As well as his combativeness over Taiwan and Beijing's refusal to extend an invitation to him during his trip to Asia, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates also broached the subject of disputes in the South China Sea during the just-concluded Shangri-la Dialogue.
Speaking at the event in Singapore, Gates said the area, which is the world's second busiest international sea lane, is 'of growing concern'. US government agencies have reportedly claimed that companies including BP and Exxon Mobil have halted projects in the area because of Chinese objections. But it hasn't just been the US that has been concerned over China's interests there – it has also been the scene of a long-running dispute with Vietnam.
The region, which stretches from Singapore to the Taiwan Strait, is rich in oil and natural gas and includes more than 200 islets and reefs, most of which are located in the Paracel and Spratly Island chains. And it is these two chains that have seen the most serious skirmishes of the multitude of competing claims between countries in the region, both of which were between China and Vietnam.
In January 1974, China captured the Paracel islands from Vietnam, while in 1988, the navies of China and Vietnam clashed over possession of the Johnson Reef in the Spratly Islands, an incident that saw several Vietnamese vessels sunk, with dozens of its sailors perishing.
The issue flared again when China last May presented a claim to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to 80 percent of the South China Sea. China has since then been more 'rigorously' enforcing its claims to the area, including to the Spratlys and Paracels, at the expense of Vietnamese fishermen who have seen their boats rammed and had catches of fish confiscated.
This year marks a year of friendship between the two countries. So how do things stand now? Speaking at the Shangri-la Dialogue on Sunday, General Phung Quang Thanh, Vietnamese minister of national defence, said: 'Currently, we step-by-step are undertaking dialogue with the countries concerned in order to address the matters of dispute', adding that negotiations would be undertaken in a spirit of 'co-operation' and 'brotherhood'.
Such sentiments were echoed by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, who according to China's official Xinhua News Agency told a visiting Chinese official at the weekend that Vietnam pledged to advance a 'comprehensive strategic partnership' of cooperation with China.
However, these statements follow Vietnam's decision to public reassert its claims to the two territories, with the Foreign Affairs Ministry stating late last month that 'All foreign activities in these two archipelagos without Vietnam ’s approval violate Vietnam ’s sovereignty, sovereignty rights and jurisdiction.'
Vietnam is in a difficult position. Despite its rapid economic growth (it was the fastest growing economy in South-east Asia last year) it is no match for its massive neighbour militarily – a reality underscored by the significant Chinese military exercise that ended in April in the South China Sea, its largest in the area to date and which included some of the country's most modern warships.
And there's little Vietnam, increasingly tied by trade (Chinese statistics showed two-way trade passed $20 billion last year) can do aside from formally protest now that China has issued another of its annual unilateral fishing bans in the area, a move China claims is to protect fish stocks, but which critics suggest is another attempt at asserting sovereignty over the area.
Open Democracy writer Sophie Quinn-Judge captured the dilemma facing Vietnam's leaders well writing recently: 'By now it must be clear to the Vietnamese leadership that more concessions to China will erode the confidence of key strata of the population, including both intellectuals and segments of the military…If the public comes to believe that the communist party, which presents itself as the guardian of national independence, can no longer protect the nation’s key interests, then its legitimacy will be increasingly questioned.'