Vietnam risks Beijing’s ire as it uses US freedom of navigation exercise to stake its claim in South China Sea


As China and the United States continue to wrestle over trade disputes and geopolitics, Vietnam is performing a balancing act in the stormy South China Sea as it seeks to maintain its strong ties with Washington while not upsetting Beijing, experts said.

Earlier this week, Hanoi used the latest row over a US freedom of navigation operation in the disputed waterway to not only show its support for its Western ally but also reaffirm its territorial claims there.

“Vietnam has sufficient legal grounds and historical evidence testifying to its sovereignty over the Hoàng Sa [Paracel] and Truong Sa [Spratly] archipelagoes in conformity with international law,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang said on Wednesday.

Derek Grossman, a senior defence analyst at Rand Corporation, said that while the statement was fairly typical of the way Vietnam tended to align itself with Washington on issues like freedom of navigation, its timing was surprising given the current high levels of tension between the US and China.

“The growing closeness of US-Vietnam defence ties is remarkable as Hanoi typically likes to remain below the radar to avoid unnecessarily antagonising Beijing,” he said.

US warship sails near disputed Paracels in South China Sea
Last Monday, Beijing slammed Washington after the USS McCampbell, a guided missile destroyer, sailed near the disputed Paracel Islands, which are claimed not only by Vietnam, but also mainland China and Taiwan.

Foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a regular briefing that Beijing had issued “stern representations” to Washington as a result of the US operation, which, he said, violated China’s law.

US Pacific Fleet spokeswoman Rachel McMarr said in a statement that the freedom of navigation operation, which saw the McCampbell sail within 12 nautical miles of the Paracel chain, was intended to “challenge excessive maritime claims”.