In a sign of escalating tensions in Southeast Asia, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi just canceled a bilateral meeting with his Vietnamese counterpart, Pham Binh Minh. Since clashing in a brief war in 1979 and a naval battle in 1988, Vietnam has drawn China’s ire with some creative (and risky) diplomacy intended to counter Beijing’s acts of unilateral dominance in the South China Sea.
Last month, Hanoi agreed to back off of a major oil exploration venture in the South China Sea at Beijing’s behest. General Fan Changlong, deputy chair of China’s Central Military Commission, applied some heavy-handed pressure, including paying a visit to Madrid to raise Beijing’s concerns over Spanish corporation Repsol’s involvement in the deal despite Respol’s having already invested $300 million in the project. General Fan also traveled to Hanoi for an annual border exchange, during which time he directly requested that Vietnam cease oil exploration in the disputed zone, block 136-03, even threatening to use force if his request was denied. Hanoi then relented. Although many Asia analysts were critical of Vietnam’s decision, which they saw as kowtowing to Beijing, Hanoi has continued to push back against China in other important areas.
For instance, Vietnam has moved forward with construction of artificial land features in the South China Sea, which it began building in the 1980s. Yet Beijing, much to its ire, is unable to publicly condemn these moves without appearing hypocritical, as China has constructed seven islands in the South China Sea totaling over 3,200 acres of land and has continued to install more military hardware on them.
At the same time, Hanoi pushed ardently to include legally binding language in the draft framework for a South China Sea code of conduct, which the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China recently signed at the ASEAN summit in Manila on August 7. The code of conduct would regulate regional states’ behavior in the South China Sea and aim to “promote mutual trust, cooperation a draft of the framework seen by Ian Storey, editor of Contemporary Southeast Asia. The draft, however, did not include any reference to “legally binding” mechanisms that would ultimately hold parties accountable.
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