Normally, Vietnam would have backed down. In July 2017 and March 2018, when China reportedly threatened military action if Vietnam did not stop oil exploration in contested areas of the South China Sea, Vietnam blinked and withdrew its vessels.

Last year, Vietnam scrapped a US$200 million oil and gas development project with Spanish energy giant Repsol situated within its own exclusive economic zone (EEZ) due to Chinese pressure. However, when a Chinese survey ship and coastguard vessels sailed last month to the contested oil-rich Vanguard Bank, which also lies well within Vietnam’s southeastern EEZ, Hanoi stood its ground.

Rather than negotiating through backchannels, as the two sides have done previously to defuse sea incidents, this time Hanoi went public. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs lodged public, formal complaints to China’s relevant institutions and called for international support to its side.

Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang stated that China had “violated Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.” The ministry ordered China to immediately “withdraw all Chinese survey and escorting vessels from the Vietnamese waters.” It also announced it would continue its joint explorations with Russia near the contested feature through September.

The latest dispute started in May after Hanoi gave permission to a Japanese oil rig contracted to the Russian-Vietnamese venture, Rosneft Vietnam BV, to explore an oil bloc near Vanguard Bank, a submerged feature in the western part of the sea.

Beijing claims the same area falls within its self-defined “nine-dash line” map, a controversial and disputed demarcation that gives China control over almost 90% of the South China Sea. In retaliation, China deployed its own survey ship, Haiyang Dizhi 8, escorted by heavily-armed coastguard vessels and paramilitary fishing boats.

“Vietnam Coast Guard ships were subject to assault by high-powered water cannons and were subject to China Coast Guard ships cutting across their bows”, said Carl Thayer, an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia and Vietnam expert.

“The number of Chinese vessels grew to 35 at its peak during this confrontation according to the [Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs] backgrounder. On August 3, a Vietnamese source told me that the total number of Chinese vessels of all types reached around 80,” he added.

Vanguard Bank area circled in red. Image: Wikimedia Commons

There are several reasons why Hanoi steeled its resolve this time while buckling previously, analysts say. The scene of the current standoff is nearer to home, and China actually sent its vessels into Vietnam’s claimed territory.

Oil exploration is more developed near the Vanguard Bank compared to the area that China threatened last year. Hanoi also probably realized, after the incidents in 2017 and 2018, that placating China’s demands only invited more aggressive behavior later.

Another reason is that Hanoi has more big power allies than it did in 2018, including the United States. Washington is keen to forge even closer military ties with Hanoi, though Vietnam remains reticent about any formalities, consistent with its non-committal foreign policy.

But while the US went quiet last year when China challenged Vietnam in the South China Sea, leaving Hanoi without big power backup, this year it has been more outspoken in defending Vietnam’s position.

On Monday, Vietnam signed a new defense agreement with the European Union, the first of its kind in Southeast Asia and an indication of improving relations with Brussels.

A Vietnam-France Joint Committee on Defense Cooperation was signed in September 2018. Months later, at the 2019 Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual regional defense dialogue held in Singapore, French Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly vowed to “sail more than twice a year in the South China Sea” and to continue upholding international law in a “steady, non-confrontational but obstinate way.”

In a new turn, Russia has hinted that it, too, might support Hanoi’s position. Russia is exploring for oil in partnership with Vietnam in an area of the South China Sea that Beijing also claims.

Despite being the largest supplier of military equipment to Vietnam, Moscow has tended to shy from the South China Sea disputes, although Vladimir Putin has said in the past that he is “solidarizing with and supporting China’s stance.” This came after the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruled against China’s nine-dash line claim in July 2016.

Bennett Murray, the Hanoi bureau chief for the Deutsche Presse-Agentur, was on point when he wrote recently in Foreign Policy: “For Vietnam’s part, linking its petroleum industry to great-power politics may be its best chance of hanging on to some of its drilling fields within the “nine-dash line.”

A Vietnamese installation at the totally submerged Vanguard Bank, 2017. Source: CSIS/ATMI

A US State Department spokesperson was quoted last month as saying: “By blocking development in the [South China Sea] through coercive means, China prevents ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian] members from accessing more than $2.5 trillion in recoverable energy reserves.”

But there is also the case that Vietnam could do little else, short of capitulating entirely, and far more embarrassingly, than it did to China in 2017 and 2018.

