Tensions flare between Vietnam and PRC in the South China Sea’s Vanguard Bank

Tensions flare between Vietnam and PRC in the South China Sea’s Vanguard Bank

Tensions are once again on the rise between Vietnam and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the contested waters of the South China Sea.

Vietnam has accused PRC vessels of violating sovereignty rights and jurisdiction by sailing in and exploring the waters surrounding the Vanguard Bank, the westernmost reef in the Spratlys.

“Vietnam has on many occasions voiced its concerns over the recent complicated developments in the South China Sea, including serious incidents that infringed upon Vietnam’s sovereignty,” Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh said during the U.N. General Assembly in late September 2019, according to the Daily Express newspaper. “Relevant states should exercise restraint and refrain from conducting unilateral acts, which might complicate or escalate tension at sea and settle disputes by peaceful means.”

While Minh did not specifically call out the PRC, experts say his comments were a direct message to Chinese officials.

The PRC has developed an offshore exploration platform in the Vanguard Bank along sea lanes claimed by Vietnam under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS). The platform is designed to drill for oil deposits as deep as 9,000 meters, Voice of America News reported.

Adding to the mounting tensions, Chinese geological survey ship Haiyang Dizhi-8, along with escort ships, entered Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone on July 3, 2019, and more than 20 other Chinese ships deployed there about a week later, The Economic Timesnewspaper reported. (Pictured: A Chinese oil rig sits off the coast of Vietnam in disputed waterways of the South China Sea.)

Meanwhile, Vietnam already operates an undersea energy exploration platform near the Vanguard Bank. It uses a Japanese-supplied research platform for joint exploration with Russia. Some experts say it’s Vietnam’s willingness to explore the resource-rich area with nations other than China — particularly foreign nations — that has contributed to the PRC’s aggressive posture in the Vanguard Bank.

“For the last two years in a row, China has put enormous pressure on Vietnam to prevent hydrocarbon drilling in the areas Vietnam considered its continental shelves under UNCLOS, but China regarded as disputed regions,” wrote Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst for the Rand Corp., noting that in 2018, the PRC forced Vietnam to cancel a U.S. $200 million contact with a Spanish energy company to explore the seabed off the southern coast of Vietnam.

“Furthermore, presumed Chinese fishing militia ships have routinely rammed Vietnamese fishing vessels even as Hanoi has mostly tried to keep such activities out of the headlines to maintain calm in bilateral ties,” Grossman continued.

He predicts the PRC will continue to look for chances to test its growing capabilities such as oil drilling, and the Vanguard Bank has presented its latest opportunity.

PRC’s efforts to intimidate and coerce nations such as Vietnam to stand down in the South China Sea lead countries including the United States to call attention to Chinese aggressiveness and bullying tactics.

“China’s recent escalation efforts to intimidate others out of developing resources in the South China Sea is disturbing,” then-U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton tweeted in late August 2019. “The United States stands firmly with those who oppose coercive behavior and bullying tactics which threaten regional peace and security.”

Alan Chong, associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, expects Vietnam will continue to push back because the PRC shows no signs of peacefully resolving this dispute or no longer encroaching into Vietnamese territory.

“They will have some kind of reaction for sure, because the South China Sea is by no means cool in terms of temperature,” Chong said of Vietnam, according to Voice of America News. “It can flare up at any moment.”