Vietnam’s importance to the South China Sea region has never been underestimated by the major players in the region or their allies around the world. This past weekend, Hanoi’s increasing significance was on full display as the government welcomed senior government officials from Japan and China. The purpose behind the visit by a senior Chinese diplomat was to smooth over relations between the two nations and urged Vietnam to resist the intervention of outside players into the disputes between Beijing and Hanoi over claims in the South China Sea. The reason for Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi’s trip to Vietnam was more practical. On Saturday, the two nations signed a deal enabling the export of Japanese-made weapons and equipment to Vietnam.
Wang Yi, a senior Chinese diplomat stopped in Hanoi during a one-week tour through Southeast Asia. He stated that China and Vietnam should safeguard the peace and stability in the South China Sea and be wary of external players moving to disrupt that. This was obviously a shot at the United States and the less-than successful visit by Vice President Harris to Vietnam last month. China and Vietnam agreed to manage disagreements and avoid complicating situations or expanding disputes. In short, not airing their dirty laundry or looking to external states and supranational bodies to mediate disputes.
Ironically enough, the agreement signed between Japan and Vietnam later on the same weekend was a clear example of Vietnam welcoming the assistance of an extraterritorial nation-state amid concerns about China’s growing military power. Details on the transfer of specific equipment and systems will be worked out in subsequent talks. However, naval vessels will be included in the transfer. Japanese Defense Minister Kishi and his Vietnamese counterpart, Phan Van Giang also agreed on the importance of maintaining freedom of navigation and overflight in the Indo-Pacific region. This was obviously in reference to China’s aggressive maneuvering in the South China Sea.
China and Vietnam are at odds over the Spratly and Paracel Island groups in the region.
Despite a global pandemic, the South China Sea has become more active over the past week, owing in large part to China’s aggressive posturing in the area. Concern is growing now with COVID-19 seriously affecting US Navy readiness in the Pacific, China could be preparing to take advantage of the pandemic and assert its dominance over the South China Sea. Since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak China has expanded its claims in the sea, announced new research stations at its military bases on Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef, and has started landing military aircraft at Fiery Cross.
Late last week a Vietnamese fishing boat was rammed and sunk by a Chinese coast guard ship near the Parcel Islands. Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs claims the boat was conducting normal fishing activities in sovereign Vietnamese waters. Shortly after the incident the Chinese laid the blame on Vietnam, claiming the fishing boat was in illegally fishing inside of Chinese territorial waters. Both nations lay claim to the Parcel Islands and this incident is helping to ramp up tensions between them. On Wednesday, the Philippines rebuked Beijing and released a ‘statement of solidary’ with Vietnam. The move came as something of a surprise given the large amount of aid China has given to the Philippines during the coronavirus crisis, and the fact that Manila’s stance on the South China Sea dispute has softened in recent years.
Yesterday, a US Navy destroyer transited the Taiwan Strait amid increasing Chinese air activity in the area. US reconnaissance and ELINT aircraft arrived and were operating in the vicinity later in the day. Since mid-March, following a surge of US Navy activity in and around the South China Sea, PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) exercises, and activity have become almost daily occurrences. Now, with a growing number of US 7th Fleet warships contending with infected crewmembers, the PLAN operations tempo could be rising once more.
China’s moves in the South China Sea have to be monitored closely now with the world’s attention focused on the pandemic. When the cat’s away, the mice will play, so to speak and Beijing will not hesitate to take advantage of this situation if it will strengthen its position in the South China Sea both militarily, and economically.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in will travel to Washington DC in April for talks with President Trump on issues of mutual interest, as well as the latest developments with regard to North Korea and Kim Jong Un. The South Korean leader had played an active role as intermediary between Washington and Pyongyang in the weeks leading up to the first US-North Korean Summit in Singapore. Following that, Moon’s role, and that of his country, lessened. Trump and Kim took centerstage and diplomacy between the two nations no longer required the services of an intermediary.
The stalemate reached at the second summit in Hanoi last month could breathe new life into Moon’s prospects to play a pivotal role in efforts to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. Relations between the United States and North Korea are regressing temporarily as both sides analyze the situation, and plan their next respective moves. An intermediary could prove useful in the coming months to ensure no retrograde takes place, permanent or otherwise.
Moon’s problem is that he might be overestimating his usefulness at this point. To be fair, his efforts to bring the first summit to life were beneficial. The road to in-person talks between Trump and Kim would’ve been longer if Moon had not met his North Korean opposite at Panmunjom in April, 2018. This meeting threw down the gauntlet and opened the door to Singapore.
The stalemate at Hanoi gives him an opportunity to get back in the game. The matter at hand now is determining exactly how to go about achieving complete denuclearization. South Korea has no nuclear weapons so the southern half of the Korean Peninsula is already denuclearized. North Korea wants the heavy burden of US economic sanctions to be dropped before it takes any further steps towards dropping its nuclear weapons, and ballistic missile program. Moon is very limited with what he can offer Pyongyang to jumpstart the discussion.
South Korea’s president could find himself as Trump’s messenger. This might not be the role Moon wants, but it might wind up being the most crucial job if the United States, South Korea, and North Korea intend to get denuclearization efforts back on track soon.
Planning and preparation is underway for the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson’s visit Da Nang in March. News of the potential visit broke when Secretary of Defense James Mattis was in Vietnam for talks with Nguyen Phu Trong, the general secretary of the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam. It’s almost certain now that the United States Navy will be returning to Vietnam in a very big way. Carl Vinson’s port call will mark the first time a US aircraft carrier has sailed in Vietnamese waters since Operation Frequent Wind, the evacuation of US citizens from Saigon in April, 1975.
Word of the port call comes at a time when tensions in the South China Sea region appear ready to flare up. China has claimed that earlier this month a US Navy destroyer violated its territorial waters when it sailed within 12 nautical miles of Scarborough Shoal. There is speculation that Beijing is preparing to make a move in the region. On 30 December, 2017 Chinese state television broadcast video of Chinese military facilities on Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea. The broadcast highlighted the scale of China’s military buildup in the region. China may intend to use the transit as the reason for increasing its military presence in and around South China Sea.
Carl Vinson’s visit is symbolic of the growing defense relationship between the United States and Vietnam. Vietnam has been quite vocal with its opposition to Chinese moves in the area, joining India, Australia, Japan, and other regional powers that harbor misgivings about China’s long-term intentions. Those nations have followed the US lead and strengthened their defense relationships with Vietnam over the past five years. India has provided advanced training for Vietnamese fighter pilots, and its budding submarine force. Australia has provided equipment and advisors to a lesser degree.
The purpose that is fueling the relationship’s growth is clear. Vietnam represents the first line of defense against Chinese actions in the South China Sea. The more capable its military becomes, the greater the possibility that it can slow down a potential Chinese military venture until US, Australian, and Japanese warships and aircraft arrive in force.