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China’s Flash Points in Asia Persist Despite Network of Crisis Hotlines

In this April 23, 2019, file photo, a new type 094A Jin-class nuclear submarine Long March 10 of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy participates in a naval parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of China's PLA Navy.
In this April 23, 2019, file photo, a new type 094A Jin-class nuclear submarine Long March 10 of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy participates in a naval parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of China's PLA Navy.

A growing network of crisis-defusing telephone hotlines between China and other Asian countries shows Beijing’s intent to strengthen those relations but does not resolve the wider disputes that could spark conflict, analysts believe.

Officials in Beijing expect these phone connections to show “we are cooperating” but without policy changes that would calm its neighbors, said Alexander Vuving, professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii. Most acts that anger other countries in disputed waterways are planned rather than sudden, he believes.

“In actuality it doesn’t really reduce tension, because tension is most of the time deliberate,” Vuving said of Sino-Vietnamese relations. “China and Vietnam also take care to keep the tension below the threshold of an open conflict.”

The navy hotline will ensure Sino-Vietnamese goodwill until the next planned upset, analysts believe. Each side has angered the other over the past seven years by exploring for oil under or near disputed tracts of the South China Sea. Last year Vietnam protested to China over the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat.

“I think that they’re just being responsible to have a secure line of communications in case anything happens. It doesn’t mean relations are any better or worse,” said Jack Nguyen, partner at the business advisory firm Mazars in Ho Chi Minh City. On the Sino-Vietnamese relationship, he said, “I think overall it’s stable, as stable as it can be.”

Beijing claims about 90% of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer South China Sea, which is prized for fisheries and fossil fuel reserves. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam call parts of the sea their own, and Taiwan claims most of it. China is the most militarily advanced.

Southeast Asian states resent China’s landfilling of small islets in the sea for military use and passing vessels through waters they call their own. China cites historical usage records to back its claims including in the exclusive economic zones of other states.

Tokyo and Beijing contest parts of the East China Sea including a chain of uninhabited, Japanese-controlled islets.

Hotlines are a common solution for China. Military hotlines “provide a way of communicating, which can improve dispute management and reduce the risk of conflict,” the state-monitored Chinese news website Global Times said on its website in 2018, quoting a research fellow from Beijing-based Tsinghua University.

Chinese and Vietnamese navy chiefs agreed earlier this month to work towards setting up a hotline aimed at reducing risk of conflict over competing claims in the South China Sea. Foreign ministers from the two countries opened their own line in 2012 to discuss sea-related issues as needed.

Defense ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations agreed in 2017 to set up a hotline for what China’s state-owned Xinhua News Agency calls “quick response cooperation in emergency situations, especially in maritime operations.” A year later China and its former World War II rival Japan agreed to establish a hotline to discuss any strife at sea and another with India following a border standoff.

Experts know of no occasion when the low-cost setups have muted a conflict and believe that China doesn’t pick up its hotlines at crucial moments.

“It’s always of extreme danger if you pick up the phone on China’s end,” said Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan. “If things go right, you’ve got nothing, but any miscommunication whatsoever, then you are the guy [held responsible] because you forgot to ignore the ring.”

China prefers to work directly with countries, including through offers of aid and investment for poorer ones, to ease disputes, analysts say. They point to the Philippines as a case in point over the past four years. China has other communication channels with Vietnam particularly, including informal talks between ruling Communist parties, they add.

“China and Vietnam actually never lacked the need in the past for an intentional setup of a special hotline for handling two-way South China Sea issues, because the platforms used by the Communist parties of China and Vietnam, as compared to other Southeast Asian countries’ channels, are very numerous,” said Huang Chung-ting, assistant research fellow with the Institute for National Defense and Security Research in Taipei.

The recently established navy hotline is a “symbolic and emblematic move” that’s unlikely to produce a “substantive result,” he said.