Vietnam is increasingly seizing the initiative in the South China Sea in a calculated challenge to China’s dominant position.
In recent days Vietnam openly defied China by drilling for oil in contested waters near the Spratly Islands. It has also loudly signalled stronger strategic ties with India and the United States, world powers with an interest in containing Beijing’s territorial ambitions.
After months of quiet diplomacy, and apparent efforts by Beijing and Hanoi to soothe tensions, Vietnam has shown that it remains a formidable obstacle to China’s expansion in the South China Sea.
The renewed tensions became apparent in late June when a top Chinese general, Fan Changlong, abruptly cut short a visit to Hanoi.
The apparent reason emerged shortly afterwards: It was reported that Vietnam had begun drilling for oil in an area off its southeast coast – a stretch of sea also claimed by China as part of its ambitious “9-dash line” that includes much of the South China sea.
The BBC reported that a drilling ship on contract to the international company, Talisman-Vietnam, had been given the go-ahead after three years of inactivity in the area.
Beijing saw the move as an affront and a violation of a mutual agreement not to drill in disputed waters.
A foreign ministry spokesman said China opposed any “unilateral, illegal oil and gas activities in waters China has jurisdiction over”.
Vietnam later antagonised China further by agreeing an extension to an Indian oil concession off its central coast, much closer to the Chinese held Paracel Islands.
The move is part of a strategy to draw India closer into the disputes in the South China Sea, to bolster a nascent anti-China coalition in the region.
Vietnam’s deputy prime minister was on a visit to Delhi at the time, part of an energetic diplomatic drive to consolidate cooperation with Beijing’s main global adversaries.
Vietnam meanwhile has been conducting joint naval drills with the United States. The symbolism of the exercise was given added potency by Washington’s latest “freedom of navigation” mission in the South China Sea.
A US guided missile destroyer, USS Coronado, sailed within the claimed 12 mile territorial limit around one of China’s bases in the Paracels.
Vietnamese leaders insist that they maintain close relations with China in other areas. But they want to make clear that on questions of territorial integrity there can be no compromise.