Vietnam has curbed the violent anti-China protests that swept the country after a Chinese oil rig began drilling in contested waters. But authorities have not dropped their opposition to the Chinese operation, sending boats to harass the drilling, considering waging a legal case in international courts to resolve the dispute, and courting regional allies like the Philippines.
China tightened the screws on Vietnam this week by sending a “position paper” to the United Nations on the operations of its $1 billion-oil rig in a part of the South China Sea that Vietnam also claims.
It accused Vietnam of ramming its vessels, sending frogmen and “other underwater agents” in waters which it says are indisputably Chinese.
China has always resisted third party intervention in disputes between rival claimants over territory in the South China Sea, but this shift could put Vietnam in a difficult position, says Professor Carl Thayer from the Australian Defense Force Academy.
“Is China trying to provoke a debate in the general assembly, making countries make a decision to put up or shut up? Trying to isolate Vietnam by having those countries which are most concerned about China to shut up because they wouldn’t want to be seen as forced out into the open like Brunei, they just abstain and duck for cover," Thayer suggested.
Vietnam cannot compete with China’s military muscle and remains heavily reliant on Beijing for trade. Vietnam is believed to be considering waging a legal case for the disputed territory, but taking its claims to an international court could take years.
According to Thayer, one option could be to take advantage of the Philippines’ challenge of the legality of China's maritime claims at an international tribunal in The Hague.
“The best approach politically, if relations between China are irreparable, would be to join the Philippines and try to bolster its claim as a friend of the Philippines," Thayer said.
Vietnam’s coalition with the Philippines took a lighter tone on Monday when the country played football, volleyball and tug of war with sailors on an island in the Spratly archipelago.
In the past the two governments would have been wary about organizing such an event, lest they appear to be “ganging up” on China, says Alexander Vuving, a security analyst at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii.
However, things have now come to a point where both countries can step up and show their solidarity.
Vietnam can look also look outside the region for support, he said.
“India is far away but has also indicated its support for Vietnam so looking at the core interest for both nations I think that the casual allies, if you want to use the term, would be the Philippines, Japan and the U.S. and India," Vuving said.
He added that Vietnam has been moving closer to the U.S. even before the oil rig crisis in a “continuing rapprochement to the rise of China”.
But Vietnam’s politburo are divided on how close they get to Washington. Some do not want political reform and others have vested interests in economic ties with China.
“I think fundamentally modernizers want to get closer to the U.S., not just for defense of the territory but also for economic reform," Vuving explained. " But they are not very well represented in the politburo right now.”
Meanwhile, at home Vietnam is preparing for the long haul. On Monday the National Assembly passed a plan to spend $760 million to support fishermen and coast guards.
The money will be used to buy equipment for patrols and build offshore fishing vessels for the Vietnam Coast Guard, the Vietnam Fisheries Resources Surveillance Force and fishermen.
This includes construction of 3,000 steel-clad fishing boats, Tran Cao Muu, General Secretary of the Vietnam Fisheries Association said. The current fleet of around 100,000 boats are made of wood.
He said policies to exploit resources in Vietnamese waters are not new, but the issue has become “hotter” following China’s aggressive actions in the sea.
Vietnam has accused China of ramming its ships over 1,400 times, once causing a fishing boat to sink.
Despite the increased dangers, Muu said Vietnam's fishing ships were operating as normal in the sea.