Vietnam ‘may tilt towards US’ in regional power play with China
Manila’s stronger ties with Beijing could prompt Hanoi to move closer to Washington, observers say
Vietnam has emerged as China’s most vocal rival claimant in the South China Sea and could move closer to the United States as the Philippines tilts towards China, analysts say.
Hanoi’s tensions with Beijing came to the surface in Manila on Monday when a scheduled one-on-one meeting of the two countries’ foreign ministers was called off during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) foreign ministers meeting.
Vietnam pushed for the bloc to insist in its joint communique that a code of conduct with China over the disputed waters should be legally binding, a move Beijing opposes. To China’s dismay, Vietnam also pushed Asean to express concern about “extended construction” in the area.
Observers said there would be more frictions between China and Vietnam as Hanoi sought to engage other regional powers such as Japan and the United States to counterbalance Manila’s shift towards Beijing under Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
To that end, US Defence Secretary James Mattis is due to have talks with his Vietnamese counterpart Ngo Xuan Lich in Washington this week. Vietnam will also host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in November, which US President Donald Trump might attend.
Ties between Hanoi and Washington were given a big boost last year when the administration of former US president Barack Obama lifted a cold war ban on the sale of lethal weapons to Vietnam.
Zhang Mingliang, a specialist on Southeast Asian affairs at Jinan University in Guangzhou, said there had long been tensions between Vietnam and China.
“Vietnam has always been the country in Asean that has the strongest suspicions of Beijing ... because it shares both a maritime and land border with China,” Zhang said.
To shore up its position against China, Vietnam has beefed up its naval strength and quietly fortified several of its islands in the disputed waters. Vietnamese coastguard vessels also held their first joint exercises with their Japanese counterparts in June, simulating an operation to thwart illegal fishing in the South China Sea.
Dai Fan, also from Jinan University, said the South China Sea was more important to Vietnam than the Philippines.
“As a country occupying a narrow strip of land, Vietnam lacks strategic depth and is therefore more vulnerable to attack. This is why Vietnam needs to be more protective of its maritime rights,” Dai said.
Xue Li, a maritime policy expert with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Hanoi would continue to use the international stage to take a strong stand on the South China Sea.
“It’s normal for Vietnam as a small country to balance [forces] but it will not push too far,” Xue said.
He said there was a limit to Vietnam’s approach because of the uncertainty of the Trump administration’s Asia-Pacific policy and its lack of interest in challenging China on the maritime front.
“Vietnam is unlikely to take a role as active as Aquino,” Xue said, referring to former Philippine president Benigno Aquino who took the South China Sea case to an international tribunal.
“Trump’s interest in the South China Sea will not be as big as Obama’s. There is also fundamental mistrust between Vietnam and the US because of their ideological differences.”
Additional reporting by Kristin Huang