Vietnamese Holding out the Rough Water in the South China Sea
By: Jeff Bates
Photo Credit: 2014. Vietnamese Stage Mass Anti-China Protests Amid Oil Rig Tensions.
Tensions in the South China Sea have escalated between certain countries and have also de-escalated with others. Vietnam—who shares a border with China—is particularly concerned about China’s aggressiveness in the region. Beijing has recently engaged in oil drilling in the Sea near Vietnam’s territorial waters. China placed a deep-water oil rig in the Sea close to the Paracel Islands but later removed it when Vietnam said that the rig was violating its territorial rights (Zhou, Laura. 2019). In further confrontations with Vietnam, Chinese coast guard ships have repeatedly entered Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone. A Chinese survey ship came within 56 nautical miles of Vietnam prompting Hanoi to dispatch naval vessels to counter the aggression. These events show that Vietnam is still highly engaged in defending its own territorial sovereignty in the Sea.
In a further show of determination to keep the Sea free from Chinese aggression, the “Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang said in a statement on Sept. 1 that ‘Vietnam welcomes and is willing to join other nations and the international community’ to maintain peace, stability and security in the region” (Boudreau, John; Wainer, David. 2019). However, the reality of the situation is that other nations in the region are making peace deals with China. For example, the Philippines is close to making an agreement with China about collectively searching for oil and gas; Malaysia has already agreed to start a bilateral dialogue with China to ease tensions (Meliksetian, Vanand. 2019). These recent regional exchanges between Beijing undermine Vietnam’s declaration to ask for other nearby nations to help fight Chinese claims. Furthermore, with these peace deals, China is likely feeling emboldened after several years of claiming islands and territory in the Sea.
Beijing may be capitalizing on its efforts in the Sea since ExxonMobil—a US-run oil company—recently removed its oil drilling platform from Vietnamese waters. Although it is not clear if Chinese aggression was a cause of the company’s removal of its rig from the Sea, this lessens the chance of Vietnam to rely on US power and protection in the area. Instead, China has moved oil rigs into the Sea (Zhou, Laura. 2019). Thus, the ability of countries in the region to use US pressure against Beijing is weakening as China establishes itself further in the area.
In a stance of military posture, China participated with at least 10 ASEAN countries in military exercises in 2018. This month, the US also participated with ASEAN countries in military exercises (Cage, Monkey. 2019). This exercise, as well as freedom of navigation exercises by the US, may have shown to Beijing that the US is indeed committed to keeping the Sea open and free from hostilities. A British aircraft carrier is also responding by sending its aircraft carrier into the Sea soon, which has prompted out lashes from China as a threat to Beijing’s claims of the Sea. With the US calling on other countries (such as Australia) to send warships and planes into the area to counter China, the situation seems to be at a standstill. Beijing likely feels threatened by non-regional powers entering waters that it claims. Within the region, it seems as though Vietnam is one of only a handful of countries in the region that is standing up for its territorial rights. With Malaysia and the Philippines seeking to defuse tensions with China by themselves, the South China Sea will likely still be a hotbed of hostilities.
Boudreau, John; Wainer, David. 2019. Vietnam Foreign Minister Warns of Escalation in South China Sea. Accessed on September 28th, 2019 from
Meliksetian, Vanand. 2019. Vietnam Tests China’s Patience In The South China Sea. Accessed on September 28th, 2019 from
Zhou, Laura. 2019. Beijing deploys new deepwater drilling rig in South China Sea. Accessed on September 28th, 2019 from
Cage, Monkey. 2019. The U.S. Navy and Southeast Asian nations held joint maneuvers for the first time. What are the key takeaways? Accessed on September 28th, 2019 from
2014. Vietnamese Stage Mass Anti-China Protests Amid Oil Rig Tensions. Radio Free Asia. Accessed on October 1, 2019 from https://www.rfa.org/english/news/vietnam/protest-05112014155052.html