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Vietnam Gives Noncommittal Response to US Patrol in S. China Sea


USS Lassen (DDG 82) operates in international waters near the Chinese People's Liberation Army (Navy) Jianghu V-class frigate Dongguan (560) while on patrol in U.S. 7th Fleet at South China Sea, Sep 29, 2015.

Two days after the United States sailed a warship within the 12-nautical-mile zone of man-made islands in the hotly disputed waters of the South China Sea, Vietnam has given a noncommittal response to the incident.

While most nations in the region responded quickly to the event, Vietnam stayed silent until Thursday, when a foreign ministry spokesman in Hanoi was asked a question about the incident.

Without directly criticizing China or the U.S., spokesman Le Hai Binh told reporters that Vietnam respects the freedom of navigation and overflight in the East Sea consistent with relevant provisions of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea as well as its national laws.

However, others in Vietnam have called for their government to be supportive of the U.S. action.

Prominent social and political activist Pham Minh Hoang told VOA's Vietnamese service that Hanoi needs to find ways to reduce China's influence over the country.

"We need to find ways to put the Vietnamese government on high alert amid China’s expansion and influence. It’s time Hanoi needs to seek for allies like the U.S. to cope with China," he said. "It’s disappointing that they’re not taking the golden opportunity when the U.S. is challenging China’s sovereignty claims in the South China Sea to take a stronger stance against China to exit China’s orbit."

But historian Nguyen Nha said the time is not yet right for such a move.

"Vietnam can’t get away from China’s hands until it actually becomes a TPP member which helps open a new gate for Hanoi to develop economically and politically without China. This is really a big issue," he said. "Of course we want the Vietnamese government to take a tough stance against China, but Vietnam’s current situation is extremely difficult."

Vietnam, which is one of several countries that has competing maritime claims with China, has tried to maintain a delicate balance between complaining and trying to work with Beijing.

Last year, Beijing was sharply criticized by Vietnam when it placed an oil rig in disputed waters, leading to several small maritime confrontations and deadly rioting in mainland Vietnam.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is scheduled in Hanoi next week for a visit aimed at improving relations.

But last week, more than 100 Vietnamese activists wrote an open letter to government authorities urging them to rescind the invitation to Xi.

Social activist La Viet Dung, one of the signatories, said China’s aggressiveness with regard to South China Sea reclamation projects led him to sign the letter.

Japan and the Philippines, which each have their own maritime territorial disputes with China, have both welcomed the U.S. decision to enter the area around the Chinese man made islands.

Beijing has called it a "deliberate provocation", but Washington has said its "freedom of navigation" exercise was completely legal and routine, and was not meant to question China's territorial claims.

This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Vietnamese service.