China’s most senior diplomat met Vietnam’s top leaders in a two day visit that underlined Beijing’s jitters ahead of a ruling by an international tribunal on the South China Sea dispute.
China is making clear to neighbouring countries that it will not accept a decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, which is widely expected to challenge China’s claim to disputed waters that extend close to the coastlines of The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei.
State Councillor, Yang Jiechi, is thought to have sounded out Vietnamese leaders on how they will respond to the ruling, which is expected in the coming days or weeks.
He is likely to have underlined a warning that Vietnam will pay a high price if it decides to follow the ruling by taking legal action of its own over the territorial disputes.
While some will always suspect secret deals and duplicity when Chinese leaders visit their fellow communists in Hanoi, Vietnamese leaders have been walking a fine diplomatic line and appear to be holding out against Chinese pressure.
Vietnam is not a party to the claim at The Hague, which was brought by The Philippines, but Hanoi does stand to gain from any ruling that challenges China’s territorial claims.
For public consumption, the Vietnamese foreign minister, Pham Binh Minh, said that ties between them remained good despite the dispute in the South China Sea.
The two sides also signed a memorandum of understanding between their maritime police forces, which have confronted each other in disputed waters.
The visit appears part of China’s campaign to discredit and undermine the impact of the court’s expected decision.
China’s state media and foreign diplomats have launched a propaganda offensive to get Beijing’s message across.
In one intervention, China’s ambassador to Malaysia accused outside powers of hyping up the issue and of manipulating it for their own purposes – a clear reference to the United States. Washington has been seeking to champion freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and to challenge China’s growing militarisation of disputed island chains, even though it takes no position on the ownership of the islands.
The ambassador, Huang Huikang, described the move by the Philippines as “illegal arbitration”.
Diplomats and analysts are expecting a tough response from China should the ruling go in favour of the Philippines.
There is concern that China could step up construction of military facilities on reclaimed islands, or even declare an air defence identification zone in the South China Sea, similar to the one it declared in the East China Sea in a dispute over islands with Japan.