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.
*Author’s Note: Brief update today owing to a packed schedule. Apologies.*
Manila has called upon Beijing to withdraw the 200+ alleged Chinese fishing vessels it claims are violating its territorial waters. Since 7 March, 2023 there have been dozens of Chinese vessels moored at Whitsun reef. The Chinese claim the reason for this is their need to take shelter due to sea conditions. According to observations of the fleet, there is no fishing taking place and in the evening the ships run powerful lighting equipment. Whitsun reef is considered by the Philippines to be a component of its EEZ (exclusive economic zone) and has filed a diplomatic protest which will, in all likelihood, go nowhere.
So, here we are once more with China laying the foundation for yet another South China Sea challenge. In global politics, timing is everything. The fact that China has chosen to apply direct pressure a US ally in this manner, not very long after the Alaska meetings is telling. Beijing is ready to expand its confrontational attitude and actions. If China’s move at Whitsun is not countered and reversed, territorial seizures similar to what took place at Scarborough Shoal in 2012 will be coming in the near future.
It cannot be said that China’s recent actions in the South China Sea have come as a surprise to the rest of the world. Indications of Beijing’s strategic objectives regarding this body of water have been detectable for years. From its territorial claims, to the construction of artificial islands, and their militarization, China has made clear its intention to dominate the South China Sea. What has yet to be determined is whether or not domination and conquest are interchangeable terms in Beijing’s strategic lexicon.
The potential benefits stemming from a Chinese conquest of the South China Sea are immeasurable. It would affirm China’s position as the preeminent power in Asia. The emerging geopolitical, and economic dictum of the 21st century is: ‘whoever controls the South China Sea controls the economies of Asia.’ The underlying logic that control of the sea lanes of communication through the South China Sea is crucial to the economic survival of Asia’s largest economies cannot be challenged. A brief glance at the South China Sea situation today leads people to believe that territorial claims, and assumptive natural resource deposits serve as the nucleus of the disputes. While these are important factors, it is the sea lanes, and their connection to the global economy that makes the South China Sea such a valuable body of blue real estate.
China claims “indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea Islands and the adjacent waters.” Action speaks louder than words, however. Unless China is compelled to support this declaration with the use of force, it’s a hollow statement. Commerce flows through the area with no interference from China. Warships and aircraft of the United States, and its allies conduct frequent freedom-of-navigation transits of the South China Sea and encounter minimal harassment by Peoples Liberation Army Navy forces. The encounters, while tense, remain peaceful. The one area where China has become more aggressive is fishery rights. More frequently, Chinese naval and coast guard ships have been challenging the fishing vessels belonging to Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and other South China Sea nations.
In May, 2019 this blog will be examining China’s ambitions in the South China Sea and how its drive to dominate and conquer these waters could play out in the coming months and years. New posts on this topic will appear every Monday next month.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is loudly warning China to keep its distance from an island in the South China Sea that is considered by Manila to be an official municipality of the Philippines. Thitu Island has been occupied by the Philippines since 1970. It is the second largest of the non-artificial islands in the Spratly chain, and has long been envied by China. Duterte has threatened to send his military troops on a ‘suicide mission’ if Chinese pressure around the island does not ease, or if Beijing makes a move to occupy it.
According to the Philippine military, hundreds of Chinese vessels from fishing boats, to Coast Guard cutters have swarmed the island. Yesterday the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs released a statement calling the presence of the Chinese ships a ‘clear violation of Philippine sovereignty.’ China’s maritime presence around Thitu Island has been consistent.
Despite the warning, Duterte has maintained a friendly tone towards China. In the same campaign speech where he spoke of the Thitu Island situation, the president stated his belief that China ‘just wants to be friends with us.’ In a sharp contrast to Duterte’s words, his military chiefs are growing more concerned with Chinese moves in the South China Sea. Duterte’s desire to curry favor from the United States and China simultaneously continues, and he remains either unconcerned with, or oblivious to the blowback his ‘on again-off again’ stance with China is creating.
The South China Sea has become alarmingly tense lately with the violation of the Median Line of the Taiwan Strait, and continuing US-led Freedom of Navigation exercises. In an alarmingly dangerous world, it will take little for a major conflict to brew up. The Thitu Island situation acts as the latest potential flashpoint in a region already filled with them.
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.