The US navy’s latest challenge to Chinese expansion in the South China Sea will be seen as a welcome boost by Vietnam as it mulls a forceful move of its own in the same area.
The destroyer, USS Chafee, sailed past the China controlled Paracel islands in the latest “freedom of navigation” exercise, although it took care not to penetrate the claimed 12 nm territorial waters around any of the features.
American officials were quoted as saying the purpose was to challenge “excessive maritime claims” around the Paracels.
It looks like a warning to China not to press its claim too close to the Vietnamese coastline.
The centre of the chain of islands, reefs and shoals lies some four hundred kilometres east of Danang, where Vietnam will host APEC leaders, including President Trump and Xi Jinping next month.
The waters around the Paracels have emerged as a potential flashpoint between Vietnam and China, as Vietnam prepares to initiate a major gas drilling project in what it sees as its own EEZ.
Military action threatened
State media have reported that Vietnam intends to give the go ahead in November to the US oil giant, Exxon Mobil, to begin exploration work on the “Blue Whale” project in defiance of China’s objections.
China has warned international companies in the past to stay clear of the project.
Beijing is reported to have threatened military action earlier this year, forcing Vietnam to shut down another major gas project further south.
This time Vietnam seems determined to stand firm.
The summit in Vietnam is likely to be dominated by fears of conflict in the confrontation between Washington and North Korea.
The dispute has dramatically raised the stakes in US-China relations and cast further doubt over the Trump administration’s intentions in the South China Sea.
But Vietnam will take heart from the latest US naval mission and President Trump’s decision to attend the summit, hoping they signal a new resolve to stand up to China and bolster allies and partners that incur Beijing’s wrath.