US likely to interact more with Vietnam on South China Sea: experts

By Viet Anh   February 9, 2021 | 09:00 pm PT
U.S. President Joe Biden is likely to interact more often with Vietnamese officials as the South China Sea issue becomes increasingly complex, experts say.

"The situation in the South China Sea this year will be tenser because the Biden administration indicated that the U.S. will continue the strategic competition against China," Professor Renato Cruz De Castro of the international studies department at De La Salle University in the Philippines told VnExpress International.

The South China Sea is known as the East Sea in Vietnam.

The USS Theodore Roosevelt entered the port in Da Nang, Vietnam, March 5, 2020. Photo by Reuters.

The USS Theodore Roosevelt docks in Da Nang, Vietnam, March 5, 2020. Photo by Reuters.

On February 5 Biden, calling China America’s most serious competitor, said Beijing poses challenges to the U.S.'s "prosperity, security and democratic values."

Secretary of state Antony Blinken had said earlier there was a very strong foundation to build a consensus in the U.S. to stand up to Beijing.

According to Castro, Biden is looking at the South China Sea as an important arena with strategic competition with China that is similar to former president Donald Trump's stand. At a time when the U.S. is highly divided, one thing that would unite Americans is a tough stance on China, he said.

On January 23, just days after Biden was sworn in as president, a U.S. aircraft carrier group led by the USS Theodore Roosevelt entered the South China Sea to promote "freedom of the seas."

On the same day Chinese military aircraft simulated missile attacks on a U.S. aircraft carrier during an incursion into Taiwan’s air defense zone.

The People’s Liberation Army sent 11 aircraft into the south-western area of Taiwan’s air defense zone and 15 more the next day, according to the Financial Times.

China said it conducted a new midcourse intercept anti-ballistic missile test on February 4.

In a more recent activity, two U.S. carrier groups Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike and the Nimitz Carrier Strike conducted joint exercises in the South China Sea on Tuesday, marking the first dual carrier operations in the waterway since July 2020.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the frequent moves by U.S. warships and aircraft into the South China Sea in a "show of force" was not conducive to regional peace and stability, Reuters reported.

Castro said China thinks it could intimidate the U.S. and so he does not discount military action by Beijing. Some Chinese analysts are talking about a limited war with the U.S., and so the worst-case scenario is a clash, he said.

"It is very dangerous because some Chinese are thinking that they could inflict casualties on the U.S Navy."

Agreeing with Castro that China might have more aggressive actions, Carl Schuster, a visiting professor at Hawaii Pacific University, the U.S., said Beijing is likely to simulate more anti-ship ballistic missile launches and conduct at least one other large scale naval exercise.

The goal would be to see how the opponent reacts to certain situations and how committed the U.S. is to continuing its presence in the South China Sea.

Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at U.S. think tank RAND, said China's seasonal frictions over fishing and natural resource extraction ramp up starting around May are again likely.

But this time it would be interesting to see whether China is as assertive as in the last few years or decides to tread easier, he said.

With the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party and 20th Party Congress this year, Beijing could decide it does not want any problems or could decide now is the time to demonstrate its growing confidence, he explained, admitting however there is no good answer.

"My take is that tensions will be very similar to the last few years which, for Vietnam, will not be a good outcome."

Vanguard Bank and other tense situations were a feature of these years, he said.

Professor Zachary Abuza of the National War College, the U.S., expected the Chinese to increase their "provocations" in the South China Sea this summer.

Normally the Chinese focus on one claimant nation at a time, he said, pointing out that in 2019 they did a lot of seismic research on Vietnam's continental shelf and put pressure on multinational oil corporations to stop exploration, before shifting their attention to another country.

"But this year China is likely to be provocative toward all of the claimants to test the new Biden administration and gauge their responses."

More navies operating in South China Sea

According to Schuster, people are going to see more countries showing interest in operating in the South China Sea. For example, a British carrier is going to go in there, doing some work with the U.S. and exercises with Japan, the French aircraft carrier is going to do exercises with the Indian Navy in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, he said.

The European Union might not do anything collectively, but its member states would be sending ships into the South China Sea to Japan and Australia, while India would probably send a couple of ships to transit through the area.

Castro said the Biden administration intends to rely on allies and partners not only in Asia but also in Europe. Washington would continue to cooperate with Japan, Australia, South Korea, and probably the Philippines when the two countries renegotiate the visiting forces agreement, he said.

Besides the Quad (including the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India), the U.S is also likely to bring the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to the South China Sea as Biden seeks to mend defenses with NATO, he said.

Schuster said Trump tended to act first and then look for partners while Biden prefers to find partners first and then act.

"For that reason, I think Biden will look for ways to interact with Vietnamese officials more often than has been done in the past."

However, the fact that some members of Congress consider Vietnam a currency manipulator could complicate Biden's efforts to reach out, he said.

He speculated that Vietnam would increase its Coast Guard presence and operations in the South China Sea.

With coast guards being primarily viewed as law enforcement agencies, if Vietnam offers to interact with the American coast guard, that would strengthen the bilateral partnership, he said.

When the new prime minister of Vietnam takes office, the new leaders on both sides are likely to meet or talk, he said.

In Grossman's view, with Nguyen Phu Trong remaining Party chief for another five years, it would seem Vietnam’s "delicate balancing act" between China and the U.S. is set to continue. He did not foresee any major changes in Vietnam’s relationship with either country, but if the U.S. under Biden criticizes Vietnam on several issues, including currency manipulation, that could significantly slow the enormous momentum in relations between the two countries.

Abuza expected the Biden administration to continue the current tempo of FONOPs (freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.

After four years of the Trump administration raising doubts about American reliability and commitment to treaty allies and partners, the Biden administration should be expected to have a firm stance on Chinese "aggression" in the region, he said.

He also hoped Biden would rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would be an important signal to the region, but is not sure the president could muster the requisite votes in the Senate.

At the same time China will want to gauge how Hanoi responds and its interaction with the Biden administration, many of whose officials served in the Obama administration and played an important role in developing U.S.-Vietnam ties, he said.

Castro said Vietnam would continue to play a "sophisticated balancing game," managing the U.S. and China. He doubted there would be strong consensus among ASEAN members on the South China Sea issue in 2021 since Brunei, the bloc’s chair, is economically dependent on China.

In that scenario, he said, Vietnam has to keep the momentum of maintaining ASEAN's consensus on the South China Sea issue in 2020.

go to top