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Is Vietnam’s restrained approach to maritime issues the key to fewer, muted confrontations with China ?

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    Vietnam also has the ability to isolate maritime issues from bilateral ones, analysts say, ensuring fewer confrontations compared to the Philippines. Chinese vessels patrol near Vietnam’s oil and gas fields in the South China Sea but this hasn’t resulted in high-profile confrontations

    Vietnam’s low-key approach to maritime issues and its non-ally status with the United States have ensured that ongoing naval rows with Beijing in the South China Sea are on a more even keel compared with confrontations over similar disputes between the Philippines and China.

    Hanoi also has the ability to isolate maritime issues from other bilateral ones, analysts say.

    Abdul Rahman Yaacob, a research fellow in the Southeast Asia programme at the Lowy Institute in Australia, said Vietnam’s approach to its relations with China was not framed entirely by South China Sea disputes.

    Vietnamese officials he had spoken to pointed to the many positive aspects in China-Vietnam relations, in which maritime disputes constituted only “a small aspect”.

    This allows Hanoi “to manage and isolate these from other bilateral relations”, according to Rahman, who added that Vietnamese officials privately informed Beijing when Chinese coastguard ships had harassed fishing vessels, for example.

    “These incidents are not publicised as Vietnam prefers to deal with them privately,” Rahman said, noting that such an approach was likely to have influenced China’s approach to its maritime disputes with Vietnam, leading to fewer confrontations with Hanoi.

    In recent months, tensions have risen between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea, with forces on both sides engaging in numerous confrontations while officials traded accusations of sowing conflict.

    But despite ongoing patrols by Chinese vessels near Vietnam’s oil and gas fields in the South China Sea, these incidents have not resulted in high-profile confrontations between Beijing and Hanoi.

    Earlier this month, the Chinese coastguard conducted an “intrusive patrol” to assert its claims over Vietnam’s oil and gas fields near Vanguard Bank in the southern position of the disputed waterway.

    A Vietnamese fisheries surveillance vessel was tracked shadowing the Chinese ship, maritime security expert Ray Powell of Stanford University’s Gordian Knot Centre for National Security Innovation wrote afterwards on social media.

    Powell earlier reported that another Chinese coastguard ship had been near Vietnam’s oil exploration blocks at Vanguard Bank since early December.

    The Chinese ship had mostly been running “dark”, or not broadcasting its automatic information system, which “violates the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, of which China is a signatory”, Powell wrote in an article published by SeaLight on January 8.

    The online platform, which was started by volunteers from the Gordian Knot Centre for National Security Innovation, tracks and reports harassment related to legal activities, illegal incursions, intimidation measures and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, among others.

    In March last year, a Chinese coastguard ship and a Vietnamese fisheries patrol boat came within 10 metres of each other while traversing the South China Sea, according to data from Marine Traffic, a ship-tracking website.

    Khang Vu, a doctoral candidate in the political science department at Boston College, said Vietnam and China could remain “on a friendlier basis than the Philippines” as Hanoi is not an ally of Washington.

    Despite their maritime disputes, Vietnam has constantly assured China that it “will not ally with another power to balance against China so long as [Beijing] does not significantly threaten Vietnam’s territorial integrity”, Vu noted.

    “Such an assurance helps detach the South China Sea issues between China and Vietnam from the US-China rivalry”, resulting in Beijing not viewing its maritime disputes with Hanoi “in the shadow” of its competition with Washington.

    “China thus sees Vietnam’s moves in the South China Sea as more of Vietnam’s own initiatives and not of the US encouragement as in the case of the Philippines,” Vu said.

    “This is not to say that Vietnam does not appreciate US opposition to Chinese expansion at sea, but there is a huge difference between Vietnam’s support for the US naval presence in the South China Sea and the Philippines’ alliance with the US.”

    Vietnam’s policy has been to welcome the US’ naval presence in the South China Sea as long as it contributed to regional peace. Last June, US aircraft carrier the USS Ronald Reagan, along with the guided missile cruisers USS Antietam and USS Robert Smalls, arrived in Da Nang for a visit.

    The Philippines, meanwhile, is not only a US treaty ally but has granted Washington military access to nine sites across the country under an Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement.

    Rahman of the Lowy Institute said another reason China had taken a harder line on the Philippines than on Vietnam was due to Manila’s strategy of publicising Beijing’s provocative actions in the South China Sea, which researchers refer to as an assertive transparency campaign.

    The name was coined by Stanford University’s Powell and the campaign aims to reveal China’s “grey zone activities” – assertive actions at sea that are not necessarily a declaration of war but could be harmful to another country’s national security.

    Benjamin Blandin, maritime security expert and network coordinator at the non-profit Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies, noted that Vietnam reacted strongly towards stand-offs with China in 2014 and 2019.

    “Chinese authorities may have felt that there was no gain in keeping pressure on a fellow communist country where it had a lot of economic interests,” he said.

    In July 2019, a Chinese coastguard contingent accompanied a Chinese survey vessel operating within Vietnam’s waters, causing a diplomatic outcry and a months-long stand-off between the two countries. Vietnam deployed up to 30 ships to confront Chinese vessels despite sustaining severe damage due to ramming and water cannoning.

    In the 2014 oil rig crisis, tensions rose after the Chinese state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation moved an oil platform to waters near the disputed Paracel Islands, resulting in Vietnamese efforts to prevent the platform from establishing a fixed position.

    The incident triggered an unprecedented wave of anti-China protests in Vietnam and there were widespread calls to re-evaluate Vietnam’s diplomatic, security, and domestic policies towards China.

    Vietnam is China’s largest trading partner within Asean, with annual bilateral trade exceeding US$200 billion in 2021 and 2022. In the first 10 months of 2023, bilateral trade stood at US$185.1 billion.

    On Powell’s use of the term “intrusive patrols”, Blandin said though such events have been recently made public, they actually happened “on a regular basis” in the exclusive economic zone of the different countries bordering the South China Sea.

    “It is just that most countries would not report such incidents in order not to make the situation worse, nor do they want to anger or jeopardise their economic interests with China, which still remains their main investor, and source of tourists and foreign direct investment,” Blandin said.

    During Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr’s state visit to Vietnam late last month, Manila and Hanoi signed a coastguard agreement to boost cooperation between their coastguards and to prevent untoward incidents in the South China Sea.

    Chinese tabloid The Global Times said on Monday that while Beijing is open to cooperation among Southeast Asian countries that contributes to regional development and stability, it strongly opposes “cooperation” that targets a third party and harms others’ interests.

    “If Vietnam and the Philippines cooperate in certain areas to the detriment of China’s interests in the South China Sea, it will only irritate the situation in the South China Sea and make the risk of conflict higher,” it said.

    Rahman added that China may want to avoid provoking Vietnam and the Philippines concurrently.

    “This makes sense at the operational level, as China may not want to overstretch its naval resources by confronting two Southeast Asian parties at the same time,” he added.

    By Maria Siow  – The South China Morning Post – February 4, 2024

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