While Hanoi appreciated important achievements in the concerted efforts to manage the South China Sea issue, especially with the adoption of a draft negotiation text on the Code of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea at the 51st ASEAN Ministerial Meeting, the situation in the disputed waters is still characterized by complexity, uncertainty, and unpredictability. Addressing Vietnam’s 30th Diplomatic Conference in August 2018, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Nguyen Phu Trong noted that rapid and complex changes with potential unforeseeable risks in the South China Sea have posed new challenges to the country’s dual tasks of safeguarding national sovereignty, territorial integrity, and jurisdiction rights in line with international law, while preserving a peaceful and stable environment in the region.
Ongoing developments in the South China Sea
First, although there has been no significant crisis between the claimants in the South China Sea in the recent years, Beijing has kept conducting land reclamations, installing military facilities on artificial islands, and holding military exercises in the contested areas. In May 2018, China was reported to have installed missiles on structures illegally constructed on the Spratly Islands. In a press conference on 1 November 2018, China announced that it will operate weather monitoring stations in the artificial islands in the South China Sea. A report from the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative in the same month revealed Beijing’s construction of a new platform on Bombay Reef in the Paracel Islands.
China’s unilateral moves to enforce its position on the ground are perceived to infringe upon Vietnam’s sovereignty over the islands and to generate tensions, thereby threatening stability, cooperation and maritime security in the region. Consequently, China’s activities prompted Vietnam to file protests, in which the country repeatedly requested its neighbor to halt the militarization of the South China Sea and strictly abide by international law as well as basic principles guiding the settlement of sea-related issues between Vietnam and China and the DOC between ASEAN and China.
Second, the situation in the South China Sea over the past two years has witnessed the stronger involvement of extra-regional powers amidst China’s growing naval power and aggressive practices at sea. The U.S. has conducted several military drills in the contested South China Sea, which are designed to uphold freedom of navigation and over-flight in the strategic waters. The Trump administration first exercised freedom of navigation operations on 23 May 2017 when the destroyer USS Dewey sailed within 12 nautical miles of a Chinese artificial island in the South China Sea and near Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands. One of the latest military operations came with the flyover of two U.S. B-52 bombers close to the South China Sea on 16 October 2018. Significantly, the U.S. FONOPs in the important waterway have been carried out in concert with its key allies. In early September 2018, the British Royal Navy sent HMS Albion warship near the Paracel Islands, and then suggested maintaining the naval presence in the Asia-Pacific region. In the same month, Japan, a regional maritime power, also joined naval maneuvers with the U.S. in the South China Sea.
From Beijing’s perspective, Washington’s recent operations present a challenge to its expansive claims and cause provocation in the disputed waters. The U.S.-Sino disagreement even translated into a near-collision at sea. The U.S. Navy reported that while the USS Decatur was passing within 12 nautical miles of Gaven and Johnson reefs in the Spratly Islands as a part of freedom of navigation operation in late September, a Chinese Luyang destroyer came within 45 yards of the USS Decatur and forced it to change course. This encounter was described as "an unsafe and unprofessional maneuver." Amid the heightened tension between the two countries in recent weeks, Chinese President Xi Jinping underlined the mission to “prepare to fight a war” when he delivered a speech to the military region responsible for monitoring the South China Sea and Taiwan in late October 2018. Such symbolic rhetoric may have been directed to address the domestic political needs; however, Xi’s speech properly increases Vietnam’s worry over China’s further unilateral moves as Vietnam has engaged in maritime disputes with China in the South China Sea. Speaking at the 13th East Asia Summit later, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc urged regional countries to adhere to the principles agreed upon by ASEAN, which involve exercising self-restraint, refraining from use of violence or threats of violence, and peacefully resolving the disputes in accordance with international laws.
Although there was emphasis on the necessity of reducing the potential risk of conflict at the second annual U.S-China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue, the sharp difference on important issues, including the South China Sea, remained unsettled. In other words, the maritime friction between the two great powers would not be de-escalated soon. In response to Chinese demand to stop sending vessels and aircraft near China-claimed territory in the South China Sea, U.S Defense Secretary Jim Mattis insisted that the U.S. will “fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows."
