On April 4, Vietnam lodged an official protest with China, accusing it of sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat in the Paracel Islands. The spokesperson for China’s coastguard argued that the Vietnamese fishing boat sank after ramming into a China Coast Guard vessel. He also warned that China would move to enhance its control of fishing activities within its nine-dash line covering most of the South China Sea.

Beijing must have thought that the region would be caught off-guard. However, China’s sinking of the fishing vessel has had a much bigger impact than what it likely anticipated. The capsizing may have been expected to scare away Vietnamese fishers from the waters near the Paracels, but it has instead triggered a series of significant reactions from other players in the South China Sea.  On April 6, U.S. State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus described it as “the latest in a long string of PRC actions to assert unlawful maritime claims and disadvantage its Southeast Asian neighbors in the South China Sea.” Three days later, the U.S. Defense Department slammed China for sinking the Vietnamese vessel and reasserted “the United States’ vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region.” Even amid the coronavirus pandemic, Chinese bullying of Vietnamese fishing vessels caught the attention of two U.S. agencies.

China’s coercion has also unintentionally helped to unite smaller claimants in the South China Sea. On April 3, the Philippine Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed support for Vietnam, saying, “our own similar experience revealed how much trust in a friendship is lost by it and how much trust was created by Vietnam’s humanitarian act of directly saving the lives of our Filipino fishermen.” The statement recalled an incident last June when a Chinese vessel sank a Philippine fishing boat and left its 22 crew members in distress before they were rescued by a Vietnamese boat. The message is even more noteworthy considering how close Philippine President Duterte and Chinese leader Xi Jinping have become in the past few years.

This was not the first time that Vietnam has claimed that a Chinese vessel rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel in the South China Sea. The first life-threatening incidents date to 2013, when China began to damage Vietnamese fishing boats instead of just chasing them away from Chinese-controlled waters.  Vietnamese fishing boats are easy targets for China’s more advanced vessels, which in some cases have left Vietnamese crews in the water after sinking their boats. In late May 2014, as Hanoi vehemently protested against the deployment of a Chinese oil platform in disputed waters, a Vietnamese fishing boat was rammed and sunk by Chinese vessels. Its crew was rescued by fellow Vietnamese fishers. Gradually, sinking and detaining regional fishermen has become a common practice of China’s coastguard and paramilitary vessels in the South China Sea.

The timing of the recent sinking was perhaps well-chosen by Beijing, with an apparent purpose to send Hanoi a cold reminder that Chinese authorities are not happy with its recent behavior. On March 5, the USS Theodore Roosevelt and its escorts made the second U.S. aircraft carrier visit to Vietnam, marking 25 years of diplomatic normalization between the two former foes. The first carrier visit was made only two years earlier by the USS Carl Vinson. Indications such as these of strengthened defense ties between Vietnam and the United States may be upsetting to Beijing and its ambitions of hegemony in the South China Sea. On March 30, Vietnam sent a diplomatic note to the United Nations protesting China’s sovereignty claims in the South China Sea and reasserting Vietnam’s sovereignty; the ramming took place just three days later.

It is likely that China sees the COVID-19 pandemic as a rare opportunity to advance its territorial interests. The United States State Department has called on China to “stop exploiting the distraction or vulnerability of other states to expand its unlawful claims in the South China Sea.” Washington’s naval power is suffering heavily from the pandemic. The Theodore Roosevelt is now docked at Guam to curb the spread of the pandemic among sailors, while two other U.S. aircraft carriers, the USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan, have also been busy handling the coronavirus. Amid the temporary vacuum of U.S.  presence in the region, the Haiyang Dizhi 8, the Chinese survey ship that was embroiled in a standoff with Vietnam for months last year, traversed Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) on April 14 on its way to survey and area of seabed claimed by both Vietnam and Malaysia. In addition, China’s first aircraft carrier and its Type 901 support ship were confirmed by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy to have taken part in a naval drill in the Miyako Strait, the Bashi Channel south of Taiwan, and in the South China Sea.

China’s aggressive actions may reignite an anti-Chinese sentiment which has been kept under control quite well in Vietnam since 2014’s deadly protests. On Facebook, the most popular social network in Vietnam, tirades against China’s illogical defense of the collision are being spread widely. If China keeps pushing hard with its bullying behavior in the South China Sea, it will certainly give a boost to rising anti-China sentiment in Vietnam, which in turn puts pressure on Vietnamese leaders to recalibrate their foreign policy when the Communist Party’s National Congress convenes early next year. China has, to some extent, failed in its efforts at mask diplomacy in response to the coronavirus pandemic and its muscle-flexing in the South China Sea may be an attempt to burnish the government’s image with its domestic audiences. Nevertheless, it imperils regional stability and prosperity and is likely to fuel stiffer resistance among Southeast Asian claimants.

About Nguyen Thanh Trung

Dr. Nguyen Thanh Trung is the director of Saigon Center for International Studies (SCIS) at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. His areas of interest include security issues, political economy, comparative politics, and international relations. He is fluent in both English and Chinese.