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Thayer Consultancy Background Briefing:

ABN # 65 648 097 123


South China Sea: A New Phase
of Chinese Pressure on Vietnam?
Carlyle A. Thayer
August 5, 2019

We are writing a report about the latest developments in the South China Sea but
especially on the way Vietnamese media changed the way they are reporting about it.
Here are our questions:
Q1. Is China starting a new "phase of pressure" in the South China Sea with the missile
tests, Vanguard Bank, Thitu Island etc.? Over the last couple of weeks one could get
the impression that China is pushing harder. If this observation is correct: Why now?
ANSWER: China is pursuing a decade-long a policy of harassment of oil exploration by
littoral states, especially with foreign partners, in maritime areas falling within its nine-
dash line. China has acted more opportunistically since the Arbitral Tribunal Award
Award in 2016. China has cowed ASEAN members into dropping all references to the
Arbitral Tribunal Award that went decisively against it. ASEAN and its members now
only refer to “legal and diplomatic processes.”
China has been able to pursue a more assertive stance because of the policy
undertaken by President Duterte of putting the Arbitral Tribunal Award aside. China
has permitted Filipino fishermen to return to the waters outside Scarborough Shoal.
But Chinese pressure has prevented the Duterte Administration from developing
hydrocarbon resources in Recto (Reed) Bank.
China precipitated a crisis with Vietnam when it deployed the mega-oil drilling rig Hai
Yang Shi You in Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in 2014. In July 2017, China
protested – and reportedly threatened force – Vietnam’s oil exploration at a block
near Vanguard Bank. Vietnam ceased all activity. In March 2018, China pressured
Vietnam to stop oil exploration in the Red Emperor block near Vanguard Bank and
Vietnam responded by suspending activity.
Vietnam’s acquiescence may have emboldened China to harass oil exploration by
Russia’s Rosneft Vietnam in block 06/1 in the Nam Con Son basis, near Vanguard Bank.
At the same time China deployed the geological ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 to conduct
seismic surveys inside Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). In 2012, the China
National Offshore Oil Company promulgated offshore oil blocks in the area where
China’s nine-dash line overlapped with Vietnam’s EEZ.
China’s missile tests and other military exercises are in response to a step up in U.S.
military activities in the South China Sea and East China Sea and by the U.S. decision
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to sell arms to Taiwan. U.S. military activities include more frequent and provocative
freedom of navigation operational patrols; overflights by B-52 and stealth bombers
from Guam, Diego Garcia and Nebraska as part of the Pentagon’s continuous bomber
presence patrols; and an increase in U.S. Navy presence patrols by warships.
Q2. Vietnam's media have only started reporting on Vanguard Bank and naming China
ion the past two weeks. Why is that?
ANSWER: Vietnam’s backdown to China at Vanguard Bank in July 2017 and March
2018 is an extremely sensitive domestic issue. There has been a virtual news blackout
imposed by the government since then. Recall the massive anti-China protests last
year in response to the draft Law on Special Administrative and Economic Zones
following the rumour that Chinese businessmen would be given 99-years leases in
areas sensitive to national security.
A backgrounder drawn up by Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs revealed that Hanoi
made dozens of protests to China through four channels – diplomatic, security,
defence and Central Party Commission for External Relations. These protests were
lodged at the Chinese Embassy in Vietnam Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing, “and
other relevant Chinese authorities.”
Vietnam probably held back from publicizing the standoff at Vanguard Bank for three
reasons. First, Vietnam wanted to see if its diplomatic protests elicited any positive
response from China. Second, Vietnam was in a quandary of how to respond to China’s
violation of its EEZ and harassment of a survey ship in Rosneft Vietnam’s block. Third,
Vietnam’s leaders may have been concerned about stoking anti-China protests
domestically.
Vietnam’s hand was forced by Vietnamese social media, a report in the South China
Morning Post, and by graphic imagery of the movements of Chinese ships and vessels
in the Vanguard Bank posted by a professor at the U.S. Naval War College.
Q3. Do you know anything about VNA (Vietnam News Agency) trying to contact
international media to put the topic on the agenda? If correct, is it a sign of despair or
that direct talks with China didn't work out?
ANSWER: A spokesperson for Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs called for the
international community to support Vietnam. Vietnamese government officials have
expressed their disappointment at the relative silence by the international community
in the period leading up to the annual ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Bangkok.
I was informed by a Vietnamese journalist that permission had been given on the night
of 19 July to the Vietnamese media to report on Vanguard Bank but only those aspects
that focused on China’s violation of international law.
Vietnamese officials were appreciative of the statement issued by the U.S. State
Department that called out Chinese bullying.
On 1 August I received a copy of a backgrounder prepared by the Ministry of Foreign
Affairs for Vietnam’s “representative agencies” in the U.S., Japan, India, Australia, New
Zealand, South Korea, France, Germany, UK, Canada and the EU Delegation in New
York. I was personally interviewed by VNA on 2 August.
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Q4. How strong is/can be the impression on China by (a) mobilizing Vietnamese's
resentments and (b) by trying to bring the conflict on the agenda of international
media?
ANSWER: In public China will treat adverse comments on its behavior like water on a
duck’s back. In private China will stew. It does not want to see the South China Sea
issue further internationalized, as it insists on bilateral discussions with the countries
concerned. China prefers compliant states and does not welcome public criticism.
China will be very concerned if its actions provoke a domestic response in Vietnam
similar to one in 2014 during the Hai Yang Shi You 981 crisis. In 2014 retired party,
state and military officials called for Vietnam to exit China’s orbit (thoát Trung) and
move towards the United States.
Preparations are underway for President and General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong to
visit President Donald Trump at The White House later this year. The two sides are
discussing raising their comprehensive partnership to a strategic partnership. The U.S.
has requested permission for annual visits by a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier.
Q5. I know that Vietnamese experts and government officials are discussing (again)
filing a case against China as the Philippines did. What is your take on that? How big
would the headlines be?
ANSWER: Since 2013, Vietnam has kept the legal option on the table. It is a hardy
perennial in Hanoi when there is a policy discussion about what Vietnam can do to
restrain China in the South China Sea. This would be a huge move, given China’s
hostility to the Arbitral Tribunal proceedings instigated by the Philippines. China’s
hostility towards Vietnam would be exacerbated if the U.S. and other like-minded
states, who support a “free and open” Indo-Pacific, gave their support.

Media Identification: The University of New South Wales, Canberra or The University
of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra.
Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “South China Sea: A New Phase of Chinese
Pressure on Vietnam?” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, August 4, 2019. All
background briefs are posted on Scribd.com (search for Thayer). To remove yourself
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Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and
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