Locked for months in a naval showdown with China over a gas-rich reef, Vietnam is now arguably the last competing claimant to proactively resist Beijing’s push to control the South China Sea.

Much of Southeast Asia, including United States treaty ally the Philippines, rival claimant Malaysia, and Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) chairman Thailand, have all taken more conciliatory tacks in apparent hopes of winning so far largely withheld Chinese concessions.

In contrast, Vietnam has openly and frequently criticized China’s militarization of contested land features in the sea, while actively reducing its economic dependence on China via expanded trade relations with Western powers, including most recently the European Union.

In an adroit display of omni-balancing, Hanoi has deftly solicited support from a myriad of powers, including both the US and Russia, in order to stave off Chinese intrusions into energy-rich waters claimed within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Speaking before the UN General Assembly on September 28, Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh called on China to “exercise restraint and refrain from conducting unilateral acts, which might complicate or escalate tensions at sea, and settle disputes by peaceful means.

“Vietnam has on many occasions voiced its concerns over the recent complicated developments in the South China Sea, including serious incidents that infringed upon Vietnam’s sovereignty,” he added.

Vanguard Bank area circled in red. Image: Wikimedia Commons

There are rising voices, usually stifled in Vietnam’s closed and authoritarian political system, calling for greater internationalization of the nation’s disputes with China.

A group of Vietnamese experts suggested this week that Vietnam should sue China for violating its sovereignty under international law at The Hague, a move that would raise the diplomatic ante on the Vanguard Bank and other contested features.

Vietnam’s Institute for Research on Policy, Law and Development held a rare public forum in Hanoi on October 5 that openly criticized China’s actions at the Vanguard Bank and recommended legal action to “identify who is right and who is wrong in this matter.”

The Philippines won a similar claim against China at The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration in July 2016, a ruling that debunked China’s wide-reaching claims under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

China rejected the ruling as “baseless” and the Philippines has not pushed the legal win under President Rodrigo Duterte, who has instead taken a conciliatory tack towards China and their still-bubbling sea disputes.

Vietnam has also openly welcomed US assistance, including through a greater American naval presence in the area. Hanoi is known to be perturbed by reports China has secured exclusive 30-year access to a naval base in neighboring Cambodia, opening a new strategic southern flank in its maritime contest with Vietnam.

The Donald Trump administration has openly criticized Beijing’s actions against smaller claimant states. In response, the US has deepened its strategic ties with Vietnam, a relationship that could deepen if, as expected, Communist Party chief and de facto national leader Nguyen Phu Trong visits Washington in the coming weeks.

US President Donald Trump (L) and his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Phu Trong at the Presidential Palace, Hanoi, February 27, 2019. Photo: AFP via Vietnam News Agency

“Most of the attendees agreed that Vietnam needs to change its foreign policy, including coming up with a proposal for further developing relations with the US, to rid itself of Chinese influence,” said maritime expert Hoang Viet referring to the discussions at the October 5 forum, according to a Radio Free Asia report.

Indeed, Hanoi needs all the naval help it can get, including at the Vanguard Bank, a feature perched at the western edge of the contested Spratly island chain that falls well within Vietnam’s EEZ.

Hanoi has sought to develop energy resources in the area, which is close to Vietnam’s other offshore hydrocarbon fields. China claims the low-tide elevation and its surrounding waters as part of its expansive nine-dashed line map claim, which encompasses some 90% of the sea.

The Reed Bank standoff marks the most dangerous escalation between the two neighbors since 2014, when China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) deployed its massive Hai Yang Shi You 981 oil rig close to Triton Island, the southwestern-most land feature in the contested Paracels.

The incident sparked nationalistic, anti-China protests across Vietnam, resulting in riots that killed Chinese nationals and attacks on Chinese-owned companies. Beijing was forced to evacuate scores of its citizens amid the spasm of violence.

But China is clearly playing a long game of encircling and squeezing Vietnam’s claims in the sea, replete with tactical retreats and naval misdirection tactics, likely employed to gauge how the US and other regional powers may react to the provocations.

There was a temporary lull in the Vanguard Bank tensions when the Chinese surveillance vessel Haiyang Dizhi 8 vacated the area in early August, in what many initially saw as an end to the standoff.

But the vessel’s return a few days later, after refueling at the nearby Fiery Cross Reef, reignited fears of a protracted and potentially explosive confrontation that some feel could eventually drag in the US.

The standoff has underlined not only China’s determination to restrict and block energy exploration activities by smaller claimant states, but also its sprawling network of military bases and state-of-the-art naval facilities in the maritime area.

A satellite image of the China-controlled Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea. Photo: Planet Labs

Beijing now clearly has the ability to constantly resupply and refuel its massive maritime fleet, both para-military and naval forces, after years of reclamation and militarization of contested land features in the sea.

In addition to a rapidly modernizing navy, China has as many as 54 oceanic research ships and thousands of para-military and coast guard vessels in the sea. Under the so-called “People’s War at Sea” strategy, China deploys these vessels in mutually-supportive operations.

China’s massive coast guard vessels, namely the 2,200-tonne coastguard ship 37111 and the 12,000-tonne armed coastguard vessel 3901, complete with a helicopter and armed personnel, have escorted Haiyang Dizhi 8 at Vanguard Bank.

At the height of the Vanguard Bank standoff last month, as many as 20 armed vessels, including China’s ‘monster’ coast guard cutter 3901, the world’s biggest, squared off against Vietnam’s vessels. Neither side has shown a willingness to back down.

Against overwhelming military odds, Vietnam has adopted what analysts see as a three-pronged response to China.

First, it has adopted a pro-active diplomacy, seeking support from regional and international bodies, as well as encouraging global condemnation of real and perceived Chinese threats to freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea.

Chinese PLA Navy soldiers on a naval vessel in the South China Sea. Photo: Twitter

Second, Vietnam has also deepened its strategic partnerships with a myriad of regional powers, including the US, Russia, India and Japan – all of which have helped to enhance its maritime security and domain awareness capabilities.

Long-time ally Russia has been key to Vietnam’s response, with Hanoi now seeking advanced military assets from Moscow, including kilo-class submarines and fighter jets that could be deployed in the South China Sea to deter China.

Hanoi has also encouraged Russian energy companies, including Rosneft, Gazprom and Zarubezhneft, to undertake exploration in areas Hanoi claims within its EEZ in the sea.

The invitations to Russian firms come after China pressured Spanish energy giant Respol to abandon a gas-field it was exploring under a Vietnam-granted concession.

The moves may also aim to leverage into Russia’s strong ties to China, in hopes of warding off further Chinese adventurism in its claimed energy-rich waters.

Third, Vietnam has actively sought to reduce its economic dependence on China, currently its leading trade partner.

Vietnam is angling to strike a delicate trade balance between the US and China. Photo: Reuters
A clothing boutique in downtown Hanoi. Photo: AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam

So far, Vietnam has been the leading beneficiary of the US-China trade war, as Western, Japanese, South Korean and Taiwanese companies relocate from China to Vietnamese special economic zones (SEZs).

Vietnam’s membership in the newly activated TPP-11 free trade agreement and a new free trade agreement with the European Union will further enhance Vietnam’s building trade diversification.

A combination of strategic acumen and its trademark tenacity has made Vietnam the only regional state to actively resist China’s assertiveness, so far with a certain measure of success.