Hanoi adopts a clear position that it respects freedom of navigation and aviation in the South China Sea in accordance with the provisions of international law. To a certain extent, the regular U.S. military presence in the hotly-disputed region serves as a hedge against China’s expansionist attempts to tighten its physical control over the South China Sea, which in turn reinforces the rule-based order at sea. However, Beijing’s maritime ambition and Washington’s tougher approach aimed at pushing back the former’s increased assertiveness put the South China Sea disputes on a new edge, with a serious risk of military confrontation between the two maritime powers. Vietnamese Prime Minister considered the recent incidents and ongoing developments in the South China Sea "a grave concern for countries in the region” Indeed, Vietnam has been deeply concerned that the changing dynamics of the American-Sino relationship would turn the South China Sea into a battleground for supremacy. As such, the regional geopolitical reality raises the strategic issue as to how Vietnam can navigate its way through the escalated U.S.-China power rivalry to serve the country’s best interest.
Third, one of the key Southeast Asian players broke with the past to soften its stance towards China concerning the South China Sea issue. In certain cases, Manila’s new approach embraced inaction, leaving Hanoi as the only outspoken critic of Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the contested waters. At the AMM50, while Vietnam on its own sought to insert strong language against China’s building and militarization of artificial islands in the ASEAN statement, former Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Cayetano, as the chair of the meeting, commented: "It's not reflective of the present position... (The Chinese) are not reclaiming anymore." In response to China’s announcement of the launch of weather stations in the disputed Spratly islands, presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo said the government would have to verify the report. Later in a press conference on the sidelines of the 51st ASEAN Summit in Singapore, Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr challenged the media to check the information. The shift in Philippine foreign policy to the South China Sea disputes required Vietnam to take a more active role, first in the region, in maintaining regional unity and ASEAN’s relevance to mitigate the maritime disputes for regional peace and stability.
Instead of publicly voicing criticism of Beijing’s assertive moves in the contested waters, Manila opted to ease the tensions in the South China Sea through bilateral mechanisms. The historic state visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Manila in November 2018 witnessed the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding on oil and gas development. Vietnam does support the maritime cooperation between countries. Nevertheless, there exists deep concern over the areas for joint development, which remained unanswered in the MoU. If the future agreement on joint exploration covers disputed areas of the South China Sea where their claims overlap with Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan, it can go against the territorial rights and legitimate interests of other concerned parties. To this end, an energy cooperation deal between China and the Philippines could fuel suspicion and set a precedent for Southeast Asian claimants to pursue a more favorable bilateral deal with Beijing in the contested South China Sea. In other words, the pursuit of joint development with China can be fraught with pitfalls of favoring China’s traditional position of settling the disputes through bilateral negotiations where it enjoys more leverage over smaller neighbors and undermining the multilateral efforts to tackle the South China Sea issue.
Path forward for Vietnam to navigate the troubled South China Sea
Protecting Vietnam’s territory and maritime entitlements in the South China Sea has been a perennial issue of Vietnam’s foreign policy. Considering the complicated developments in the disputed maritime region, Vietnam has strived to pursue a proactive foreign policy by expanding security dialogues and fostering defense cooperation with stakeholders inside and outside the Asia-Pacific. Engaging like-minded countries who share the view of maintaining law and order in waters crucial for regional stability and global trade will allow Vietnam to improve its strategic stature and to gain more diplomatic leverage in handling the maritime dispute with China over the South China Sea. Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc’s official visit to Australia and in February 2018 marked a milestone in Vietnam-Australia ties as the two countries upgrade their relationship to a strategic partnership.An aircraft carrier-led group of the US Navy ships and a Japanese submarine made the first-ever visits to Vietnam in March and September 2018, respectively. Vietnam also rallied supports from India and Russia to preserve the peaceful environment and to ensure freedom of navigation in the South China Sea on the occasions of President Ram Nath Kovind's trip and Prime Minister Medvedev’s visit to Vietnam in late November 2018.
The situation in the South China Sea is not as tense as it was in the early 2010s, but the disagreement on core issues is far from resolved. For Vietnam’s part, it has been a critical issue of defending the country’s legitimate interests and preserving regional security during the period of unusual uncertainty.
NGUYEN Phuong Ly is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Melbourne, Australia and a former lecturer at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam. The views expressed are the author’s alone.