Tillerson offers little comfort for Vietnam

China appeared more than happy with the sentiments expressed by Mr Tillerson in Beijing. Photo courtesy AFP

China’s apparent delight at the visit of the US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, at the weekend will not have been matched by a similar sentiment in Hanoi.

The decision by the US official not to challenge China publicly over its territorial ambitions in the South China Sea can only have added to Vietnam’s concerns about the unreliability and unpredictability of the new administration in Washington.

It was Mr Tillerson, after all, who had appeared to throw down the gauntlet to China during his confirmation hearings in January.

“We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed,” he told Senators.

Any yet, just days before his visit to Beijing, China announced plans for construction work on Scarborough Shoal, the scattered rocks and reefs off the Philippine coast that were seized from Manila in 2012.

China said it would begin preparatory work for an environmental monitoring station on the shoal, and on other features in the Paracels, which are claimed by Vietnam. The work is likely to involve reclamation of land and docking facilities – a process that on seven features further south in the Spratlys quickly led to the construction of major military bases.

The Obama administration had made clear that any move to build on Scarborough Shoal would be seen as highly provocative.

Mr Tillerson, however, was content to mouth platitudes about cooperation and non-confrontation in Beijing – words seen by commentators in China, and in some neighbouring countries, as tantamount to accepting Chinese regional domination.

“Tillerson assured Xi of the Trump administration’s commitment to the principles of no confrontation, no conflict, mutual respect, win-win cooperation,” said the China Daily, reflecting the official view that the visit was a big success for China.

Scope for confrontation 

President Xi Jinping is due to visit President Trump in the United States next month, and there is still plenty of scope for confrontation, tension and misunderstanding between the two sides.

But the performance of the new administration so far gives Vietnam and China’s other neighbours little confidence that it has the measure of Beijing.

Crucial posts in the State Department, including Deputy Secretary of State and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, have yet to be filled, leaving a significant vacuum in strategic thinking on the region.

President Trump appears fixated on the nuclear challenge from North Korea, an issue that plays into China’s hands by giving it additional leverage over Washington.

Mr Tillerson said in Seoul last week that all options, including military action, were on the table.

That looked like an attempt to warn China that it needed to get serious about reining in its troublesome proxy in Pyongyang.

But China has many decades experience in playing the North Korea game to its own advantage and has managed to outmanoeuvre succeeding US administrations.

President Trump had appeared ready to turn the tables on China last year, by reaching for the Taiwan card, trumpeting the prospect of a tariff wall against Chinese exports, and talking big on the South China Sea.

Given the outlook just a few months ago, China must be quietly confident at the way things are turning out, thanks in no small part to the antics of its military ally, North Korea.

With the Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, now declaring himself powerless to stop China’s plans for the Scarborough Shoal, China’s drive for expansion in the region looks set to continue.

Vietnam can only continue its patient, multilateral diplomacy. It has been careful to avoid an open breach with Beijing and count too heavily on support from Washington. Such caution has proved wise given the profound uncertainties of the current situation.