China and Vietnam agree to “cautiously handle maritime issues.”
From March 30 to April 2, Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister as well as a member of the State Council, paid an official four-day visit to Vietnam. Officially, Wang was in Vietnam this time mainly to attend the sixth Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) Economic Cooperation Leaders’ Meeting. But the disputed South China Sea issue apparently dominated the hidden agenda for both countries, particularly at a time when China has been intensifying military drills in South China Sea.
As The Diplomat has been following, on March 23, the U.S. warship USS Mustin carried out a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the South China Sea and passed within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built by China.
As an immediate response, China rapidly increased its military presence in this area. Not only did the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) announce that it had “recently” conducted a combat patrol mission in the South China Sea, the PLA Navy (PLAN) also decided to conduct combat exercises “in the coming days.”
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On March 30 — the day that Wang started his visit to Hanoi — the Maritime Safety Administration in Hainan confirmed on its website that China’s military drills will last for a total week, from April 5 to 11. The notification also specified the exact location of the drills and highlighted “Entering prohibited” in English.
Days earlier, Reuters published satellite images showing at least 40 ships and submarines flanking the aircraft carrier Liaoning off Hainan Island — an unusually large display of the PLAN.
Since the Philippines has backed down on the South China Sea dispute under President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration, Vietnam has become the most vocal opponent of China’s claims in the South China Sea. Located close to Hainan Island geographically, Vietnam undoubtedly has been paying close attention to China’s recent military operations.