Is Vietnam Reigniting a Fire in the South China Sea?

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Is Vietnam Reigniting a Fire in the South China Sea?

Hanoi is starting to feel more and more isolated as its regional neighbors reconcile with China.

Is Vietnam Reigniting a Fire in the South China Sea?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Ha petit

With Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to reset ties with China, and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s decision to put his country in the Chinese orbit, the situation all around Vietnam is evolving very rapidly. China also signed agreements for the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road with Cambodia in mid-October, not to mention their joint military exercise scheduled for December. Together, these rapprochements are seen by the Vietnamese as coming at the expense of their country, which is now “isolated” by land and sea.

Things have gotten worse and worse for Hanoi only five months after The Hague international tribunal’s verdict; the latest developments in the South China Sea (SCS) have shifted in Beijing’s favor. One by one, Vietnam’s neighbors have looked toward China and now seek conciliation. The legacy of U.S. President Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” seems distant, especially since President-elect Donald Trump has declared his intention to cut back the U.S. role as “world policeman.” At this time, no one can predict anything about Washington’s future role in Asia. Trump criticized Obama’s Asia policy during his campaign and now, Asian leaders are still waiting to see the U.S roadmap for the region under the next president. Will Trump lead America to an isolationist foreign policy? A year ago, Harry Kazianis imagined the consequences for U.S allies if America walked away from Asia. This scenario seems now potentially realistic.

In this context, it seems that Vietnam prefers to anticipate and plan to protect itself, including militarily. But by extending an airplane runway and building hangars for housing combat aircraft in the Spratly Islands, Vietnam has raised tensions. In August, the country already deployed rocket launchers to its bases in the SCS. Is such an offensive stance justifiable?

In the past years, Vietnam has notably increased its military spending. The trauma caused by the battle of the Paracel Islands in 1974, when ships of the People’s Republic of China sunk those of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), runs deep. The Vietnamese requested assistance from the U.S Seventh Fleet but their request was denied. As Vietnam doesn’t want to repeat the experience of relying on foreign help that may not come, the country has forged a defensive army for deterrence. For months, Hanoi has waited for a strong signal from Washington, especially since the lifting of arms embargo. But with the end of Obama’s presidency and, most likely, the end of his “pivot to Asia policy,” the future is uncertain for Vietnam, even if the partnership between U.S and Vietnam remains strong.

Under a Trump presidency, U.S. withdrawal from Asia is an unlikely but possible scenario. The European Union could have helped to disentangle regional conflicts in Washington’s stead, but European unity has been wracked since the Brexit – not to mention domestic factors such as the coming French presidential election and the next German federal election. In any case, Europe is busy dealing with tension over migrants and the Syrian civil war issue.

Help will not come from the outside and all indications are that the Vietnamese are now on their own. The solution could have been ASEAN unity but it has shattered lately, most recently during the 49th ASEAN Foreign Ministers meeting. Together, these factors contribute to increase Vietnam’s sense of insecurity. “We must react now or later would be too late,” said an officer of Vietnam People’s Navy.

The 1974 battle resulted in Chinese control of the entire Paracel Islands group and Vietnam clearly does not want history to repeat itself in the Spratly archipelago. A list of national possessions in the Spratly archipelago has been published on former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s website. It is a way of showing that Vietnam is clearly determined to defend its claims.

No country in Southeast Asia knows China as well as Vietnam, which shares both maritime and land frontiers with this giant neighbor. China rising power in Asia is a worrying issue for Hanoi, and not even bilateral dialogues with Beijing have succeeded in reassuring the Vietnamese. For 2015, Vietnam’s defense budget was $5 billion and it may rise again as long as the Vietnamese feel insecure.

At the 8th SCS International Conference in Nha Trang, participants insisted on respect for international law and their desire for peace. But even with Duterte’s apparent allegiance to China, peace remains precarious in the South China Sea. A fire can reignite at any time with just a spark.

Nguyen Quoc-Thanh holds a Ph.D. in Maritime Studies. IrAsia, Aix-Marseille University.