Vietnam humbled by China

China’s growing military might on disputed islands in the South China Sea helped it call Hanoi’s bluff. Photo courtesy Reuters.

A drilling ship has left Vietnamese waters following Hanoi’s ignominious climbdown last month in its latest confrontation with China.

The vessel, Deepsea Metro I, which was prospecting a lucrative gas field on the edge of Vietnam’s EEZ, is reported to have arrived off the coast of northern Borneo following the abrupt cancellation of its operations.

Vietnam attempted to cover its humiliation with tough talk at the ASEAN foreign ministers’ conference in Manila, and with moves last week to strengthen defence links with the United States.

However, experts say, its failure to stand up to China over economic activity inside its own 200 nautical mile EEZ marks a major strategic defeat.

The drilling began in the area, known by Vietnam as Block 136/3, southeast of Ho Chi Minh City, in June.

It immediately provoked an angry backlash from China, which appears to be claiming the waters under its “historic rights” to most of the waters of the South China Sea, inside what is seen by others as the arbitrarily drawn “nine-dash line”.

The Spanish company operating the Vietnamese concession, Repsol, was suddenly ordered by Hanoi to suspend its work in July, and has now withdrawn its drill ship after presumably sealing the well.

Significant blow

In a report that has not been openly contested by either side, the BBC said that China had threatened military action against Vietnamese outposts in the Spratly chain and had secured from Hanoi a pledge never to drill the site again.

Vietnam has made no public statement about its intentions and how it intends to compensate the Spanish company, which is reported to have spent some $27 million on the operation.

Hanoi’s climb down could also be seen as a significant blow to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as it appears to give China extra-legal rights in waters to which it has no recognised claim.

A panel of international jurists in The Hague last year ruled that the nine-dash line had no legal basis, and that China had no right to EEZs around the man-made islands it has developed in the Spratlys.

Vietnam still insists that it has right the drill in the area, but its actions tell a different story.

Angered Beijing

China appears to have been emboldened to make a direct threat by the lack of a coherent US strategy in Asian waters and the increasing acquiescence of the Philippines, which has lost the will to resist Chinese ambitions in the region.

Vietnam’s attempt to hit back, by insisting on the inclusion of implied criticism of China in the communique at the ASEAN meeting, appears only to have angered Beijing further.

Disputes over the statement also underlined the extend to which Vietnam is now isolated from many of its Southeast Asian neighbours.

The Defence Minister, Ngo Xuan Lich, attempted to send a defiant signal during a meeting in Washington with his US counterpart, Jim Mattis, last week.

He announced an agreement to allow a US aircraft carrier to dock in Vietnam next year for the first time since the Vietnam War.

However, the US is no longer seen as a reliable or consistent partner, accentuated by the sight of President Trump and his advisers floundering over the North Korea threat.

Vietnam will have been encouraged, to a limited extent, by continuing “Freedom of Navigation” sorties by American warships close to Chinese held bases in the South China Sea.

However, such missions do nothing to bolster Vietnam’s own claim to islands in the area, and the rights of Southeast nations to resist Chinese dictates about natural resources within their own EEZs.