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What the high-profile US navy patrol really means for Vietnam and region

By Dien Luong   May 25, 2017 | 11:14 pm PT
What the high-profile US navy patrol really means for Vietnam and region
Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Photo by Reuters
Analysts weigh in on how to interpret the event and whether it indicates the Trump administration’s commitment.

News of an American guided missile destroyer sailing close to a disputed reef in the South China Sea has received widespread coverage in the Vietnamese media, but analysts say it may be hasty to jump to conclusions on Washington’s unwavering commitment to the troubled waters.

On Wednesday, the USS Dewey sailed within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef, one of a chain of man-made islands China has built and fortified to assert what it calls its sovereignty in the South China Sea, known as the East Sea in Vietnam. 

The reef has been occupied and controlled by China since 1995 but is also claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines. The U.N. says nations can establish the breadth of their territorial sea up to a limit of 12 nautical miles.

The media has interpreted the move as the first American challenge to China’s claims to the flashpoint waterways under the Trump administration. It’s the first freedom of navigation operation, or FONOP, in the strategically important and resources-rich waters, where tensions between China and several other Southeast Asian countries have been brewing for years.

The USS Dewey's deployment to Mischief Reef marks the latest attempt to counter what Washington sees as Beijing's efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters, according to a Reuters report.

Beijing has bristled at the move with Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang saying the American warship entered the area “without permission from the Chinese government”.

"The relevant action taken by the U.S. vessel undermines China's sovereignty and security interests, and is very likely to cause unexpected sea and air accidents," he said at a regular press briefing, urging Washington to stop "provocative actions".

The deployment of the American warship came at a time when the Trump administration’s policies in Asia have raised widespread hackles among its allies and partners.

In Vietnam, any action or tough talk made by the U.S. administration often leaves local media on tenterhooks, awaiting any sign Washington will put a stop to Beijing’s designs of seizing huge swaths of contested maritime territories and lay claim to the waters.

Some Vietnamese media reports have said the USS Dewey's deployment is a testament to Washington’s continued commitment to the region, but analysts are not that upbeat.

“I don’t think one FONOP is enough to reduce concerns about Trump’s transactional policy with China,” Yun Sun, a Chinese security policy expert with the Washington-based think tank Stimson Center, told VnExpress International. “It will take much more than one operation to show Washington’s firm commitment,” she said.

On the diplomatic front, no Vietnamese leader has advocated aligning the country with any military power. They have also publicly proclaimed that they will avoid playing one country off against another.

Vietnam remained non-committal in its reaction to the deployment of the American warship. At a press briefing on Thursday, Le Thi Thu Hang, a foreign ministry spokesperson, urged all parties concerned to make constructive contributions in accordance with international law to maintain peace and stability at sea.

After China towed a giant oil rig into Vietnamese waters in May 2014, the U.S. openly criticized China’s claims. Since then, Washington has sought to remain a vocal critic of Beijing’s claims, disparaging the latter’s construction of the man-made islands and build-up of military facilities in the South China Sea, and expressing concern they could be used to restrict free movement.

But to some skeptics, the latest move by the Trump administration could be just “a signal to China to do more to address the North Korean nuclear situation and a reminder to China that the U.S. is willing to taunt China with a military show of force to remind them that China cannot dominate the region,” Dennis C. McCornac, a professor at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore, said.

“These types of operations, however, are not that uncommon and often are just used to get the attention of the other party,” McCornac said. “The Trump administration does not really seem to have a long-term strategy on Asia. Given its turmoil at home it also appears one will not be developed soon.”

The sending of an American warship to the troubled waters at this stage is not necessarily tantamount to its show of commitment in the region, analysts say.

“They must be made regular,” Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, referring to Washington’s freedom of navigation operations.

“It is now imperative for the U.S. to fulfill the promise it made a year and a half ago to do these frequently and without fanfare,” Poling said.

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