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.
It has not taken long for both the United States and China to start projecting power in the South China Sea on the heels of the US declaration that nearly all of China’s claims in the SCS are unlawful. ‘The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire. America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources, consistent with their rights and obligations under international law,’ US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement earlier this week. The statement outlined the position of the United States vis-à-vis China’s expansionist activities, and claims in the SCS region. Just a couple days after Pompeo’s statement, two US carrier strike groups have reentered the South China Sea to conduct exercises. The Pentagon claims the move is unrelated to current events, however, even if true it still sends a message to Beijing. China has responded by deploying 4-6 J-11B Flankers to its airfield on Woody Island, part of the Paracel Islands. A modest move by military standards, but one that sends a message back to Washington.
With US-China relations deteriorating at a rapid clip, Washington has been increasingly concerned that China is using the pandemic as a window of opportunity to expand and solidify its position in the SCS, as well as in other areas. The statement confirming the US position serves to demonstrate resolve and show support for Southeast Asian nations that have been affected by China’s aggressive expansion around the SCS.
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.
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.
Malaysia tossed a curve ball directly at the People’s Republic of China earlier this month. In a move that stunned the South China Sea region, Malaysia has openly defied China’s claims in the sea, referring to the Nine-Dash Line as ‘ridiculous.’ The comment was made by the Malaysian foreign minister on 20 December as part of a statement defending his nation’s submission of claim to the UN seeking to extend the outer limits of Malaysia’s continental shelf beyond 200 miles. China responded by accusing Malaysia of infringing on its sovereignty and violating international law.
Kuala Lumpur’s actions assure there will be stiffer resistance to China’s ambitious political and military moves in the South China Sea through the early part of 2020. Nations with claims in the sea have hardened their positions in the face of Beijing’s pressure. Organized resistance to this has started to appear, in large part due to the United States having increased its presence in the area and seeking closer ties with nations such as Vietnam, and the Philippines. Confident of US support, other nations are beginning to speak out and act against China’s moves with growing confidence.
At the present time, China has a host of other issues to deal with, from the detention of Uighur Muslims, to Hong Kong, and the ongoing trade war with the United States. The South China Sea is where the greatest chance of confrontation lies. Even so, Beijing is not expected to cave in or soften its stace. Xi Jinping will press forward, but perhaps a little more delicately than one would expect. China has the upper-hand in the South China Sea at the moment. Regardless if 2020 brings confrontation, or negotiation with its rivals in the region, Beijing will operate from a position of strength.