“Vietnamese officials “can’t back down because they’re already leaning against the wall,” said Nguyen Khac Giang, a senior research fellow at the Vietnam Institute for Economic and Policy Research, a think tank. Beijing, for its part, clearly thinks nothing has changed.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at ASEAN meetings in Bangkok that “major progress” was made after China and the ten-nation bloc conducted the first reading of a planned joint “code of conduct” for the South China Sea.

Beijing thinks the code can be agreed by 2021, and would clearly prefer to stick to this timeframe since the Philippines, which has tended to bend to Beijing’s whim, is in charge of coordinating China-ASEAN dialogue until that year.

Under President Rodrigo Duterte, Manila has been reticent to oppose China or pursue the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s decision from 2016, which ruled in favor of its claims. His defense establishment, however, has taken a harder line.

Philippine defense chief Delfin Lorenzana said this week: “They [China] say we do not bully people around, they follow international law, but I said you are not, what you are telling is not what you are doing on the ground.”

Duterte said last month that he allows China to “control” the West Philippine Sea, which “we own”, to avert war. He noted that there are “guided missiles” on Chinese military installations in the South China Sea that “can reach Manila in seven minutes.”

Thailand’s top envoy, however, suggested this week that concluding the ASEAN-China code of conduct could take longer than 2021. Analysts reckon that Bangkok simply doesn’t want to take responsibility for the code and potentially annoy Beijing while it occupies the rotating ASEAN chair this year.It would prefer to delay proceedings until next year, when Vietnam is set to take on the chairmanship, analysts say.

China Foreign Minister Wang Yi (L) and Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai (R) during a joint press conference at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bangkok, July 24, 2017. Photo: AFP/Lillian Suwanrumpha

China has often spoken up the code of conduct as not only a sign that it is happy to find a multilateral solution to disagreements, but also intrinsic to its “Asia for Asians” foreign policy mantra.

“We think non-regional countries should not deliberately amplify such differences or disputes,” China’s Wang said at the meeting after being asked a question about US involvement in the disputes. “Non-regional countries should also not make use of these differences to sow distrust between China and ASEAN countries.”

Yet Vietnam is doing the opposite. In recent weeks, Hanoi has pursued a clear new direction of internationalizing the issue, helped by the fact that the US, EU and Japan are becoming increasingly assertive in defending an “international, rules-based order” in the region.

But Vietnam must also consider its own domestic politics, as does China. Just as Chinese assertiveness is driven, in part, by the ultra-nationalism curated by President Xi Jinping, nationalism is also a factor Vietnam’s Communist Party must remain wary of.

Unlike in Beijing, communist rulers in Hanoi are losing the nationalism debate. Recent years have seen major – and increasingly violent – public protests against the government’s handling of Chinese investment in the country.

Claims that the Vietnamese government acts as a “Beijing puppet” is a mortal threat in a country where anti-China sentiment is pervasive and deeply entrenched in history. This culminated last year with nationwide demonstrations against a planned law that would have allowed foreign investors to lease land for up to 99 years.

When it was suggested this would allow Chinese firms to buy Vietnamese sovereignty, it sparked the largest protests the country has seen in decades, forcing the Party to shelve and possibly kill the law.

This anti-China strain of nationalism is typically eschewed by the Party, often in the name of socialist solidarity and neighborly friendship.
More significantly, Vietnam’s economy cannot continue its current enviable growth rates without Chinese trade, and Hanoi is wary of making the economy a casualty of geopolitics.

Yet anti-China rhetoric does occasionally find some voice among more economically-liberal Party members. Former prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, who was forced out of office in 2016, was known to occasionally play up the public’s anti-China nationalism, especially during popular demonstrations.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (C) and Vietnam's Communist Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong (R) wave during a welcoming ceremony at the presidential palace in Hanoi on November 12, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / HOANG DINH Nam
Chinese President Xi Jinping (C) and Vietnam Communist Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong (R) at the presidential palace in Hanoi on November 12, 2017. Photo: AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam

There are also indications that the Party’s mood, at least among the lower levels, is beginning to harden. Earlier this year, a number of National Assembly delegates called on the party’s leader to consider restricting investments from China, wary that quantity not quality has been the main impulse for years.

In March, the Party expelled a prominent historian and South China Sea expert, Tran Duc Anh Son, after he made critical comments on Facebook, some of which alleged Hanoi was failing to stand up to China. “I’m always against the Chinese,” he told the New York Times in 2017. In the same interview referred to the Vietnamese Communist Party’s senior leaders as “slaves” to Beijing.

“Anti-China sentiment is already at a high pitch within the [Communist Party]. The ongoing standoff at Vanguard Bank will only reinforce this sentiment,” said Thayer, the Vietnam expert.