Realpolitik Dominates Weekend Discussions In Vietnam

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.

us challenges chinese gunboat diplomacy in the south china sea

China’s military assertiveness in recent months, as well as its unabashed use of gunboat diplomacy in the South China Sea is drawing a visible response from the United States. As the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) conducts exercises in disputed waters around the Paracel Islands, the USS Ronald Reagan, USS Nimitz, and four escorts have entered the South China Sea and are conducting their own exercises starting today. Although it has not been revealed just where in the South China Sea the US exercises will take place, it is fair to assume that US and Chinese forces will be operating in fairly close proximity to one another in the coming days.

The present Chinese naval exercise has stirred tensions in the South China Sea area. The Paracel Islands have been a thorn of contention for some time. Vietnam, the Philippines, and China all have claims on some or all of the islands. Every year China holds naval exercises in close proximity to the Paracels. This year, however, the exercise has struck a nerve. Vietnam has lodged a formal diplomatic complaint with the Chinese foreign ministry, and Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr has warned,  ‘Should the exercises spill over to Philippine territory…it will be met with the severest response, diplomatic and whatever else is appropriate.’ This unusually aggressive and blunt language from Manila underscores the anger that China’s claims, and actions are generating in the region. Unfortunately for Vietnam, the Philippines, and other SCS nations, their reactions are largely limited to words. The military power, and political will to challenge China on a collective level simply is not there, a reality which China’s gunboat diplomacy tactics have notably exploited.

The power projection by the US Navy serves as a direct message aimed at Beijing, warning the Chinese against making moves that will destabilize the South China Sea further. China has been quick to use gunboat diplomacy in the SCS to achieve its geopolitical objectives. In the broader context the American exercise is also intended to remind China the US military is prepared to counter any Chinese military moves in the Western Pacific. Tensions between Washington and Beijing continue to rise and this pattern appears unlikely to change soon. As a consequence, future Chinese exercises taking place in the South China Sea, and other areas of the Western Pacific will  keep eliciting US reactions until China steps back from its aggressive posturing.

Hanoi Suspects China of Sinking A Vietnamese Fishing Boat in the South China Sea

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The nations of the South China Sea region are looking for clarification on the chain of events that led to the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat last week near the Paracel Islands. The fishing boat sank on Wednesday after being rammed by a Chinese vessel according to a Vietnamese official. China claims otherwise. According to Beijing, its ship received a distress call from the fishing boat and arrived in the area as it was sinking. Subsequently, the Chinese ship sought aid for the fishing boat’s crew. China’s statement made no mention of a vessel ramming the Vietnamese boat, nor did it clarify who rescued the sailors.

If the offending vessel turned out to belong to the People’s Republic of China it would not come as a surprise to any Western Pacific nation-states. There have been several incidents of Chinese coast guard or maritime militia ships attacking Vietnamese fishing boats in recent years.  The Chinese have made a routine habit out of driving non-Chinese fishing boats away from its territorial claims in the South China Sea. Normally, it is the coast guard, or maritime militia that performs these duties. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) stays out of these disputes and instead is used primarily when foreign warships sail in close proximity to China’s claims. Fishermen have been caught up in the South China Sea disputes often in recent years. The territorial claims made by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, and a host of other nations have limited the areas where fishing can take place without harassment.

Western powers have increased their naval presence in the South China Sea to promote the freedom of navigation. Contrary to China’s claim that the waterway is solely its possession, the world views the South China Sea as international waters. The United States has taken a strong position in championing freedom of navigation rights. US warships make frequent transits of the sea, and purposely maneuver close to islands China has claimed, often inviting aggressive pushback from Beijing.

The South China Sea is Heating Up Part II

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In order to firmly grasp, and understand the current situation in the South China Sea (SCS), it needs to be viewed from the two very divergent perspectives that dominate the thinking behind the geopolitical decisions being made by the major players in the area: Western (US and its allies) and Chinese.

From the Western point of view, China’s claims of sovereignty in the SCS, and construction of ports, airfields, and other military installations in the Paracel and Spratly Islands are nothing short of aggressive, willful violations of international law. China’s insists that, under international law,  foreign militaries are not able to conduct intelligence gathering activities inside of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea. The United States holds the position that under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) claimant nations have the right to freedom of navigation through EEZs and cannot be prevented. China’s position can potentially hold international commerce hostage if Beijing should so decide. As a result, it should not be allowed to stand.

The People’s Republic of China views its SCS actions as an essential to the establishment of the First island chain, the keystone of China’s Island Chain Strategy. The First island chain refers to the first line of archipelagos located east of the Chinese mainland. China views this area as one which must be secured to prevent US military forces from actively operating there in a time of hostilities. It would seal off the East China Sea, Yellow Sea, and South China Sea from the naval and air forces of the US and its allies. China is well on its way towards achieving the First island chain policy. Every move it makes in the SCS is critical to reaching that goal by the 2020-2022 timeframe.

A military clash between these two contradictory positions could very well be imminent. The Trump administration’s stance on China’s militarization of the SCS continues to evolve, and Beijing’s SCS plans appear to be moving forward regardless of Washington’s protests, and Freedom of Navigation exercises in the area. Despite the lack of coverage, and discussion in the media, the South China Sea situation will demand close attention in the coming weeks. Further incidents between US and Chinese ships like the one last week could provide the catalyst for a major US-China war in the Western Pacific.