Feb 20, 2017 @ 10:00 PM Ralph Jennings, Contributor
I cover under-reported stories from Taiwan and Asia.
Less than a year ago Vietnam was counting on U.S. support in building up a defense against China. Vietnam and China have clashed over land for centuries. Now the Asian neighbors bitterly dispute much of the sea closest to their shores, with China taking more control as the world’s No. 2 economy and No. 3 military power. U.S. ex-president Barack Obama, probably hoping to contain China, lifted a decades-old ban on arms sales to Vietnam last year and from 2014 to 2016 his government spent $46 million on upgrading Vietnam’s military.
U.S. President Donald Trump has not followed up with an arms-for-Vietnam policy, and last month he pulled the United States out of the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal that was set to benefit Vietnam as a major exporter. Trump’s government sent a U.S. aircraft carrier to the South China Sea Saturday and that’s the one Vietnam disputes with China. America has no claim to the 3.5 million-square-km sea prized for seafood, fuel and shipping lanes. Chinese media call the carrier’s movement a “military threat.”
Vietnam isn’t elated either. It doesn’t know what Trump is up to.
So for now Vietnam is veering closer to China, Asia political observers say. And things keep looking up for the unlikely duo.
China wants to talk one-on-one with all four Southeast Asian countries with competing claims to the sea. That’s its way of appeasing countries after losing a world arbitration court verdict in July. The verdict says China lacks a legal basis to claim 95% of the sea, which stretches from Taiwan southwest to Singapore. Vietnam and China happened to do $66 billion in trade in 2015, forming one of Vietnam’s top import-export relationships as it hopes to grow the economy on added-value manufacturing.
Hanoi still sticks by its claims in the Paracel and Spratly island chains in the sea. A lot of Vietnamese resent China for reclaiming land in those chains and building up a military presence, which analysts say Hanoi will keep trying to counter over the years ahead.
Five of China’s holdings in the Paracel chain can hold multiple naval or civilian vessels, the Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative says in a Feb. 8 report based on updated findings. Four others include smaller harbors and a fifth is being built on another islet, the think tank said. Five islands support helipads and and a full helicopter base sits on one, it said.
But the Vietnamese government is used to Chinese activity in the island chains. It has kept quiet since the think tank’s report came out. China took control over the Paracel chain in a battle with what was then South Vietnam in 1974. Today’s Hanoi reportedly made arrests during a demonstration last month on the 43rd anniversary of that takeover.
“The Trump administration’s unpredictability introduces new variables into Vietnam’s policy considerations for the South China Sea,” said Jonathan Spangler, director of Taipei-based South China Sea Think Tank. “The Vietnamese government should ensure that U.S. policymakers clearly understand Vietnam’s importance for maintaining regional stability while continuing to emphasize mutual economic benefits in its discussions with Beijing.”
Compared to the still new U.S. administration, China feels comfortably predictable. It’s got unwavering one-party rule like Vietnam. Senior leaders met in September and again last month to talk about maritime cooperation. The two have exchanged defense ministry visits as well over the past three years, says Carl Thayer, emeritus professor of politics at The University of New South Wales in Australia. They abide by a fishery agreement now, and both sides say oil exploration could follow.
That would be a big shift from the last major incident in 2014, when Vietnamese and Chinese vessels rammed one another after Beijing authorized placement of a Chinese oil rig near the Gulf of Tonkin where both have interests.
“I suspect the greatest uncertainty for Vietnam is not exactly what China is doing,” Thayer says. “It’s what the Trump Administration is doing.”