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Huong Le Thu is a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
July 2020 marked a significant shift in developments regarding the South China Sea. The Trump administration announced a series of high-level statements that explicitly reject China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea as inconsistent with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The U.S. statements further reaffirm the 2016 tribunal ruling, from The Hague, against China’s claims. The U.S. shift from being officially neutral and not taking the side of claimant states in the South China Sea to rejecting Beijing’s claims as unlawful and excessive are advantageous to the Southeast Asian claimant states. Yet, across Southeast Asian capitals, views on the United States’ new statements are divided. A few have publicly and directly referred to the statements, but many are worried that the United States’ seeming position change is less related to upholding international law and has more to do with Washington trying to escalate tensions with China.
Marking the fourth anniversary of the 2016 tribunal ruling in the South China Sea case between the Philippines and China, on July 13 U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared the “U.S. Position on Maritime Claims in the South China Sea.” The statement issued by Pompeo reiterated support for the 2016 ruling and for the 1982 UNCLOS but stood out from previous U.S. statements by explicitly saying, “[China] has no legal grounds to unilaterally impose its will on the region” and that the “PRC’s maritime claims…have no basis in international law.” (Notably, the United States has never ratified UNCLOS.)
The following day, the Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, David Stillwell, opened the tenth annual South China Sea conference at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), where he doubled-down on the newly forceful U.S. approach to the South China Sea. He named instances in which Beijing reportedly has denied Southeast Asian neighbors’ access to resources in the Southeast Asian states’ claimed exclusive economic zones. A week later, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper spoke to an International Institute for Strategic Studies audience, in lieu of the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, where he reaffirmed the United States’ intention to keep sending naval assets to the South China Sea to counter China’s increasingly assertive behavior.
Australia also has become more assertive in pushing back regarding the South China Sea. Canberra issued a Note Verbale to the United Nations on July 23, the wording of which was very similar to the U.S. State Department’s statement. The timing of Australia’s note attracted attention; it preceded the 2020 Australia-United States Ministerial Consultation—the bilateral 2+2 meetings in Washington that included Pompeo, Esper, Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne and Australian Minister for Defense Linda Reynolds. The note also was publicized soon after Canberra launched a new Strategic Update 2020 and Force Structure Plan, which articulated Australia’s growing concerns about China and Australia’s planned stronger defense posture.
The recent shifts in Washington and Canberra are neither novel nor surprising. They reiterate in a more decisive language the positions that both the United States and Australia have held regarding the 2016 ruling. Given the deteriorating trajectories of both countries’ relations with China, the statements are not sudden either. Nevertheless, they mark an important milestone regarding the South China Sea. They are clearer in their rejection of China’s claims and explicit support for the role international law.
These developments have been welcomed by the Vietnamese government, even though Vietnam’s foreign affairs spokesperson has remained restrained in responding to the U.S. and Australian moves. There are many reasons for Vietnam to be enthusiastic about this shift in U.S. and Australian rhetoric regarding the South China Sea. With other Southeast Asian claimant states like the Philippines and Malaysia limiting their public critiques of China’s actions, Vietnam increasingly felt isolated regionally. Given global attention to COVID-19, and China’s influence over Southeast Asian states, Vietnam’s recent efforts to attract greater international attention to what it perceives as Chinese abuses and coercion in the South China Sea seemed futile to Hanoi, at least until recently. And without any limits on Beijing’s actions, Vietnam has suffered both strategically and economically. Meanwhile, the repercussions of Beijing’s continued economic pressure and the limits to Vietnam’s exploration of oil and gas within its claimed exclusive economic zones have cost the country, according to one estimate, roughly $1 billion.
However, just because Hanoi welcomes tougher U.S. and Australian rhetorical approaches to the South China Sea does not necessarily mean Vietnam will use this moment to launch long-considered litigation against China or even fast-track a U.S.-Vietnam strategic partnership that would build on the existing U.S.-Vietnam comprehensive partnership. Hanoi will refrain from major decisions until the U.S. presidential election is decided, and still worries that Washington is taking this approach to the South China Sea to escalate tensions with Beijing. It hopes, however, that the new U.S. and Australian statements will mean a clear commitment by these two powers to a more forceful approach to the South China Sea.
What follows now becomes a test for Vietnam’s diplomatic and strategic skills. Hanoi needs to embrace this potential shift in external actors’ approach to the South China Sea, but also avoid the pitfalls created by warring giants.