A Vietnamese policeman approaches anti-China protesters demonstrating against Beijing’s actions in the Vanguard Bank stand-off. Photo: Reuters
Le Hong Hiep
Le Hong Hiep

South China Sea stand-off shows Vietnam has few options in dealing with Beijing’s bullying

  • Impasse at the Vanguard Bank suggests diplomacy is Vietnam’s first – and last – line of defence against China’s assertiveness in the contested waters
The Vietnam–China stand-off at Vanguard Bank in the South China Sea has been going on for more than one month. Despite Vietnam’s repeated diplomatic protests and international pressures, China has not completely withdrawn its vessels from the area, which is part of Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
According to marine traffic data, the Haiyang Dizhi 8 survey vessel, which is at the centre of contention, moved together with some accompanying ships to China-controlled Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratlys last Wednesday evening, but two Chinese coastguard vessels remained in Vietnamese waters near Block 06-01. It is unclear if the Haiyang Dizhi 8 and accompanying vessels will return to Vanguard Bank in the coming days or not.
Vietnam’s reactions to the current stand-off are seen as stronger than its reactions to an episode in July 2017 when Hanoi decided to cease an oil and gas drilling mission at Block 136/03, which is also in the Vanguard Bank, allegedly after facing threats of force from China. However, such reactions are still much more restrained than Hanoi’s reactions to China’s deployment of the oil rig Haiyang Shiyou 981 in its EEZ in 2014, which saw the two countries’ law-enforcement vessels ramming each other and during which Hanoi allowed anti-China protests to be staged in major cities.

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So far, Vietnam has tried to keep a low profile regarding the incident. In the first two weeks of the stand-off, despite reports about the incident on social media, Hanoi did not publicly protest against China’s actions and Vietnamese official media did not report about it. Almost two weeks after the incident started, the Vietnamese foreign ministry issued a diplomatic protest on July 16, 2019, but the content of the statement was vague and it failed to name China. It was not until July 19 that the ministry issued a stronger statement that condemned China and called on “all relevant parties and the international community” to contribute to the maintenance of order, peace and security in the South China Sea.

After that, Vietnam’s reactions to the stand-off have largely been conducted through diplomatic channels, including Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh’s condemnation of China’s actions at the 52nd Asean Ministerial Meeting (AMM) in Thailand. As such, when the stand-off completely ends is now largely a matter of China’s discretion.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, left and Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh. Photo: AP

Vietnam’s rather muted reactions to the incident may have derived from a number of considerations. First, while Vietnam rules out military options, it may also view the use of law-enforcement ships to block or ram Chinese vessels not a favourable tactic, given that China’s ships outnumber Vietnam’s and such a tactic may trigger an armed conflict or cause substantial damages to the Vietnamese vessels. On the other hand, while the operation of the Chinese survey ship in the said area constitutes a violation of Vietnam’s sovereign rights, Hanoi may consider the incident as not as serious as the planting of an oil rig in its EEZ as China did in 2014. Stronger reactions, therefore, may not be necessary in this case.

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Meanwhile, despite a number of public intellectual calling for the Vietnamese government to file an arbitration case against China over its violation of Vietnam’s EEZ and continental shelf, the leadership in Hanoi does not seem ready to take that course of action yet. Perhaps, they are concerned that even if Vietnam wins the case, it will not stop China from encroaching into the country’s waters in the future. Even worse, it may make China more aggressive and further destabilise Vietnam–China relations, which may threaten Vietnam’s economic prospects and put the country into a precarious strategic position. Vietnamese leaders therefore seem to maintain that taking legal action against China is the last ammunition that should be reserved for dealing with more substantial challenges from China in the future.

China’s Haiyang Dizhi 8 survey vessel. Photo: China Geological Survey

In other words, cost/benefit analyses of different options to deal with the stand-off may have convinced the Vietnamese leadership that diplomacy remains the only tool for Hanoi to deal with the incident. Moreover, they may hope that as the typhoon season is coming, China will sooner or later have to withdraw the survey ship and all the accompanying vessels out of the area. Hanoi’s strategy is therefore to continue diplomatic protests against China through both bilateral and multilateral channels, and to wait out China’s show of force.

If that is the case, Vietnam may be seen as exercising “strategic patience”, and to focus on long-term benefits of maintaining a stable and peaceful relationship with China rather than the short-term gains of driving Chinese ships out of its waters. The above analyses suggest that Hanoi may have good reasons to adopt such an approach.

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However, the episode is also a telling example of the limitations in regional countries’ options to deal with China’s bullying behaviour. In the case of Vietnam, diplomacy seems, for the time being, to be the first and also the last line of defence against China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea.

Although the Haiyang Dizhi 8 is no longer operating in Vietnamese waters for now, the stand-off has not completely ended, and there’s no doubt that Vietnam will have to face more Chinese intrusions into its waters in the future.

Le Hong Hiep is Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute