy that it was in reaction to what he did in Asia. I do think that they are taking a very strong position to create facts on the ground and demonstrate that they aren’t going to be easily pushed off of their positions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Chinese and the Vietnamese were allies at one point. At least they were…

KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: Well…

JUDY WOODRUFF: We back to the ’60s and the ’70s and the war in Vietnam.

Maybe they weren’t the closest of allies, but they were working together. What caused this rupture?

KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: There is a very long history of tension between China and Vietnam going back well before the communists in China and the communists in Vietnam.

So circumstances pushed them together in the late ’60s. But the Nixon administration opening to China was in no small part an effort to get China to demonstrate to Vietnam that China was going to put priority on relations with the United States. Vietnam couldn’t count on them.

And by the late ’70s, China and Vietnam were fighting a border war. So there’s no lack of animosity between these two countries over time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gordon Chang, what do you believe the Chinese ultimately want out of this?

GORDON CHANG: Well, they want everybody else’s waters.

And clearly they want territory from other nations, including India. And so you see China pushing out beyond its borders in an arc from India in the south to South Korea in the north. They want, of course, the minerals in the South China Sea, but they also want the access to the Western Pacific to get beyond what they call the first island chain.

So this is very strategic for them as well. So there are a lot of things here, but also I think they want to show to their own people that they are a strong nation and that they can get what they want. And that’s very important from the question of legitimacy for the Communist Party.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you describe, Ken Lieberthal, what the Chinese — what you believe the Chinese are after ultimately here?

KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: You mean in the maritime areas in particular?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes. Well…

KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: I think they want to be able to have a lot of leverage over what rules of the game are off the Chinese coast, in the East China Sea and the South China Sea.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For economic reasons?

KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: Economic and security reasons, both.

This has been an area where the United States Navy has been able to move virtually at — not violating China’s territorial waters, but beyond the territorial limit, and has had a lot of freedom of movement, and the Chinese are trying to push back on that.

I agree with Gordon that they want the resources that they think will be rich mineral resources in the South China Sea.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gordon Chang, and what do the Vietnamese want out of this?  And for that matter, the other — do they want to live in peace with China or do they have their own territorial ambitions?

GORDON CHANG: Nobody wants to start a war with China, much less the Vietnamese.

Now, of course, the Vietnamese and the Chinese have been mixing it up for about 1,000 years. But the current government in Vietnam doesn’t want a conflict. What they want is China out of its exclusive economic zone, which is that band of water between 12 and 200 nautical miles.

Of course, the Chinese want the Paracel Islands. So do the Vietnamese. But I think the Vietnamese would be willing to sort of have a constructive dialogue. They tried to send a delegation to Beijing in the last few days, and the Chinese wouldn’t talk to them. And that I think shows a real problem in the Chinese capital right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just finally, Ken Lieberthal, where do you see this headed in the short term, and does it involve the United States?

KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: In the short term, I think Vietnam will try to rein in the demonstrations, but I’m not sure where this is headed in terms of the maritime areas.

Gordon is right in that Vietnam has sought to negotiate with the Chinese over this. They actually had a process of negotiation going on over the past year or so with China, and then China made this major move. So, I’m not sure where that’s going to lead.

Broadly, the U.S. is involved, in that we have tried to push all parties in the region to act according to the U.N. Law of the Sea Convention and what it dictates in terms of territorial disputes, have tried to get all countries to sign a code of conduct.

The Chinese see us as instigating problems for them, and we see them as increasingly creating the problems that we all have to cope with.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, clearly, we will continue to watch this one.

Ken Lieberthal, Gordon Chang, we thank you both.