month, the United States and Vietnamese navies
spent five days practicing navigation, medicine
and diving skills in the central Vietnamese port
of Danang, with some concerts and sports thrown in
for good measure.
Not exactly on the level
of war games, which US Marines were conducting
with the Philippines that same week. But that
softer tone might be just what Vietnam is looking
for in its struggle to secure a share of contested
territories in the South China Sea.
country aims to strike a delicate balance between
its two most important partners, China and the US,
both of which play vital parts in the intensifying
maritime imbroglio. Coveted shipping routes and
natural resources, most notably oil and gas, have
made the sea contentious for decades.
as Vietnam's horns have locked a little tighter
with China's in
recent years, the
so-called US strategic "pivot" to Asia seems to be
coming at a serendipitous time for Hanoi.
China's fast political, economic and
military ascent has Southeast Asian countries
scrambling for alternative alliances. In the case
of Vietnam, that has meant shoring up support from
Russia, Japan, India, Australia and notably the
US, a former war adversary.
naval activities in Danang offered the latest
evidence of a changing US-Vietnam relationship.
Though non-combatant, the annual training
exercises grown piecemeal since they started in
Last year, Vietnam gave more input
to the exchange, and this year the US sent bigger,
better-armed vessels: a command ship, a guided
missile destroyer and a rescue and salvage ship.
For the United States, the visit projects
a message that its military presence in Asia is
welcome. That's the sort of legitimacy it needs to
defend its stated interest in freedom of
navigation in the South China Sea and its unstated
interest of counterbalancing China's rise.
With American winds at its back, Vietnam
can stand a little bolder in front of its much
larger neighbor. Still, the Vietnamese aren't
going as far as the Philippines, which staged mock
rescues with US forces of a captured island and
oil rig during joint exercises last month.
Vietnam's strategic collaboration with the
US is more subtle, perhaps by design, so that it
can be seen as acting independently while keeping
options open with China.
"It's better to
have both the US and China to hold each other at
bay, rather than one dominant," says Carl Thayer,
a Vietnam expert at the Australian Defense Force
Academy in Canberra. "Vietnam does not want its
relationships with the US and China to be very
bad, but it also does not want them to be very
The balancing act represents
differences that reach the highest echelons of
Vietnam's ruling Communist Party, between those
members looking west versus those clutching to
ties with their ideological comrades to the north.
Since 2005, China and Vietnam have
performed perennial reminders that they can get
along in the form of joint patrols of the Tonkin
Gulf. That followed a watershed compromise to
divide up the bay in 2000.
But the Tonkin
demarcation covers just a small fraction of the
South China Sea, known in Vietnam as the East Sea.
Elsewhere in these contested waters, agreement has
proved much more elusive. Vietnam and China also
continue to fight over sovereignty of the Paracel
Islands, while farther south, the Spratly
archipelago includes four more feuding claimants,
namely the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei and
Ownership of the islands would
mean control over some of the world's busiest sea
lanes and biggest fisheries. The area is also
believed to hold vast energy supplies. Reuters
reported in April that the findings of a
Philippine company suggested one area of the sea
in the Reed Bank could contain more than five
times the amount of natural gas than originally
China purports to own the
majority of the sea, which it protects through
occasional scuffles with its smaller adversaries.
In April, China released 21 Vietnamese fishermen
after a seven-week detention for alleged
trespassing. Less than a year earlier, China used
similar charges to defend twice cutting the cables
of Vietnamese ships on exploratory missions in the
More recently, Vietnam has tried to
assert sovereignty by sending monks to build
pagodas on the Paracels. It also conducts naval
training exercises there and this week unveiled a
statue of ancient military hero Tran Hung Dao. At
the same time, China is pushing forward with
tourism development on the islands.
Diplomatic tightropes It's times
like these that a US buttress might look
especially appealing to Hanoi. But Vietnam can and
will only go so far to woo the Americans. Though
the country has a handful of strategic
partnerships, including with China, such a
proposal with the US has stalled over human
Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman cited such
concerns in January while rejecting a Vietnamese
request for defense equipment. It doesn't help
that, since the senators' visit, Vietnam has
arrested an American democracy activist and
extended the detentions of bloggers whose
criticism includes anti-China posts on the sea
Friday marks Vietnam Human
Rights Day in the US, which brings together
activists and lawmakers to discuss where progress
can be made.
For its part, Washington has
its own diplomatic tightrope to walk with Beijing.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrapped up a
visit to China this month, clouded not only by US
harboring of a Chinese dissident but also by South
China Sea concerns. As the US calls for freedom of
navigation in the waters, China nags the country
for bolstering its Southeast Asian rivals.
Dialogues with China and the US make up
two pillars in Vietnam's approach to the South
China Sea, as described by Ian Storey, a senior
fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian
Though China and Vietnam are both
"pretty keen to not let this dispute get out of
hand", Storey says Vietnam's three other
strategies are bulking up its military,
internationalizing the dispute and turning to the
10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations
China scholar Andrew Nathan, a
professor at Columbia University in the US, agrees
that a military strike is unlikely. In addition to
the diplomatic costs, use of force would be a
logistical nightmare across hundreds of islands,
rocks, and reefs, and would do little to remove
other countries, he says. Still, China is
strengthening its navy and therefore its hand at
the bargaining table.
allies bring their own baggage to the controversy.
For a while, Vietnam can ride the coattails of the
Philippines, which has stronger US military
backing and is currently in a month-old high-seas
standoff against China.
The tensions over
Scarborough Shoal continue without resolution but
also without violence, which could be tested
Friday when anti-China protests are planned to hit
Manila. At the same time, energy firms in China
and the Philippines are discussing joint
exploration of the contested Reed Bank.
The Philippines has been the loudest
proponent for a unified stance against China, but
other ASEAN members are loath to risk the aid and
investment China offers, notably with fewer
strings attached than US assistance.
unified stance that Vietnam and the Philippines
want is supposed to be a Declaration on the
Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. China
signed a watered-down version of the declaration
in 2002 with ASEAN countries, four of which claim
parts of the South China Sea.
As the 10th
anniversary of the original document approaches,
ASEAN is making revisions to present to China. The
question is whether the association will add any
teeth this time, or simply see how much longer it
can continue to float along at sea.
Lien Hoang is a freelance
reporter covering Southeast Asia. Connect with her
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