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Poll: As concern over China mounts, US seen as dependable ally

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Vietnam’s people now view the United States as their greatest ally amid widespread concern in Asia over China’s territorial ambitions, according to a Pew Research Center global survey released Monday.

In the face-to-face survey of 1,000 adults, 67 percent of Vietnamese said they viewed the United States favorably, while 30 percent said the U.S. will be their most dependable ally in the future, more than any other country selected. For those with no memory of the Vietnam War, U.S. support is even higher. In the 18-29 age group, 89 percent viewed the United States favorably.

Meanwhile, 74 percent of Vietnamese saw China as their nation’s greatest threat, with no other nation garnering a statistically significant response. The Vietnamese poll included a 4.5 percent margin of error.

Other neighboring countries seems to share Vietnam’s view: The majority of respondents in all Asia-Pacific nations polled by Pew said they were concerned that territorial disputes between China and its neighbors could lead to territorial conflict.

For example, 93 percent of respondents in the Philippines said they were concerned, the highest figure among all countries surveyed. For the past few years, Chinese vessels have blocked Philippine fishing boats from accessing islands the Philippines considers part of its exclusive economic zone, within 200 nautical miles of its mainland.

In Japan, 83 percent said they were concerned, due mainly to tense maritime and jet encounters over the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands, which China claims.

Sixty-two percent of Chinese also said they were concerned about potential armed conflict over territory.

The months-long standoff in the South China Sea over a deep water oil rig deployed by China near the Paracel Islands — which are claimed by both Vietnam and China — seems to have a big effect on the survey results in Vietnam.

Although no shots have been fired, each side has accused the other of ramming each other’s ships, though most of China’s ships are considerably larger. One Vietnamese fishing vessel sunk during the first weeks of the incident, which began in early May. Several photographs and videos online purport to show Chinese vessels targeting Vietnamese ship communications with water cannons.

On July 10, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution calling on China to withdraw the rig and its ships.

The conflict has led to speculation that Vietnam and the United States are headed for a closer strategic relationship than anyone envisioned even a few years ago. U.S. Navy officials have discussed expanding an existing military exchange, while Vietnamese leaders said that they will open to ship visits from all nations at Cam Ranh Bay, which is close to some of the South China Sea’s disputed areas.

However, Vietnam’s government is still taking a more conservative tone in comparison to popular opinion on China, said Carlyle Thayer, a professor emeritus at University of New South Wales in Australia and Southeast Asia analyst.

Hanoi will factor any enhanced U.S. relationship with China’s immediate presence next door, along with its powerful neighbor’s economic importance.

“Vietnam would like to tell the U.S. why it’s in its interest to balance against China, but also limit their involvement in helping the United States,” Thayer said.

If China removes its drilling rig from the disputed waters in mid-August, as it said it would from the beginning in May, it will at least give the two nations time to work on a diplomatic solution.

“The tipping point would be any more use of force,” Thayer said. “My gut feeling is that I don’t think it suits either China or Vietnam to make matters worse.”

China claims about 90 percent of the South China Sea, including several island groups and the vast natural resources in their nearby waters.

slavin.erik@stripes.com

Twitter:@eslavin_stripes

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