With the sinking of a Vietnamese boat yesterday in the South China Sea, tensions between Vietnam and China continue to climb. Vietnam has accused Chinese fishing boats of ramming its vessel; China places the blame on Hanoi. Against this backdrop, Vietnam has called on the international community to denounce China’s moves in the disputed maritime territories.
The U.S. has been quite willing to lend at least vocal support to Vietnam, even though Hanoi (unlike Japan and the Philippines) is not a U.S. ally. Yesterday, when asked for clarification on Washington’s view of the current China-Vietnam tensions, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said that “the provocative actions have largely been from the Chinese side.” Earlier, Psaki described the placement of the Chinese oil rig as part of “a pattern of unilateral moves by the Chinese Government in the region.” Though the U.S. maintains its neutrality on the actual question of sovereignty, public comments by officials have left no doubt that the U.S. disapproves of China’s efforts to exert control over disputed areas.
With friendly rhetoric coming from Washington, Vietnam sees a chance to boost its position in the disputes by edging closer to the U.S. As Carl Thayer wrote yesterday for Flashpoints, Vietnam has few strategic options open to it in its dispute with China — and developing closer ties with both the U.S. and America’s regional allies appears to be its strategy of choice.
Last Wednesday, Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Pham Binh Minh, spoke with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on the phone about the ongoing clashes in the South China Sea. Minh outlined Vietnam’s position and, according to Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there was substantial agreement between Kerry and Minh. “Mr. Kerry spoke highly of Viet Nam’s self-restraint and goodwill in using peaceful measures and dialogue channels,” the MFA said in a summary of the conversation.
Vietnam and the U.S. are also bolstering their cooperation in other areas, a process that has been accelerated by Hanoi’s unease over Chinese moves in disputed areas. On May 20, Vietnam announced that it would participate in the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), a move that the U.S. welcomed. During his phone conversation with Kerry, Minh also highlighted the increased economic ties between the U.S. and Vietnam and promised increased cooperation in the future. Vietnam “stands ready to coordinate with the US to deploy concrete measures to continue strengthening the comprehensive partnership between the two countries,” Minh said.
Increased ties between the U.S. and Vietnam cannot be entirely attributed to the current oil rig crisis. Vietnam has been an important target of the U.S. “rebalance to Asia” since early in Obama’s administration. While Washington and Hanoi have highlighted the growth of economic relations and people-to-people ties, the issue of the South China Sea has always been in the background. It was during Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s first visit to Vietnam in 2010 that she first asserted U.S. interests in seeing the maritime territorial disputes resolved.
Since then, reciprocal visits between U.S. and Vietnamese officials have become routine, culminating in Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang’s visit to Washington D.C. last July. At that meeting, Obama and Sang announced the formation of a “comprehensive partnership” between the U.S. and Vietnam. As part of this agreement, the two countries promised to increase their cooperation at regional forums and reaffirmed their support for a peaceful, negotiated resolution to maritime disputes. Similar expressions of the need for peace and security in the South China Sea always make their way into joint remarks at U.S.-Vietnam summits.
U.S.-Vietnam cooperation isn’t limited to the South China Sea issue, but those disputes may be the single largest motivating factor in Hanoi’s desire for greater ties with Washington. Decisions to join U.S.-backed multilateral initiatives, from the PSI to the ambitious Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), are tied to Vietnam’s hope of maintaining good relations with the U.S. as a way to hedge against China.
Hanoi is even more in need of good relations with the U.S. as Russia, its traditional partner, has remained silent on the current oil rig dispute. Moscow is prepared to offer Hanoi increased trade and investment, and even Kilo-class submarines, but apparently not public support in the disputes with China. So Vietnam has turned elsewhere in its quest to win international backers, and Washington is the most probable and most influential potential partner.
Meanwhile, from the U.S. point of view, increased ties with Vietnam are one of the most promising ways to expand the “rebalance to Asia” beyond the realm of traditional U.S. allies. Critics of the rebalance argued that it was simply a strategy for improving U.S. alliance relations in the region. The closer Washington gets to Hanoi, the easier it will be to refute these criticisms — although it’s unlikely to soothe any worries in Beijing.