Vietnam has suffered another setback in its South China Sea policy with the failure of ASEAN leaders meeting to Manila to stand up to China’s expansion in the region.
Vietnam’s aims have already been frustrated by the apparent incoherence of President Trump’s interventions in Asia, particularly his current courtship of China after directing months of hostile rhetoric towards Beijing.
Vietnam has been relying on support and encouragement from the United States in its attempt to resist Beijing’s relentless drive into the disputed waters of the South China Sea.
It also sought a united and coherent stance from its neighbours in the ASEAN regional grouping to help contain China’s ambitions.
However, in his final statement after the summit in Manila, President Duterte of the Philippines dropped any reference to China’s maritime advance, caving in to barely disguised Chinese pressure.
Reports from Manila said that references to “tensions” and “escalation” in an initial draft were dropped, making the ASEAN statement the most anodyne in recent years.
Submits to China’s will
In the past, Cambodia was the only country that could be relied on to do China’s bidding at the regional forum.
But President Duterte has since abandoned his predecessor’s hard line stance and seems content to submit to China’s will.
Only Indonesia and Singapore remain steadfast, along with Vietnam, in their hope for a common regional stance, as other states lose confidence in the US commitment.
Apprehension in Hanoi about President Trump’s strategic intentions and capabilities appears to have been well founded.
Vietnam, which forged ever closer ties with Washington under President Obama, has been left hanging, while the White House focuses most of its energy in Asia on the perceived threat from North Korea.
President Trump is putting faith in military posturing, and what he hopes will be help from China, to rein in the North Koreans.
Policy makers in Hanoi and other South East Asian capitals see the danger of an inexperienced and impetuous American president being manipulated by a Chinese leadership with clear and long-term strategic goals.
China can hardly be expected to undermine its one military ally, and key strategic asset, without significant concessions from the United States elsewhere.
Any suggestion of a “grand bargain” between Beijing and Washington will cause consternation in Vietnam, which seeks to profit from playing one of the superpowers off against the other.