Vietnam backs latest US challenge to Beijing’s sovereignty in South China Sea, say analysts

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 February, 2016, 10:33am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 February, 2016, 10:33am

Washington may claim its latest operation in the South China Sea was aimed at challenging Vietnamese territorial claims in the region as much as China’s, but analysts say Hanoi is likely to have viewed the development positively.

The USS Curtis Wilbur sailed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the Paracel archipelago on Saturday, attracting immediate protest from Beijing, which claims and controls the area.

But Hanoi, another claimant of the island as well as others in the Paracels, issued a relatively mild response the next day, saying all countries should make a “positive and practical contribution to the peace and stability” of the sea.

“As a state party to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Vietnam respects the right of innocent passage through its territorial seas conducted in accordance with the relevant rules of the international community,” Vietnamese foreign ministry spokesperson Le Hai Binh said in a statement posted on the ministry’s website.

READ MORE: China urged to get tough with the United States over USS Curtis Wilbur’s sail-by near Triton Island in disputed South China Sea

Like previous patrols under its “freedom of navigation” operations, the US navy said that by sending the destroyer it had sought to challenge attempts by the multiple claimants to restrict navigation rights in the area. Triton Island is claimed by mainland China, Taiwan and Vietnam.

But analysts said the US operations mainly targeted China’s ambitions and that Vietnam would see them as a positive move.

“The fact is that the Paracels are now occupied by China,” said Le Hong Hiep, a visiting research fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

“From the Vietnamese perspective it’s good because it challenges the Chinese claim.”

The US defence ministry said no claimant had been notified prior to the navy operation.

But Hiep said Saturday’s operation was likely to have involved a mutual understanding between Washington and Hanoi.

READ MORE: PLA garrison ‘warns off’ US Navy destroyer sailing close to island in disputed area of South China Sea

Many analysts in China said the latest patrol was an escalation of the freedom of navigation operations, which began when the USS Lassen sailed near Subi Reef in the Spratly islands in October.

Some called for a more robust response from Beijing. The Pentagon said no Chinese naval ships were in the area at the time of the operation.

China and Vietnam have long been locked in a sovereignty dispute in the South China Sea.

Beijing sent a large oil rig to Triton Island in 2014 and later to other areas, sparking the worst diplomatic crisis between the two countries in decades.