Vanguard Stand-off: Usual or Unusual?

Last month, Chinese survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 entered waters northeast of Vanguard Bank in the Spratly Islands to conduct seismic survey. It was escorted by a Chinese coast guard vessel and Vietnamese coast guard confronted it resulting in a stand-off between them. Apparently, the purpose of Chinese survey ship was to obstruct Vietnam’s survey activity where a Japanese offshore rig, Hakuryu 5 was drilling for Russia’s Rosneft Vietnam in block 6.1 since May this year. The area is also close to where national oil company PetroVietnam and Mubadala Development of the United Arab Emirates’ are jointly exploring Block 136-03. Last year in July and earlier this year in March, Vietnam and Spanish Repsol had to halt drilling near Vanguard Bank due to Chinese pressures.

The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang has cautioned Vietnam to “respect China’s sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the relevant waters,” and the Vietnamese foreign ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang responded by noting that the Chinese survey ship and its escort had “conducted activities in the southern area of the East Sea that violated Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and Continental Shelf .” It is important to note that Vanguard Bank is the western most reef of the Spratly Island and is located within 200 nautical miles of Vietnam’s EEZ off Hai islet (Phu Quy group). Similarly, Block 6.1 is in Vietnamese EEZ off provinces of Tra Vinh or Phan Thiet.

The Vanguard incident is being seen as yet another attempt by China to extend control over all features in the South China Sea, notwithstanding the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling of 12 July 2016. It continues reclamation activities on many reefs and features in the South China Sea. Early this month, Philippines government handed a diplomatic protest to China after it deployed more than a hundred fishing vessels swarming around Philippine controlled Thi-Tu feature in Spratly Islands. China has also been accused of obstructing oil and gas exploration by Malaysia in its own EEZ. In May, Chinese coastguard vessel Haijing 35111 had patrolled around Luconia Breakers, a reef cluster at the southern end of the Spratly Islands where Sarawak Shell of Malaysia was licensed an oil and gas block.

The current stand-off between the coast guards of Vietnam and China also reflects that China is venting out its anger due to its inability to control unrest in Hong Kong and developments in Taiwan. At the domestic level, President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption strategy is facing challenges and on the external front, the trade war with the US has hit Chinese economy. Under the circumstances, confronting smaller nations in South China Sea is the best strategy for Beijing to uphold its power status.

The Vanguard stand-off should also be seen as a test for ASEAN unity and the effectiveness of China’s strategy of ‘divide and rule’. Chinese survey ship started its activity at the reef in late July and tat around the time when the 52 nd ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM52) was being held in Thailand. During the Meeting, Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh called for ASEAN unity and denounced illegal activities by Chinese oil survey vessel in Vietnamese waters. Vietnamese Foreign Minister also conveyed his country’s concerns to his Chinese counterpart over the incident. However, China was successful when ASEAN foreign ministers failed to arrive at a common view on the issue, apparently due to opposition from Cambodia and Lao PDR.

The Vanguard Bank incident should also be understood in the context of US’ commitments to the region as also towards the claimant states in the South China Sea. China wants to see how the U.S. exhibits its commitments in the region, especially, when China directly challenged a Japanese exploration company. The test may also present Russia with a dilemma - support China or Vietnam; the latter being a strategic partner and a major client for Russian military hardware.

If the current trends in Chinese assertive behaviour continue, it will be difficult for ASEAN to conclude a Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea in 2021 because there are only two years for negotiation provided the first reading of the Single Draft COC Negotiating Text is completed by the end of this year as was expressed in the joint statement of AMM52. It is for sure that China does not want to conclude a binding COC.

In this context, upholding the PCA ruling on the Philippines-China case will ensure stability and security in the region. In addition, the freedom of navigation operations conducted by U.S, Japan, India, Australia, the U.K. and France in the region in recent years show that they have seen the threats from Chinese aggressive and assertive activities in South China Sea for years.

As of now, the Chinese ship is reported to have left Vietnam’s EEZ but Chinese coast guard vessels are still operating. It is not clear if the survey vessel would return to Vietnam’s EEZ and Vanguard reef in particular, due to the fact that China has often sent ships, including survey vessels and armed coast guard vessels to prevent Vietnam’s work in the latter’s EEZ.

Dr. Vo Xuan Vinh is Deputy Director General, Institute for Southeast Asian Studies, Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences.

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