The standoff between China and Vietnam near Vanguard Bank has passed the two-month mark without showing any sign of a resolution. Since mid-June 2019, a Chinese survey ship and its coast guard escorts have been maneuvering in a threatening manner in the southern part of Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), a short distance from Block 06-01 where Vietnamese vessels are servicing the Hakuryu-5 drilling rig under the eye of other China Coast Guard (CCG) vessels. The tensions could flare up into a violent confrontation at any time, given that CCG ships are still behaving very aggressively toward much smaller Vietnamese vessels.

The situation reflects a widening asymmetry of power between China and Vietnam. AMTI director Gregory Poling has said, “China’s actions off both the Malaysian and Vietnamese coasts since May show that Beijing is increasingly willing to employ coercion and the threat of force to block oil and gas operations by its neighbors, even while pursuing its own energy exploration in disputed waters.” Beijing’s coercive diplomacy of using coast guard muscle to harass Hanoi’s efforts to implement energy exploration in Block 06-01 may set bilateral ties between the two communist countries back to their record low in 2014.

Vietnamese leaders had learned a hard lesson in May 2014, when China deployed the mobile deep-water oil drilling platform Haiyang Shiyou 981 (HYSY 981) in Vietnamese-claimed waters near the Paracels. China’s move caught Vietnamese leaders by surprise. The tension resulted not only in vessel rammings between Vietnamese forces attempting to oust the HYSY 981 and the rig’s escorts, but also entailed violent street protests and unrest in Vietnam. The Chinese oil rig was pulled out after more than two months, but the repercussions continue today.

Much has changed since May 2014 for both Hanoi and Beijing. Vietnam has accelerated its naval modernization. Vietnam received its first Kilo-class Russian-made submarine in 2014 and the last one in January 2017, giving Hanoi the largest submarine stockpile in Southeast Asia. But tensions have so far not played out with conventional forces. China has wisely used coast guard vessels to avoid escalation. In addition, Beijing has tried to keep China-Vietnam tensions in the South China Sea largely insulated from direct interference by external actors.

In response, Hanoi has quietly developed its own maritime domain awareness and patrol capabilities with other powers’ help. In 2017, the United States transferred a major piece of defense equipment to Vietnam—the decommissioned U.S. Coast Guard Hamilton-class cutter Morgenthau, which was then re-fitted as Vietnam’s biggest coast guard vessel with a 3000-ton displacement. Patrol boats from the United States and Japan have also been added to Vietnam’s coast guard tally of 26 patrol vessels. However, Vietnam’s efforts have been modest relative to China’s.

China is drawing on a deep reserve of maritime law enforcement white-hulled vessels and even steel-hulled paramilitary vessels, which AMTI has called “dark fishing fleets.” These maritime militia are China’s frontline naval forces used to enforce China’s claims. The CCG has more vessels than the coast guards of all its regional neighbors combined with 192 patrol vessels. China’s 12,000 ton Haijing 3901, dubbed “the monster,” is even almost twice the size of the U.S. Navy’s Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruisers.

Other claimants, namely the Philippines, have fought back against Chinese coercion via legal means. In July 2016, the arbitral award by a tribunal in the Permanent Court of Arbitration dismissed China’s claims over the waters within the nine-dash line since there was “no legal basis for China to claim historic rights” over most of the South China Sea. China rejected the arbitral award and has expressed no intent of complying with it in the future. Vietnam has attempted to put the South China Sea issue on the backburner for the sake of economic growth, but tensions have gradually built over the years. The Vanguard Bank incident has raised the question of whether Vietnam should, like the Philippines, bring its case against China’s claims and actions in the South China Sea to an international court.

If the past three years can be considered a reliable indicator of probable Chinese behavior, however, another legal suit from Vietnam will likely have little effect. To file another case against a country that ignores international law in the way China does would be mostly futile. Such a tactic may work when dealing with a democratic country, where a change of government may bring fresh thinking on compliance with an international ruling, but not China. In disregard of international law, Beijing conducted massive land reclamation to create artificial islands for the deployment of anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, electronic jammers, and other equipment designed to cement its dominance of the South China Sea. The man-made islands have also allowed China to install resupply stations for its navy, air force, coastguard, and fishing fleets, which is proving very useful in allowing the Chinese survey ship and its escorts to maintain their intimidating activities near Vanguard Bank over the past two months. Thus far, the rewards China has gained for daring to defy international law have far outweighed any costs.

The island bases are a game-changer in that China can use them to wear down a country with limited naval resources like Vietnam. Undoubtedly, China wants to use the strategy of coercive attrition to influence Vietnamese policy options in the South China Sea and restrict Vietnam’s maritime maneuverability. Notably, it is not the first time China has bullied Vietnam. In 2017 and 2018, it was reported that Vietnam had to terminate oil drilling projects off its southeastern coast due to pressure from China. The 2017 cancellation at a project called Red Emperor was in Vietnam’s Block 136-03 close to Block 06-01. Hanoi may now be aware that an inch of concession provides the impetus for more coercion. Over-accommodation of China engenders further aggression.

So far, Vietnam has attempted a number of diplomatic measures to counter China’s bullying behavior. Vietnam has called for “all relevant parties and the international community” to “contribute to the joint effort to protect and ensure our common interest.” The rhetoric may not imply that Vietnam is willing to rid its strict nonalignment policy, but it is indicative of Vietnam’s search for wider help. At the 52nd ASEAN Foreign Minister’s Meeting in Bangkok in early August, Vietnamese deputy prime minister Pham Binh Minh did not miss the chance to denounce China’s serious violation of Vietnam’s sovereignty and jurisdiction under the 1982 United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea. However, Vietnam’s options in the South China Sea are wearing thin as other great powers turn their backs on China’s coercive behavior.

The situation will get worse not only for Vietnam but for the whole international community if China is allowed to ignore the law without paying a price. Hanoi cannot confront Beijing alone.

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.