Xi’s Visit to Hanoi Hasn’t Really Changed Much in the South China Sea
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Xi’s Visit to Hanoi Hasn’t Really Changed Much in the South China Sea

Not to be outdone by President Joe Biden’s September trip to Vietnam, Chinese president Xi Jinping paid a much ballyhooed state visit to Hanoi this week.

In what the Vietnamese media called “a historic milestone” Xi and his counterpart, Nguyen Phu Trong, General Secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party, signed 36 agreements on a host of cooperative efforts. As Trong put it, “Vietnam is willing to work with China to build a Vietnam-China community with a shared future that carries strategic significance [and] comprehensively strengthen cooperation in political, economic, trade, security and non-governmental areas.”

Indeed, the two leaders reached agreements that ranged from investments in a rail line connecting the two countries to telecommunications to digital cooperation to upgraded security relations. The latter included plans for joint military patrols in the Gulf of Tonkin in the South China Sea and the establishment of a hotline to address “unexpected incidents arising from fisheries activities at sea.”

The plans for increased security cooperation actually are little more than an extension of the “Comprehensive Security Partnership” that the two countries established fifteen years ago. The earlier arrangement did little to ease the tensions in relations between the two historic enemies, who fought a war in 1979 and continued to clash along their border and in the South China Sea throughout the 1980s.

Neither the normalizing of relations between Beijing and Hanoi in 1991 nor the “Security Partnership” have prevented China from bullying Vietnam in the South China Sea and continuing to assert its claims to sovereignty over that entire body of water. In 2014, Beijing provoked a major crisis by moving an oil rig into Vietnamese waters. Three years later, it threatened to use force if Vietnam drilled for oil in the South China Sea. China moved a survey ship into Vietnamese waters in 2019, again causing maritime tensions.

Addressing Chinese-Vietnamese friction over the South China Sea, Trong stated that “maritime disputes are only part of Vietnam-China relations, and it is believed that the two sides can properly handle them in the spirit of mutual trust and mutual respect.”

Yet the good feeling that Xi sought to generate by his visit did not extend to backing away from what China terms its “nine-dash line” around the sea. Clearly there are limits to how far China is willing to go in order to foster good relations with its southern neighbor. And those limits will continue to create new opportunities for the United States to strengthen its own increasingly improving relations with Vietnam.

In the wake of Biden’s September visit, Vietnam now has a “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” with the United States to go along with its “Comprehensive Security Partnership,” with China. The twinning of these agreements certainly reflects Hanoi’s efforts to maintain a neutral stance between the two superpowers. Nevertheless, Vietnam remains far more wary of Chinese aggression than of U.S. military presence in the region.

Hanoi has increased its purchases of American arms and has hosted American warships, most recently when the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan, accompanied by guided missile cruisers Antietam and Robert Smalls, made a port visit to Da Nang in July. The Reagan had visited Vietnam the previous year as well, marking the third American aircraft carrier port call in four years. Washington should continue to have its carriers visit Vietnam annually, if not more frequently.

Vietnam has committed itself not to host foreign bases on its territory — one of its so-called “four nos.” For that reason, Hanoi will never allow America to base its forces at Cam Ranh Bay. Nevertheless, there is considerable room for upgrading American naval activity in the country.

In this regard, the expansion of American military presence in Singapore could serve as a model that Vietnam could follow. In 1990, the United States and Singapore first signed a Memorandum of Understanding that enabled U.S. Navy ships to draw upon the facilities at Changi Naval Base. Subsequent agreements expanded the original arrangement, and the Navy now maintains a  logistical command unit in Singapore and rotates Littoral Combat Ships and P-8 aircraft from the island. 

No doubt Beijing would criticize any effort by Hanoi to enhance its security cooperation with the United States. Still, as long as China violates Vietnamese territorial waters while claiming that they actually belong to the Chinese, Vietnam will have good cause to look to America to buttress its deterrent against its powerful northern neighbor.

By pursuing an approach similar to that which has been so successful for Singapore, Hanoi could indeed strengthen its deterrent, while Washington could underscore its long-standing policy of maintaining freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, Chinese objections notwithstanding.

Source : The Hill