The South China Sea issue will remain a high priority for the Biden Administration and there is low likelihood of any letup by the US military. Despite Chinese assertiveness, Vietnam is unlikely to gravitate towards the US to counter China, writes Dr Vijay Sakhuja.      

A number of daunting political-diplomatic-economic-strategic-human rights related challenges are confronting the US foreign policy which President Biden’s Administration must address. Among these, perhaps the most formidable is concerning China and includes trade and technology issues, intimidation of Taiwan, developments in Hong Kong, concentration camps in Xinjiang, China-India border crisis, COVID-19 conspiracy theories, etc.

There is also the volatile issue between the US and China over the South China Sea that had remained dormant till President Donald Trump came to power. During the past four years, South China Sea witnessed high decibel exchanges between Washington and Beijing as also naval manoeuvres (occasionally joined by US allies and partners), show of force through drills and exercises involving aircraft carriers, Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOP) and standoffs. Amid all these, the firing of DF-21D missile — also referred to as “aircraft carrier killer” (from Zhejiang province) — and DF-26B (from the province of Qinghai) into the South China Sea were a signal of Chinese intentions to respond to the entry of US’ forces into the South China Sea.

President Joe Biden has stated that “we need not have a conflict but there is going to be extreme competition…I’m not going to do it the way Trump did. We are going to focus on the international rules of the road,” and the Biden Administration has now announced setting up a Defense Department task force to assess the US military’s China strategy.

Be that as it may, in February 2021, under the Biden Administration, the US Navy for the first time sailed its destroyer through the Taiwan Strait clearly signalling that there is no slackening in US’ posturing in the South China Sea. A familiar US Navy statement noted that “the United States military will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows,” inviting the usual  Chinese response that they “will continue to stay on high alert and ready to respond to all threats and provocations … We hope the US side will play a constructive role for regional peace and stability, rather than the opposite.”

It is fair to assume that the South China Sea will continue to be the geography in which the US’ military strategy would be tested. It will continue to counter China’s expansive claims to offshore resources in most of the South China Sea, respond to the militarisation of the reclaimed features in the South China Sea and raise concerns over the intimidation of other claimants such as the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Vietnam.

Besides intimidation at sea, China has commenced military buildup on land opposite its border with Vietnam. According to media reports, a satellite image of early 2021 shows what looks like a missile base built in 2019 (comprising radars and at least six launchers along a military runway) in China’s Ningming County, about 20 kilometres away from the Vietnamese border. The Vietnamese Foreign Affairs Ministry responded by noting that they “will verify the information,” Vietnam has pursued a balanced approach towards China, and the Communist Party on either side has strong connections and maintains good communications.

Notwithstanding their bonhomie, Vietnam is quite clear on the issue of the South China Sea. It has been noted that Vietnam “welcomes the position of any country regarding the East Sea (South China Sea) which is in line with international law, the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)” and Hanoi has exhorted that “all peoples and the international community have the common advantage of promoting and maintaining peace, stability and development in the South China Sea.”

Vietnam’s 2019 White Paper, without calling out China, notes that it has been on the frontline of Chinese “unilateral and power-based coercion, violation of international law, militarization, change in the status-quo and infringement over its sovereignty, sovereignty rights, and jurisdiction.” This is in line with the United States Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific which notes that China is “increasingly pressuring Indo-Pacific nations to subordinate their freedom and sovereignty to a “common destiny” envisioned by the Chinese Communist Party.”  

Vietnam may not have fully internalised and pursued the US’ vision of the Indo-Pacific and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD), but it cherishes its longstanding belief in Four Nos, i.e., no military alliances, no siding with one country against another, no foreign military bases and no using force or threatening to use force in international relations.

However, Vietnam may have to contend with the legacy of President Trump with regard to trade issues, particularly anti-dumping tariffs. The US labelled Vietnam as ‘currency manipulator’ and accused it of “unfair acts, policies, and practices”.  Given Biden plans to ‘undo’ what Trump had ‘done’, it is fair to assume that the Biden Administration could review the bilateral trade issues and begin with a clean slate.

Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research. 

Dr Vijay Sakhuja
Dr Vijay Sakhuja
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Honorary Distinguished Fellow with CPPR and associated with our Centre for Strategic Studies. Dr. Sakhuja, a former Indian Navy officer, is also former Director, National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. He earned his MPhil and PhD from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He specializes in issues of national security and public policy, particularly in the context of ocean affairs, geopolitics, Climate Change, Arctic, Blue Economy and 4th Industrial Revolution Technologies.

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