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What's Behind Vietnam's More Vocal Stance Against China?

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, left and Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh shake hands in Hanoi, Vietnam, April 1, 2018.

Vietnam sounded off twice last week against China over a long-festering maritime sovereignty dispute, after months of silence. But analysts expect to see angry phases like this one alternate more often with silent ones.

The foreign ministry in Vietnam said on April 24 China violated Vietnamese sovereignty by installing military jamming equipment in the disputed sea’s Paracel Islands. The equipment could disrupt Vietnamese flights and its own military activity, said Carl Thayer, Southeast Asia-specialized emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

The State-run oil firm PetroVietnam said the same day tension in the South China Sea would hamper offshore exploration for fuel under the ocean floor. Pressure from China has spiked two exploration efforts since mid-2017, analysts say. A Vietnamese driller is now planning a $4.6 billion natural gas exploration project with ExxonMobil.

But Vietnam had said little against China over the past seven months, even during China’s high-profile naval exercises in March and when China rapped a visit to Vietnam by a U.S. aircraft carrier. It increasingly values economic ties with China and looks to political channels for solving disputes, analysts say.

The USS Carl Vinson is anchored at Tien Sa Port in Danang, Vietnam, March 5, 2018.
The USS Carl Vinson is anchored at Tien Sa Port in Danang, Vietnam, March 5, 2018.

“Internally the leaders have to be constantly weighing what China’s reaction will be under particular circumstances,” Thayer said. “If they’re looking for something, they may not want to rock the boat and move more cautiously. So it’s tactical, but it’s that constant weighing of ‘have we gone too far or not done enough,’ and looking at internal pressure.”

Quiet periods

Vietnam and China contest parts of the South China Sea off the 3,444-kilometer-long Vietnamese coast. Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines also claim all or parts of the sea that covers 3.5 million square kilometers including prime fisheries and fossil fuel reserves. China claims about 90 percent of the sea, but the other countries rarely speak out.

Analysts often look to Vietnam first for any outcry against Chinese military expansion in the sea’s Paracel and Spratly island chains. But, until last week, Vietnam had withheld virulent criticism of China since condemning military exercises in August 2017. It wants a stronger economic and political relationship, some scholars say.

“There’s some balancing mechanism, so it’s a hot and cold relationship,” said Eduardo Araral, associate professor in the National University of Singapore’s public policy school. “But I do not expect the Vietnamese government to go out of its way to criticize China, because it’s a very delicate situation.”

Vietnam counts China as a source of tourism and raw materials for manufacturing. A year ago Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang visited China to push for opening Chinese markets to more Vietnamese goods, augmenting a $72 billion two-way trade relationship that Vietnam calls its largest.

Focus on diplomatic ties

Vietnam may withhold some hostility in view of deepening official relations with China, Thayer said. The two militaries have done 23 joint patrols in the shared Gulf of Tonkin, with the latest ending in December, for example. They have also explored for oil together and live by a Gulf of Tonkin fisheries deal.

The two communist parties often meet to stop disputes from escalating, another factor keeping Vietnam quiet at times, Araral said. Vietnamese party Politburo member Nguyen Van Binh met Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan in mid-April to talk about increasing “high-level meetings” and improving “practical cooperation.”

China has tried to make peace through economic ties with all the Southeast Asian maritime claimants since 2016, when a world arbitration court ruled against the legal basis for the Chinese maritime claims.

Criticism against Chinese maritime claims would also expose Vietnam’s violations of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), said Euan Graham, international security director with the Lowy Institute for International Policy. Both countries claim waters and islets beyond their internationally recognized exclusive economic zones extending 370 kilometers offshore.

“Vietnam is obviously the one that would be most likely to push back, but then Vietnam also I think has difficulties in reconciling its claim with UNCLOS,” Graham said.

Pressure to speak out

The two sides got into deadly clashes in 1974 and 1988 over competing maritime claims. In 2014 the two sides rammed each other’s boats as China allowed an oil firm to position its rig in a disputed tract. Many ordinary Vietnamese, some also wary of China due to a border war in the 1970s, rioted then against China.

FILE - A protester gestures as he marches during an anti-China protest in Vietnam's southern Ho Chi Minh city, May 18, 2014.
FILE - A protester gestures as he marches during an anti-China protest in Vietnam's southern Ho Chi Minh city, May 18, 2014.

The deadly riots point to continued anti-China sentiments in Vietnam, where some consumers say they’re still so upset they avoid Chinese goods when shopping. Vietnamese activists still demonstrate every year against Chinese Paracel occupation.

Vietnam stopped the 2014 riots after 21 people died. But the government “would not stop their citizens from rampaging in the streets if there’s some issues with China” such as another oil exploration tiff, Araral said.