Foreign Policy Blogs

Beijing Asserts, Hanoi Beefs Up

Beijing Asserts, Hanoi Beefs Up

An visitor rejoices after catching a large fish during his trip to Truong Sa Islands. Photo: Mai Thanh Hai

Here in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), the local government last week ordered its travel and tourism departments to draw up a feasibility study for tours to the Truong Sa (Spratly) islands, which Vietnam currently occupies.

The first tour is scheduled for June 22 with over 200 Vietnamese reportedly signed up for the 7-10 day tour of two islands and two reefs which Vietnam controls. According to the promotion offer, “Traveling to Truong Sa…means the big trip of your life, reviving national pride and citizens’ awareness of the sacred maritime sovereignty of the country.”

Other islands in the Spratly island chain are either occupied or claimed by several nations, including Brunei, China, Malaysia and the Philippines. China, using a nine-dash line, lays claim to around 90 percent of the South China Sea.

The tour announcement in Vietnam follows last month’s confrontation between the U.S. and China in airspace over the South China Sea, which has sparked concern and triggered increased militarization among the claimant countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The confrontation occurred on May 22 as a U.S. surveillance aircraft, with a CNN crew aboard, flew over Mischief Reef and Fiery Cross Reef — two artificial islands which China is constructing on submerged coral reefs it occupied in the mid-1990s and late 1980s, respectively. The aircraft was warned eight times to leave the airspace, over which Beijing has claimed the right to establish an air defense identification zone (ADIZ). Recently released satellite images reveal an airstrip, port facilities, cement factories and military barracks, and the U.S. has also received information China recently placed two mobile artillery vehicles on one of the islands.

China’s attempt to grasp the airspace follows last month’s grasp of the waters, as China’s municipality of Haikou, on Hainan island, issued its annual ban on all fishing vessels in the northern part of the South China Sea. The ban was first introduced in 1999 and typically lasts three months, ostensibly to protect marine resources. Haikou’s ban includes the waters of the Paracel island chain (known as Xisha in Chinese and Hoàng Sa in Vietnamese), which China grabbed from Vietnam in 1974, and the Scarborough Shoal in the Spratly island chain, taken from the Philippines in 2012. Last week, Vietnamese local media reported a Vietnamese search-and-rescue vessel from Da Nang was reportedly threatened and obstructed by a Chinese vessel while passing through the Paracel Islands en route to rescue a fisherman. (The fisherman was eventually rescued.)

These disputes over freedom of navigation in the air and waters are the latest in a series of spats China is having with the U.S., Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea, which is leading to an increase in defense spending, defense coordination among Asian nations, and an increased military presence in the region.

The largest presence in the region will continue to be from the U.S., whose combat ship, the USS Fort Worth, just completed its patrol in May. Four more warships are expected to be deployed to the region.

The Philippines is also keen to beef up its military alliances to defend its territorial claims in the South China Sea. Last Friday, Philippine President Benigno Aquino announced his government is ready to start talks with the Japanese government on allowing Japanese military aircraft and naval vessels access to Philippines’ bases on a rotational basis for refueling purposes. With refueling capability, the Japanese military would be able to significantly extend their range of operation into the South China Sea.

On Saturday, Taiwan commissioned two 3,000-ton navy patrol vessels capable of docking at a new port being constructed on Taiping Island, the largest of the Spratly islands.

Back in Vietnam, Hanoi is also responding to a heightened activity by China in the waters it calls the East Sea, reportedly courting the foreign defense contractor divisions of such companies as Airbus, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Saab, and the European consortium Eurofighter to buy fighter jets, patrol boats and surveillance drones. Vietnam is believed to be interested in Saab’s Gripen E fourth-generation fighter jet and the Saab 340 or 2000 twin-engine patrol turboprops, and the latest P-8 Poseidon surveillance technology from Boeing placed on a business jet. Hanoi is also interested in Airbus helicopters, the Eurofighter Typhoon fighter jet, the Lockheed/Korea Aerospace F/A-50 light fighter jet, and the Lockheed Sea Hercules, a maritime patrol aircraft similar to its C-130.

Though a state secret, Vietnam’s military budget was believed to be around $3.4 billion in 2013, having doubled in size from a decade ago, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Vietnam’s military personnel are estimated at 480,000.

From Russia, Hanoi has already taken possession of three Russian Kilo-class attack submarines and has three more on order.  Hanoi currently owns more than 100 old Russian MiG-21 fighters, and has on order a dozen Russian Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets.

From the U.S., following U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s visit last week, comes $18 million toward the purchase of U.S. patrol boats. The U.S. began easing its long-term embargo on sales of lethal weapons to Vietnam back in October.

Hanoi may have chosen to talk to defense contractors of many nations, so as not to anger Beijing by focusing on U.S. technology while also diversifying their equipment purchases. Nonetheless, Beijing cannot help but take notice of the rapid buildup in defense capabilities of not only Vietnam, but the Philippines, and the joint military exercises and promises of support among South China Sea claimants. Each Chinese action to assert its sovereignty over the South China Sea has a counter action, and while some of the counter actions have been relatively mild so far (Vietnam’s promotion of tourism on disputed islands), the potential for a more severe military confrontation is growing should these small actions grow in number and significance.



Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Twitter@ForeignDevil666