It’s been over two weeks since China announced the placement of an oil rig in the South China Sea, 120 nautical miles from Vietnam’s coast and 17 nautical miles from the nearest Paracel Island. Beijing and Hanoi have been locked in a confrontation ever since, with tensions from naval clashes spilling over into deadly anti-China riots near Ho Chi Minh City. As neither shows signs of backing down, Vietnam is signaling that it is increasingly interested in tightening coordination with other claimants in the South China Sea disputes, including the Philippines and Malaysia.
Even while China was hosting a massive gathering of international leaders, and presenting its own vision for Asian security, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung was on a visit to Manila to meet with Philippine President Benigno Aquino. Given the two countries’ heated disputes with China over islands and features in the South China Sea, Beijing’s conduct (and how to respond) was a major topic of discussion. In remarks at a joint press briefing with Aquino, Dung said the two leaders “shared the deep concerns over the current extremely dangerous situation caused by China’s many actions that violate the international law, the UNCLOS 1982, and seriously infringe upon the waters of coastal countries.” Dung added that “Viet Nam and the Philippines are determined to oppose China’s violations.” He also called for other countries and the international community at large “to continue strongly demanding China to immediately end its above-said violations.”
Both the tone and the setting of these remarks were notable. It was harshly critical of China, and delivered while standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Philippine President. Brought together by their opposition to China’s territorial claims, Hanoi and Manila are seeking to deepen their own partnership. In addition to pledging to expand bilateral dialogues and communication mechanisms, the two sides also promised to “consult and support each other at regional cooperation mechanisms on defense and security such as the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM), the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM+) and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF).” Notably, at many ASEAN meetings, Vietnam and the Philippines are the strongest proponents of unified action on the South China Sea issue.
Vietnam is also considering hosting a meeting with Philippine and Malaysian officials later in May, Reuters reports. Similar meetings were held in February and March to discuss Manila’s arbitration case against China. The motive behind the talks are clear, according to one senior Malaysian diplomat: China’s recent actions have “brought us together.” Malaysia has been far more quite about its territorial disputes with China than Vietnam or the Philippines, but there are signs Kuala Lumpur may be considering a more robust response.
Against the backdrop of nascent cooperation between Hanoi, Manila, and Kuala Lumpur, there are signs that Vietnam is considering following in the Philippines’ footsteps by filing legal suit against China’s territorial claims. In a press conference in Manila, Prime Minister Dung ruled out a “military solution” to the current oil rig standoff, but he was equally resolute that Vietnam would not back down. “Viet Nam is considering various defense options, including legal actions in accordance with the international law,” Dung said.
In a separate interview, Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam told Reuters that Vietnam was following Manila’s arbitration case “very closely.” Vietnam “would like to use all measures provided by international law to protect our legitimate interests,” he said. Reuters reported that Beijing pressured Hanoi not to join the Philippine case earlier this year. Now, with ties rapidly fraying, Vietnam might be ready to defy China by filing its own arbitration case.
There’s been little progress on dealing with the South China Sea disputes through ASEAN as a whole, as many ASEAN members have no disputes with China and thus have little reason to risk Beijing’s ire through firm action. Now it seems that those ASEAN states with disputes against China are considering forming a smaller coalition to deal with Beijing’s territorial claims.
In addition to seeking to form a united front with other regional partners, Vietnam might also accelerate the process of deepening ties with the U.S. While in his press conference Dung ruled out the possibility of Vietnam joining a military alliance, he also repeated his call for other countries and the international community to “continue expressing strong protests” against China’s actions. Likewise, the Communist Party of Vietnam emphasized that the Foreign Ministry should use diplomacy and international support as a means of protecting Vietnam’s sovereignty. Accordingly Hanoi will likely seek to increase ties with the U.S., as well as with Russia and India.
For its part, the U.S. has expressed a hope of increasing engagement with Vietnam in the wake of the China-Vietnam clashes. A spokesman for the U.S. Seventh Fleet told Reuters that Washington “would welcome increased port visits with Vietnam.”