Three and a half months have passed since China’s geological survey vessel Haiyang Dizhi 8 and its escorts entered Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) without permission to commence a seismic survey. The Haiyang Dizhi 8 and its escorts have now extended their operations further north along Vietnam’s central coast.
Vietnam continues to respond to China’s intrusive actions in a very low-key and restrained manner.
Initially, Vietnam remained quiet for nearly two weeks after the Haiyang Dizhi 8 intruded into its EEZ. On 17 July, Le Thi Thu Hang, spokesperson for Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, significantly called on “related countries and the international community to work together to contribute to the protection and maintenance of [order, peace and security in the South China Sea].”
The response of the international community to Vietnam’s call for support varied.
In July, Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs drew up a six-page background brief on the standoff at Vanguard Bank. This brief reported that “Viet Nam sent diplomatic notes and made dozens of contacts” with the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi and China’s Foreign Ministry and “other relevant Chinese authorities” in Beijing, including “security, defense services and Central Party Commission for External Relations.”
As of mid-October, the Vietnamese media reported that forty communications have been sent to Chinese authorities.
Vietnam’s background brief instructed its diplomatic missions to raise the Vanguard Bank standoff with their counterparts in the United States, Japan, India, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, France, Germany, United Kingdom and the European Union Mission in New York.
The United States was the first country to comment on the standoff at Vanguard Bank.
The Department of State issued two strongly worded press statements. On July 20, the State Department bluntly charged China with “repeated and provocative actions” directed at oil and gas exploration and production that undermined energy markets in the region. It demanded that “China should cease its bullying behavior and refrain from engaging in this type of provocative and destabilizing activity.”
The State Department’ issued its second statement on 22 August. It was quite specific in calling out China by name: “China’s redeployment of a government-owned survey vessel, together with armed escorts, into waters offshore Vietnam near Vanguard Bank on August 13, is an escalation by Beijing in its efforts to intimidate other claimants out of developing resources in the South China Sea (SCS).”
The statement also charged China with undermining “regional peace and security” by blocking Southeast Asian states from accessing an estimated $2.5 trillion in unexploited hydrocarbon resources. Finally, the statement concluded noting “the United States is committed to… ensuring uninterrupted regional oil and gas production for the global market.”
U.S. concerns about China’s bullying and intimidation of Vietnam were shared by its allies, Japan and Australia. However, they were more circumspect in their rhetoric and preferred not to single out China by name.
For example, the joint ministerial statement issued after the United States, Australia and Japan held their annual Trilateral Security Dialogue in Bangkok on 2 August devoted three of its sixteen paragraphs to the South China Sea without singling out China by name.
In Point 10, the ministers expressed “serious concerns about… the deployment of advanced weapons systems on disputed features… voiced strong opposition to coercive unilateral actions that could alter the status quo and increase tensions… [and] expressed concern about credible reports of disruptive activities in relation to long-standing oil and gas projects in the SCS.”
In Point 11 the ministers called for the “demilitarization of disputed features.” In Point 12, the ministers called for the ASEAN-China Code of Conduct “not to prejudice the interests of third parties or the rights of all states under international law…”
Immediately after the Trilateral Security Dialogue, the Australian and U.S. foreign and defense ministers met in Sydney on August 4 for the annual AUSMIN consultations. The joint statement issued afterwards closely paralleled that issued by the Trilateral Security Dialogue.
Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison made an official visit to Vietnam from August 22-24 at the invitation of Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, and the joint statement issued after their talks repeated standard ASEAN formulations on the South China Sea.
Significantly, however, it broke new ground from past bilateral statements by expressing “concern about disruptive activities in relation to long-standing oil and gas projects in the South China Sea… the importance of UNCLOS dispute settlement mechanisms and called upon the parties to respect and implement the decisions rendered by these mechanisms… [and] for any Code of Conduct between ASEAN and China to be fully consistent with international law, in particular UNCLOS, without prejudice to the interests of third parties or the rights of states under international law, and support existing inclusive regional architecture.”
On August 28, the spokesperson for the European Union’s Foreign Affairs and Security Policy issued a brief four paragraph statement on developments in the South China Sea. The statement noted that recent unilateral actions in the South China Sea represent “a serious threat to the peaceful economic development of the region.”
The statement urged “all parties… to exercise self-restraint… and refrain from militarizing the region and resolve disputes through peaceful means.”
The EU spokesperson suggested that the “parties could also seek third party assistance in the form of mediation or arbitration to facilitate the settlement of their respective claims, if deemed useful.”
Finally, the EU offered its full support for “regional ASEAN-led processes… [and] a swift conclusion, in a transparent manner, of the talks on an effective, substantive and legally binding 'Code of Conduct'.”
Vietnam’s call for support from the international community to assist in resolving the current standoff at Vanguard Bank received strong support from the United States. Japan, Australia and the European Union expressed serious concerns about recent developments without naming China.
When taken as a whole the international community has identified three new themes: concern about threats to oil and gas production, the need to comply with the Award of the Arbitral Tribunal and the interests of third parties in the outcome of ASEAN-China negotiations on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.
Carl Thayer is emeritus professor at The University of New South Wales, Canberra.