The United States and Vietnam warned in September 2023 against the “threat or use of force” in the disputed South China Sea, days after clashes involving Chinese Communist Party (CCP) vessels.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong said competing claims on the strategic waterway must be settled under international norms.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) claims almost the entire sea, through which more than a trillion dollars in trade passes annually, and has ignored an international court ruling that Beijing’s assertion has no legal basis.
“The leaders underscored their unwavering support for the peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law, without the threat or use of force,” President Biden and Trong said in a statement during the U.S. leader’s visit to Vietnam.
They also called for “freedom of navigation and overflight and unimpeded lawful commerce in the South China Sea.”
The statement came a day after the leaders struck a deal to deepen cooperation, widely seen as a way to counter the CCP’s growing assertiveness in the region. The new partnership includes an agreement on semiconductors, with the U.S. committing to help Vietnam develop its capabilities and expand production.
There is also a section on rare earth minerals, which are used in the manufacture of high-tech devices such as smartphones and electric car batteries.
Vietnam has the world’s second-largest deposits of rare earths, and U.S. officials say Hanoi has a key role to play as Washington looks to diversify and strengthen supply chains.
Vietnam, which fought a war with the PRC from 1979-88, is wary of its giant northern neighbor, and is one of a handful of countries with claims on the many islets and outcrops that dot the South China Sea.
In early September 2023, the Philippines accused CCP coast guard and militia boats of harassing two of its Coast Guard vessels as they resupplied Philippine Navy Sailors stationed on Second Thomas Shoal. The CCP deploys hundreds of vessels to patrol the South China Sea and swarm disputed reefs, and Manila says the ships routinely block or shadow Philippine boats in the contested waters.
Tensions between Manila and Beijing flared in August 2023 when a CCP vessel used a water cannon against a Philippine resupply mission to Second Thomas Shoal, preventing one of the Philippine boats from delivering its cargo. A Vietnamese fishing boat crew also reported being attacked with a water cannon by a Chinese coast guard vessel that month, saying one crew member suffered a broken arm while the captain sustained a head injury. Since 2014, at least 98 Vietnamese boats have been destroyed by PRC vessels, according to the fishing association on the island of Ly Son off central Vietnam. The island is home to hundreds of families whose livelihoods depend on fishing in the disputed sea.