Vietnam Gets US Defense Assurance amid Tension with China in South China Sea

Vietnam Gets US Defense Assurance amid Tension with China in South China Sea

US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis hosted Vietnamese Minister of National Defense Ngo Xuan Lich for an official counterpart visit on August 8, 2017. Photo: US Embassy in Hanoi, Vietnam

The US Department of Defense has promised Vietnam deeper defense cooperation amid ongoing tensions between the latter and China over territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Possession of all or parts of the islands and territorial waters in the South China Sea are disputed by China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Brunei.

China has been especially assertive in the area recently, and has not shied away from harsh diplomatic confrontation with the other claimants.

In the South China Sea, it claims as its border the so called Nine-Dash Line (also referred to as the Ten-Dash Line or the Eleven-Dash Line), a demarcation line including the claimed territories, more specifically, the Paracel Islands, the Spratly Islands, the Scarborough Shoal, the Pratas Islands, and the Macclesfield Bank, among others.

In July 2016, in a case brought by the Philippines, an arbitral tribunal in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague found no legal basis for China’s claim of “historic rights” within the Nine-Dash Line in the South China Sea.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague found no evidence that China had historically exercised exclusive control over the waters or resources within the Nine-Dash Line. The ruling was adamantly rejected by the Chinese government.

China recently installed rocket launchers on a disputed island in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in order to fend off Vietnam’s claims, according to a report.

Territorial waters are defined by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea as extending no more than 12 nautical miles from a state’s coastline. The Law of the Sea also gives states an exclusive economic zone up to 200 nautical miles from their coastline meaning that most of the Spratly Islands are in the territorial waters of the Philippines and Malaysia.

Vietnam has won the promise of deeper defense cooperation from the United States amid ongoing tensions with China over the disputed South China Sea, as US Defense Secretary James Mattis received on Tuesday Vietnamese Defense Minister Gen. Ngo Xuan Lich, Reuters reported.

The news agency notes that in Southeast Asia, Vietnam has become an increasingly lonely voice in challenging Chinese claims to the vast majority of the South China Sea, and was forced to suspend some offshore oil drilling last month after pressure from Beijing.

US Defense Secretary Mattis told his Vietnamese counterpart Ngo Xuan Lich in Washington that a strong defense relationship was based on common interests that included freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

“The Secretary welcomed Vietnam’s engagement and growing leadership in the Asia-Pacific region,” a statement from the Pentagon said.

One of the most notable results from the meeting of the two defense ministers is the arrangement of a visit by a US aircraft carrier to Vietnam next year – the first such visit since the Vietnam War ended in 1975.

US President Donald Trump discussed the possibility of a carrier visit with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc when they met at the White House in May.

The agreement was consistent with Vietnam’s diplomatic strategy of being open to all countries, said Ha Hoang Hop, a Vietnamese political analyst who has advised the government.

“Vietnam is not willing to compromise on issues of sovereignty and also makes its own preparations,” he said.

China has been irritated by Vietnam’s growing defense relationships with the United States and rival Asian powers, including Japan and India.

Reuters reminds that tension has risen since June, when Vietnam infuriated China by drilling for oil and gas in an offshore block that Beijing disputes. The exploration was suspended after diplomatic protests from China.

Over the past week, China is said to have been annoyed by Vietnam’s stand at an Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting, when it insisted on mentioning concern about island-building and militarization in the South China Sea in a communique.

A scheduled meeting between Chinese and Vietnamese foreign ministers on the sidelines of the summit was canceled. China also pointed to Vietnam’s own reclamation work in the South China Sea.

More than USD 3 trillion worth of cargo passes through the South China Sea every year.

On Monday, Australia, Japan and the United States urged Southeast Asia and China to ensure that a South China Sea code of conduct they have committed to drafting would be legally binding.

Since October 2015, under the Obama Administration, US ships have been patrolling near the artificial islands built by China in the Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea to demonstrate that they are located in international waters, not in Chinese waters – therefore angering Beijing.

The American Freedom of Navigation program has been seen in China as an infringement on its “lawful” claims over the South and East China Seas, two of the world’s most important waterways.

The US Navy has sent a warship to sail close to a disputed island, one of the Paracel Islands, in the South China Sea occupied by China, as part of an operation to demonstrate freedom of navigation in the waters.

In the first US Freedom of Navigation operation under President Donald Trump in May 2017, the USS Dewey sailed near the Mischief Reef claimed by Beijing in the South China Sea, an act condemned by China.

The second US Freedom of Navigation operation in the South China Sea under President Donald Trump was carried out in early July.



Ivan Dikov, the founder of, is the author of the book “Madman Diplomacy: Is North Korea Trying to Bring Back Regime Change?“, among other books.