Who can face up to China? Vietnam cast adrift on the South China Sea

Photo: Tiffini M. Jones/US Navy

Growing tensions threaten ASEAN unity as China is increasing its military capacity while Singapore tries to protect its interests and remain neutral.


As tensions rise over the disputed South China Sea, Vietnam’s military has moved beyond contingency planning. They have swiftly extended the runway on the Spratly Islands to military-sized length, meaning it can now accommodate maritime surveillance and combat aircraft.

At the same time, Vietnam’s generals have strategically positioned rocket launchers capable of striking China’s military fortresses across the disputed maritime area. These forces are constantly on high alert and combat-ready mode to fend off China’s claims in the area.

Both countries share a history marked with armed conflict and continued hostility. They fought a border war in 1979 which killed around 50,000 people. Meanwhile, competing claims for ownership over the Paracel and Spratly Islands have also led to several bloody standoffs between the two communist nations.

The view from the east

These recent military modernisations are perceived by China as an imminent threat and Beijing has condemned it as an expression of defiance towards its claims of sovereignty over the island. The Vietnamese government dismisses this claim, saying its actions are simply a standard protocol for all nations.

China’s defence ministry states that “both sides should look for a basic, lasting solution both sides can accept” in this matter. However, Vietnam disagrees with mediation and has instead focused its efforts on how to defend itself at all costs. With this take it or leave it mentality, Vietnam is undoubtedly provoking a war against China and making Beijing look bad in front of the international community.

However, China is hardly a victim of Vietnam in this situation as the sheer scale of effort it has put into asserting its dominance over the sea through land expansions, the creation of new islands and military movements shows. Furthermore, China has defended its position against recent rulings in international arbitration saying they were “ill-founded” and remained “firmly opposed to it”. It is this unrestrained attitude that convinces Vietnam an unrepentant China may never approve a deal even if they did enter a dialogue on the dispute.

Problems with the neighbours

Nevertheless, Vietnam’s efforts will have little impact without the backing of other countries. And so far its efforts to placate China’s territorial claims have been largely futile, after all, neighbouring countries like Malaysia and the Philippines have decided to pivot towards China.

Previously tensions had mounted between China and Philippines when each was claiming rights to South China Sea waters. And as pressure reached boiling point, China launched a bitter rejection of the arbitration tribunal’s ruling. Philippine President Duterte hit back saying he would personally drive a jet ski to the disputed Spratly Islands and plant the Philippine flag. Now, Duterte has labelled China-Phillippines’ relations a new “springtime” as both are set to cooperate to bring their relations to new heights with a peaceful resolution to this dispute.

On Malaysia’s side, Najib has agreed “to further advance the proper settlement of the South China Sea issue on a bilateral channel and through dialogue” and engage in joint military cooperation. These discussions are set to usher in new beginnings for the countries and a probable end to Vietnam’s efforts to claim local waters for itself.

ASEAN’s challenges

This new alliance has caused tension within members of the ASEAN community, as nations have repeatedly failed to unify against the Chinese regime. Referring to a resolution on the dispute, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr Shanmugam said that “a compromise could not be reached because of the distance between positions taken by ASEAN members”.

He further added that the, “fact that (ASEAN) has 600 million people, an economy of 1.8 trillion, the resources in the region and resources in the South China Sea, obviously mean that ASEAN is an area of interest to powers outside of the immediate region” and that “ASEAN needs to try and keep itself whole” to prevent imminent disbandment of this powerhouse.

This dispute has also escalated tensions between China and Singapore. In a first strike, Chinese communist party’s mouthpiece, The Global Times, firmly accused Singapore of acting out of self-interest and playing against China. In response to the accusation, Singapore’s ambassador to Beijing, Stanley Loh, wrote a letter to the Global Times’ editors” saying the report was “replete with fabrications and unfounded allegations with no regard for the facts”.

Global Times editors did defend the accuracy of their reports, but with little force. It is clear that this article was intended to make the Chinese believe that Singapore has chosen sides. And with Singapore’s policies geared towards the West, this idea is all the more believable to Chinese readers.

Choosing sides?

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee has previously asserted that “Other countries will persuade us to side with them, one side or the other, and we have to choose our own place to stand.” And although he is clear that Singapore has not taken sides, it does have key interests to protect where issues about maritime territorial control are concerned. The most recent political drama which China has embroiled Singapore in, and the political affiliations it has gained, mean there’s an urgent need for a more proactive stance on Singapore’s part.

Meanwhile, China says it does not care much about the veracity of the facts around ensuring countries act in a politically correct way. Dr Feng Zhang, a professor at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in China, says, “It is now time to come to terms with the reality of Chinese power and accommodate its interests or otherwise face [the] consequences.” As such, Singapore faces a tough decision in maintaining peace in the West and with ASEAN but still complying with China.

With this in mind, Vietnam must consider the possibility that Singapore will comply with China in the South China Sea dispute. And if that is the case, then Vietnam must urgently reconsider its position. It faces a losing battle against China where its allies surround Vietnam in both a geographical and political sense. Although Vietnam is caught between a rock and a hard place, the country must come to its senses and try to seek a peaceful alternative.