BEIJING - The recent tension in the South China Sea is all just a bit surprising. Historical tensions have risen in recent months, with Vietnam announcing military drills in disputed waters after China demanded that the Vietnamese halt oil exploration in the area. Many wonder if Vietnam is daring to strut a tough new attitude because it thinks it has the support of the United States. And yet the U.S. is ambiguous towards the issue.

What meanings can we cull from America’s ambiguity? First, Washington wants to give itself an exit route because, if it gets involved directly in this affair, it will create tensions with China at a time when it wishes to avoid damaging its economic recovery. But at the same time, the U.S. is consciously creating an illusion for Vietnam – and the Philippines too – in order to use the South China Sea situation as a way to test China. This is all part of the recent American policy of “returning to Asia.”

In a certain sense Vietnam is playing to the gallery, trying to feel out China’s current situation and gauge its bottom line. It is aping Washington’s frequent use of “trial balloons” on its Chinese policy, from the recent tough Hillary Clinton speech to happily watching Vietnam challenge China. America’s aim is to see Beijing’s reaction to Vietnam, so that America, in turn, can better deal with China, and ultimately reinforce its position in the Asia-Pacific region.

Nevertheless, the ambiguity of the U.S. could send a misleading message to other countries. Some people might even hope that further development of the situation might corner America into challenging China. But sadly for them, that dream is not likely to come true, because of America’s pragmatic nature. A country that takes it own interests as its supreme aim is not to be trapped into supporting the interests of small countries. What can capture America is its belief in its own destiny, and its Jewish interest groups. Other than that, it is just unrequited love.

While the South China Sea is in a state of tension, the U.S. is busy handling its own problems of natural disasters, poor economic data, and reviving Obama’s sharply declining popularity by announcing the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Under such circumstances, the U.S. has no desire for a showdown with a big power like China. The tragedy is how ignorant small countries are of international politics, imagining that they can rely on America’s willingness to participate actively on their behalf.

A few years back, I wrote an article to point out that Vietnam should learn the lesson of keeping the aggressive U.S. at a distance. If not, it could harm peaceful developments with China, and become the unfortunate victim of America’s games and battles with other powers.

The ant and the elephant

What this series of problems reveals is Vietnam’s struggle with its own national identity. A similar situation has played out in Georgia, a small country that fawns on the faraway U.S. by arousing tensions with its powerful neighbor, and then pays heavily for its imprudence. Logically when you have a big neighbor, it’s better to be discreet and try your best to maintain good relations. China is full of opportunity, but it is regrettable that some like to flirt with periodic self-expansion: not only do they despise the big elephant, but also they naively believe that an ant can strangle an elephant.

Nonetheless there are a few smart Vietnamese who clearly understand the value of this neighbor and teacher, China. The Vietnamese war hero, General Pham Van Tra, once said: “Heaven is far, but China is near”. It is a pity that this is not mainstream thinking today in Vietnam.

Still, Vietnam must face its fears that the elephant may really turn furious, while the U.S. will be too afraid to get involved. Vietnam is hoping that it can maintain the status quo, so as to keep occupying certain islands in the South China Sea in order to exploit the undersea oil reserves. Meanwhile, America is hoping to be the final beneficiary by breaking up the 10+1 of China and the ten ASEAN member countries so it can increase its number of overseas military bases and win more orders for arms. Or perhaps America hopes to be the peacemaker, so extending its authority and influence in Southeast Asia.

The problem is the trunk of the elephant is not going to be led by an ant. The South China Sea problem is either going to be solved by the gentle Chinese method or the forceful Chinese way. Take it or leave it.

Read the original article in Chinese.

Photo by Official U.S. Navy Imagery.