What’s Behind China and Vietnam’s Latest Standoff in the South China Sea?


Since early July, Chinese and Vietnamese vessels have been engaged in a tense standoff over natural gas resources in waters off the coast of southern Vietnam. The ongoing confrontation is just one incident in a pattern of increasingly assertive Chinese behavior in the South China Sea, and while no shots have been fired so far, it could provoke anti-Chinese protests in Vietnam.

The South China Morning Post reported on July 12 that six “heavily armed” coast guard vessels—two Chinese and four Vietnamese—had been shadowing each other and conducting patrols in close proximity around Vanguard Bank, a reef that sits within what Hanoi claims as its exclusive economic zone. Vietnam has dozens of oil rigs operating in the area, which is known for its rich oil and gas reserves. China claims the Vanguard Bank basin falls within its “nine-dash line”—a line used to demarcate its claims to about 90 percent of the South China Sea.

According to the Washington-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, or AMTI, a Chinese geological survey vessel has been traversing the area in a crisscross pattern, an indication that it is conducting an oil and gas survey. Vietnam has called on the Chinese exploration ship and its coast guard escorts to leave the area, which it says “lies entirely within Vietnamese waters.” One gas field in the area feeds the Nam Con Son pipeline, which provides up to 10 percent of Vietnam’s total energy needs.

The AMTI notes that the situation is “fluid and dangerous” and there is “clear risk that an accidental collision could lead to escalation.” It adds that one Chinese coast guard ship appears to be harassing nearby countries’ rigs and vessels, revealing a double standard in which Beijing appears to be preventing oil and gas exploration by its neighbors anywhere within the “nine-dash line,” despite its own exploration of natural gas resources in the contested waters.

Relations between China and Vietnam are steeped in centuries of distrust rooted in past Chinese colonization of parts of northern Vietnam. More recently, the two countries fought a bloody border war in the 1970s. In 2014, a boat-ramming incident involving Chinese and Vietnamese vessels in the South China Sea sparked a wave of deadly anti-China protests in Vietnam.

The Diplomat’s Prashanth Parameswaran wrote that the standoff “fits into a familiar pattern where China has been obstructing efforts by other claimant states in the South China Sea to carry out energy exploration activities.” China has engaged in similar disputes with Malaysia and the Philippines.

Beijing is vehemently opposed to intervention in the South China Sea from countries outside the region, such as the United States, and has tried to shape a narrative of peace and stability in the South China Sea to boost its position. China and the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, have attempted to craft a South China Sea code of conduct for decades. But the ongoing confrontation with Vietnam underscores how China’s assertive behavior toward its neighbors in Southeast Asia repeatedly damages its credibility, while increasing the odds of violence breaking out.

Why the U.S. should defend Hong Kong: After a day of mostly peaceful anti-government demonstrations in Hong Kong on Sunday, a white-clad mob armed with metal rods and wooden poles attacked protesters, journalists and a pro-democracy lawmaker at a train station, causing dozens of injuries. Amid the ongoing unrest, Kurt W. Tong, who recently left his post as U.S. consul general for Hong Kong and Macau, argued in an op-ed for Bloomberg that the U.S. should defend Hong Kong:

“U.S. leaders should always remember that the city isn’t a card to be played against Beijing—neither a means of highlighting flaws in the mainland’s governance when it suits us, nor a token to be exchanged for concessions in trade talks. Rather, Hong Kong is a vision of what we should want China, and indeed much of the rest of Asia, to look like. We should seek ways to bolster its strengths.”

A Chinese military outpost in Cambodia: China signed a secret agreement this past spring allowing its armed forces to use a Cambodian navy base, The Wall Street Journal reported Monday. Both Cambodia and China denied the report, but U.S. officials have seen an early draft of the deal, which would grant China exclusive rights to part of Cambodia’s Ream naval base on the Gulf of Thailand:

“China opened its first military outpost abroad, in the east African nation of Djibouti, in 2017, to facilitate operations around the Indian Ocean and Africa. Since 2014, China has also built seven heavily fortified artificial islands—three with airstrips—in the South China Sea. A Cambodian outpost would further cement China’s grip on a country whose authoritarian government is backed by Chinese loans, investment and diplomatic clout, as Beijing increasingly challenges Washington for economic and military influence across the developing world.”

In the News This Week

Domestic politics: Li Peng, the former Chinese premier who was widely condemned for his role in overseeing the Tiananmen Square massacre, died Monday at the age of 90 (New York Times). … Chinese state media aired images from the aftermath of protests Sunday in Hong Kong, a change of course that appears aimed at fanning public anger against the anti-government demonstrations (Wall Street Journal).

U.S.-China relations: American trade negotiators are likely to travel to China next week for the first face-to-face trade talks since President Donald Trump and President Xi Jingping agreed to a truce at the G-20 summit last month (South China Morning Post). … China and the U.S. are in disagreement over which negotiating text to base their restarted trade talks on (South China Morning Post). … For the first time, the Trump administration is imposing economic sanctions on a Chinese company for violating American sanctions on Iran (New York Times). … A Chinese businessman and vocal critic of the Communist Party, who has been living in exile in New York for four years, was accused of spying for Beijing (Wall Street Journal). … Trump met with several Chinese Uighur Muslims at the White House last Wednesday (Reuters). … On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called China’s repressive treatment of Uighurs the “stain of the century” (Reuters).

Military: China released a new military white paper Wednesday that accuses the U.S. and its allies of undermining global stability (Washington Post). … China and Russia conducted a joint air patrol Tuesday over the Sea of Japan, triggering warning shots from South Korean warplanes (Reuters). … The chief spokesman for China’s Ministry of National Defense hinted that the military could intervene to quash protests in Hong Kong (New York Times).

Foreign policy: Huawei secretly helped the North Korean government build its commercial wireless network, according to internal documents obtained by The Washington Post. … Beijing plans to embed inspectors from the Communist Party’s top graft watchdog in countries participating in its Belt and Road Initiative (Financial Times). … Australian writer Yang Hengjun, detained in China since January, was formally arrested Wednesday for “endangering national security” (Wall Street Journal). … Taiwan said Friday it could give refuge to Hong Kong protesters fleeing the semiautonomous Chinese territory (Financial Times).