A Vietnamese soldier stands watch overlooking the South China Sea. Photo: Facebook

When US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that America was ending its neutrality over territorial disputes pitting China against Southeast Asian states in the South China Sea, Vietnam was put in the precarious middle of a rising superpower contest.

Heretofore, Pompeo said, Washington will consider China’s claims as “completely unlawful” and back the rival assertions made by Southeast Asian states, including Vietnam’s claim to the oil-rich area surrounding the Vanguard Bank.

“The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire,” Pompeo said. “America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources, consistent with their rights and obligations under international law.”

A week later, it’s still not clear how Vietnam views Washington’s rhetorical shift. The Foreign Affairs Ministry put out a statement on July 15, which didn’t mention Washington’s new position but did note that “Vietnam welcomes countries’ positions on the East Sea issues, which are consistent with international law.”

The statement added that it “hopes that countries will try their best to contribute to the maintenance of peace, stability and cooperation in the East Sea,” the Vietnam-centric name Hanoi uses in referring to the South China Sea.

Vietnamese state-run newspapers have also been mostly mum on the US pronouncement, reporting on the facts but offering little analysis or opinion on the strategic shift.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a news conference at the Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs Home Office in Manila, March 1, 2019. Photo: AFP/Andrew Harnik

Still, the US’ announcement represents a certain rhetorical victory for Hanoi as Washington now essentially agrees that China’s occupation of certain territory is illegal and invalid.

America’s new “red line” could pressure Beijing to rethink its more aggressive actions in the maritime area, which have intensified over the years and in recent months coincident with the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the past, Washington said it didn’t take sides and only sought to uphold international law and free navigation rights, seen in the US Navy’s frequent freedom of navigation operations in the area. China views the operations as a violation of its sovereignty.

This month the USS Ronald Reagan and USS Nimitz and four other warships sailed to the South China Sea for maneuvers, representing the first dual-carrier operations in the area since 2014.

At the same time, Pompeo’s speech ratchets up the potential for a US-China clash, in which case Vietnam-claimed territory could become a superpower proxy theater.

Chen Xiangmiao, an assistant research fellow with the Hainan-based think tank the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, told South China Morning Post that America’s decision “means that the contest between China and the US over the South China Sea is close to a new Cold War.”

Another Chinese scholar said that tensions are now at an “unprecedentedly high level.” Other analysts expect Beijing to boost, not diminish, its military presence in the waters to challenge the US announcement.

Beijing has steadily ratcheted up its assertiveness in the South China Sea. Its surveillance and fishing militia vessels spent much of last year sailing near the Vietnam-claimed Vanguard Bank, the site of a joint Vietnamese-Russian exploration for oil and gas.

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In April, Chinese vessels attacked and sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat, while its surveillance ships have recently returned near the Vanguard Bank. Throughout, Hanoi has at first cried foul and then tried to get China to the negotiation table to calm tensions.

Le Hong Hiep, a fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, wrote last year that Hanoi is now stuck in a position where “diplomacy is [the] first and last option.”

Where negotiation fails, however, a conflict could spark. The last time China and Vietnam fought, a series of border clashes during the 1980s started by Beijing’s retaliation against Hanoi’s move to overthrow China’s puppet Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia.

Then, war-hardened Vietnam was able to repel China’s military advances. Now, however, China’s armed forces are incomparably larger, better-trained and better-equipped than Vietnam’s.

Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, a Washington-based think tank, wrote last year that Vietnam is now probably China’s “preferred warm-up fight” in the South China Sea given the two sides’ military disparity.

If Hanoi tried to rebuff China’s expansionism through force, it would need to do so quickly and in a very small area of the South China Sea, other analysts say. 

“Vietnam’s objective [in a conflict scenario] would be to bring China to a negotiating table and maintain the status quo as far as possible,” says Bill Hayton, a South China Sea expert at Chatham House, a UK-based think tank. 

