Fears of escalation as China prepares for ruling on sea dispute

All smiles, but tensions continue to grow between China and the US in the South China Sea. Picture courtesy Reuters

All smiles, but tensions continue to grow between China and the US in the South China Sea. Picture courtesy Reuters

Vietnam is braced for a further escalation from China as regional resistance stiffens to Beijing’s ambitions in the South China Sea.

Fears are growing that China could declare an air defence identification zone over the South China Sea, or further develop its military presence on reclaimed islands, in response to an impending ruling at The Hague on China’s territorial claims.

The Deputy Defence Minister, Lt Gen Nguyen Chi Vinh, warned of tensions and eventual military conflict if the territorial disputes were not resolved.

“It is inconsistency in statements and actions, the differences and inequality in the resolution of disputes” that fuel such fears, he told the Shangri-La defence forum in Singapore in a clear reference to China’s growing belligerence.

“There are imposing behaviours and the selfish pursuit of interests without considering the interests of other nations, the region, and the international community,” he said.

China has made clear it will not accept the expected ruling against it from the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in a case brought by the Philippines.

An aggressive address by China’s representative at the Shangri-La forum left little hope that Beijing was looking for ways to calm the apprehension of its neighbours.

“The South China Sea issue has become overheated because of the provocations of certain countries for their own selfish interests,” said Admiral Sun Jianguo, the deputy chief of the PLA general staff.

“I am worried some people and countries are still holding a cold war mentality and prejudice … they may build a wall in their mind and end up isolating themselves,” he went on.

That was a response to a statement from the US Defence Secretary, Ashton Carter, that China risking building a “Great Wall of self isolation”.

Mr Carter underlined that the US was in the region to stay, but some analysts noted an easing of US rhetoric as its representatives did not repeat a call for China to abandon construction of military bases on disputed islands.

Some also noted the silence of Admiral Harry Harris, the normally combative commander of Pacific Command, which oversees the US “rebalancing” of forces to the western Pacific.

US officials may be looking for ways to calm tensions amid fears about how China will respond to the court’s ruling.

The Secretary of State, John Kerry, has warned that a possible move by Beijing to declare an air defence identification zone in the South China Sea would be provocative and destabilising.

US officials have also expressed concern that Beijing could start construction of  military facilities on Scarborough Shoal, which it took possession of in 2012 despite desperate protests from the Philippines.