Vietnam does not stand alone but must act to strengthen itself in its struggle to protect its sovereign territory in the East Sea.
Few would argue that China placing a deep-sea drilling rig, the Haiyang Shiyou-981, in Vietnam’s territorial waters south of the Paracel Islands on May 1 was in response US President Barack Obama’s visit to four Asian countries - Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines - in late April. Many believe China began preparations for deploying the illegal oil rig deployment, some 117 nautical miles from Vietnam’s continental shelf, long ago. “It is clear that China pre-planned the placement of the Haiyang Shiyou-981 before it made the announcement that it would commence operations from May 2 to August 15,” said Professor Carl Thayer, a well-known analyst on Vietnam from Australia. “China prepared logistics ships and escorts for the rig and also had other ships on standby should the rig and its escort encounter difficulties.”
On a State level, Vietnam’s response was modest and courteous, calling for the oil rig to be removed and sending only the Coast Guard and ships from the Fisheries Surveillance Force (FSF). China then mobilised a large force of over 100 ships, including naval vessels, to protect the oil rig. After vision of Chinese ships attempting to ram Vietnam’s weaker Coast Guard ships was screened around the world, the Chinese ambassador to the US made the remarkable claim that “Vietnamese military forces harassed and attacked Chinese forces.” Vietnam is clearly the victim of its giant neighbour’s wrath. “Vietnam did nothing to provoke China nor has China defended its actions on the basis of some Vietnamese provocation,” said Professor Thayer. “The best speculation is that China chose this incident carefully to challenge President Obama’s policy of rebalancing in Asia.”
Vietnam’s international friends offered diplomatic support after the incident. The US was the most active in speaking out about China’s provocations in the East Sea, as it understands Chinese ambitions in one of the world’s most important sea lanes, through which almost one-third of global goods are transported each year. “China’s decision to introduce an oil rig accompanied by a number of vessels in disputed waters was provocative and raised tensions,” said Ms Jen Psaki, spokesperson from the US Department of State on May 7. “This unilateral action appears to be part of a broader pattern of Chinese behaviour to advance its claims over disputed territory in a manner that undermines peace and stability in the region.”
But some analysts said that the recent crisis between China and Vietnam in the East Sea indicates that Vietnam appears to lack “trusted friends” who may provide stronger support not only with words but also action, and that an alliance could be something Vietnam may consider. But, with a consistent policy of multilateralism, the country will not take this recommendation into account. “Vietnam will never ally with another country to fight against a third country,” insisted Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung while he was in Manila last month for the World Economic Forum (WEF) East Asia, where he met and spoke with Filipino President Benigno S. Aquino III. “This is Vietnam’s consistent diplomatic position.” Mr Mike Kulma, Executive Director of Global Leadership Initiatives at the New York-based Asia Society, believes this is the correct mindset. “I think countries should always look to strengthen relationships with other countries,” he told VET last month. “But I don’t think this context is reasons in and of itself for doing so.”
Regardless, Vietnam may wish to consider finding “trusted friends” after all that has happened, some analysts say. When asked what he would advise the Vietnamese Government do to avoid similar cases with China in the future, Mr Kulma said that it should “continue to pursue avenues to negotiate and build the relationship in other areas.” For his part, Professor Thayer believes that the current crisis could have been easily averted. Vietnam and China have managed to demarcate their land borders and the Gulf of Ton