Hanoi not likely to join Washington's anti-Beijing 'coalition'
Xi Jinping told ASEAN countries that China does not seek hegemony in the South China Sea. For Washington, Vietnam "will define the future of Asia". Like the Chinese, the Vietnamese are boosting their presence on disputed atolls in the region. For expert Carlyle Thayer, conflict between Hanoi and Beijing is extremely unlikely.
Rome (AsiaNews) – China does not seek hegemony and will never bully smaller states, said Chinese President Xi Jinping in a conciliatory statement made today during a virtual summit with the leaders of the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian nations (ASEAN), except for Myanmar, which did not take part in the meeting.
Xi's goal is to prevent the US from exploiting territorial disputes in the South China Sea to strengthen its containment policy vis-à-vis China, especially with the respect to Vietnam.
China claims nearly 90 per cent of the vast sea as its own, a claim rejected by Vietnam, but also the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan, and partly Indonesia.
An example of the situation occurred last week when the Philippine government condemned the action by three Chinese coast guard ships, which used water cannons against Philippine supply boats. The latter were bound for Thomas Shoal, an atoll in the South China Sea claimed by the two countries.
According to reports from Radio Free Asia, the Vietnamese are also engaged in construction activities in three outcrops in the Spratly Islands, claimed by China.
Kurt Campbell, Joe Biden’s National Security Council Indo-Pacific coordinator, said on Friday that Vietnam (along with India) “will define the future of Asia”.
This is the latest statement by a senior US official in favour of greater cooperation between the US and Vietnam against China, and one more piece in the strategic framework the United States is building to meet the geopolitical challenge posed by China.
For Carlyle Thayer, professor emeritus at the University of New South Wales (Australia), there is certainly room for more military cooperation between the United States and Vietnam, but it is very limited.
“Depending on circumstances and specific conditions, Viet Nam will consider developing necessary, appropriate defence and military relations with other countries,” says Vietnam’s defence white paper.
The Australian academic notes that this year the Biden administration has repeatedly urged Hanoi to strengthen the bilateral partnership, but Vietnamese leaders have been "noncommittal".
In addition to political considerations, there are practical issues for Vietnam. Thayer notes that about 85 per cent of Vietnam’s military procurements come from Russia, and are not compatible with US weapons systems. Furthermore, the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) holds the threat of sanctions against countries that deal with designated Russian defence entities for the procurement of military equipment and technology. This obviously includes Vietnam.
The US supports the countries of Southeast Asia that accuse China of turning coral and sandy reefs in the South China Sea into military bases. Yet, Vietnam’s own construction could be construed as further cause of tensions.
However, Thayer notes that Hanoi's work on three Spratly atolls is minor. The Vietnamese did not place any advanced weapon systems on the islets.
What is more, “There have been no major incidents in the South China Sea involving China and Vietnam since the standoff in waters near Vanguard Bank in 2019,” he added.
Vietnam, in his view, is very reluctant to rile China. In fact, armed conflict between China and Vietnam is highly unlikely. Looking at “China-Vietnam relations solely through the lenses of their maritime disputes in the South China Sea can be both myopic and misleading”, said Thayer.