Vietnam’s foreign minister warns of escalation in the South China Sea in thinly veiled warning to China



Unilateral actions risk escalating tensions in the South China Sea, Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh said at the United Nations General Assembly, comments aimed at China that avoided mentioning China directly.

“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,” Pham said Saturday during the General Debate in New York.

“Relevant states should exercise restraint and refrain from conducting unilateral acts, which might complicate or escalate tensions at sea, and settle disputes by peaceful means,” Pham said.

Vietnam, which shares a long border with its fellow Communist country, stands virtually alone in the region as it pushes back against Beijing amid territorial disputes in the South China Sea, a region containing unexploited hydrocarbons that the US says could be worth US$2.5 trillion.

China is increasing pressure on Vietnam by repeatedly sending coastguard ships and a survey vessel to an energy block operated by Russia’s Rosneft Oil PJSC near its shores. In 2018, state-owned Vietnam Oil & Gas Group ordered Spain’s Repsol SA to halt work on a project off Vietnam’s southern coast, costing the company and its partners as much as US$200 million.

Vietnam has pushed back against the actions of China, whose so-called “nine-dash line” encompasses some 80 per cent of the South China Sea, more than any other Southeast Asian country. China is nearing a deal with the Philippines for joint energy exploration in a contested area of the sea and just set up one-on-one talks with Malaysia to settle disputes in the waters.

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The US has accused China of intimidating other claimants from developing resources in the South China Sea, and is conducting regular freedom-of-navigation operations near land features claimed by China in the region.

Chinese authorities in turn have said the US is trying to drive a wedge between it and other countries, and said other non-regional nations are “hyping up the tensions.”

“The South China Sea has important implications for countries inside and outside the region in terms of economy, security, safety, freedom of aviation and navigation,” Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang said in a statement on September 1. “Vietnam welcomes and is willing to join other nations and the international community” to maintain peace, stability and security in the region, she said.