A Chinese naval soldier overlooks a rival vessel in the South China Sea in a file photo. Photo: Twitter

Grossman agrees, telling Asia Times that Vietnam’s “most reliable option for getting China to back down” is to use its Russia-supplied submarines to hit China’s surface ships.

“By giving Beijing a ‘bloody nose’ through a surprise attack,” he said, “Hanoi would hope to prevent escalation in conflict.”

But Nguyen The Phuong, a research associate at the Centre for International Studies, has noted that for Vietnam “the military option is the last line of defense, to be used only when other components of the defense strategy have failed.”

As such, America’s decision to flip its policy on the South China Sea could give Vietnam a new line of defense.

America’s move conforms to a July 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling at The Hague on a complaint filed by the Philippines against China which judged the latter’s “nine-dash line” claim to nearly 90% of the sea to be invalid.

There is speculation that Vietnam could file a similar motion against China over their disputed territories. Washington would certainly back any such move in the name of upholding international law, namely the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Vietnam experts are largely of the opinion that the best possible scenario for Hanoi is that there is no change to the sea’s status quo, the odds of which have never been in Vietnam’s favor as China has moved to militarize the features it has claimed and built up.

But Pompeo’s announcement could have intended to lay down a red line in dares China to cross, a tacit threat that the US could intervene if China occupies more territory or engages in aggressive tactics against Southeast Asian claimants.

That’s uncertain strategic security, however, considering Washington has a history of laying down “red lines” only to fail to back them up militarily when adversaries cross the set boundaries, seen in former President Barack Obama’s pledges in the Syrian civil war. 

US Navy personnel pull down an American flag during a maritime exercise on the USS John S McCain in the South China Sea near waters claimed by Beijing in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

Alternatively, an increasingly assertive and nationalistic Chinese government could interpret Pompeo’s announcement as America laying down a marker to test Beijing’s resolve, in which case it won’t likely want to be seen as weak or vacillating. 

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian condemned Pompeo’s statement, claiming that the US “intentionally stirs up controversy over maritime sovereignty claims, destroys regional peace and stability and is an irresponsible act.” He said: “The US is the troublemaker and destroyer of regional peace and stability.”

Now that Washington has upped the ante, the question is how will Beijing respond at sea.

There’s still a dispute amongst Chinese academics about whether the US is egging on Vietnam or vice-versa. China’s often jingoistic tabloid Global Times claimed last week that Washington “takes advantage of regional countries’ claims to sow discord between these countries and China.”

Beijing would surely react differently if it thinks Hanoi is acting independently or reckons Washington is pulling Vietnam’s strings. Hanoi, for its part, must weigh whether the US would actually come to Vietnam’s defense in the event of conflict.

Many note the Obama administration failed to intervene on behalf of its mutual defense treaty ally the Philippines after China seized control of the contested Scarborough Shoal, which lies within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in 2012.  

That history matters as Hanoi weighs up the risks of a limited skirmish with China. The US and Vietnam are not security partners and Hanoi has no guarantees of US military support, especially under the unpredictable administration of US President Donald Trump.

Nor is it clear that Vietnam would opt for a US security pledge if it were offered.

US President Donald Trump (L) speaks with his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Phu Trong at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi on February 27, 2019. Photo: AFP via Vietnam News Agency

“Vietnam is an extremely confident nation, having fought and won wars against the French, Americans, and Chinese themselves,” said Grossman. “In a future potential conflict, I think Hanoi would simply hope that Washington provides rhetorical and perhaps some materiel support.”

It was widely speculated that US-Vietnam bilateral relations were set to be upgraded to a “strategic partnership” last year. While not a security pact, upgraded ties would have been a symbolic gesture that also facilitated more US arms sales to Vietnam.

Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong was forced to cancel his trip to Washington last year, most likely because of ill-health after suffering a stroke. The question now is whether he will travel to Washington after the Covid-19 pandemic eases and if so what strategic assurances will be on the table.