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Vietnam Seeks Stronger China Ties Despite New Buildup on Disputed Islands

FILE - Chinese Premier Li Keqiang with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (L) attend a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China.
FILE - Chinese Premier Li Keqiang with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (L) attend a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China.

Vietnam is expected to keep chasing stronger relations with China, a political adversary for centuries, despite new signs that Beijing has added military infrastructure on several disputed islands in the South China Sea.

The Southeast Asian country, long accustomed to China’s buildup in the contested Paracel and Spratly islands, is anxious to grow its exports and meanwhile wants stronger trade with the world's number two economy China. And analysts say Vietnamese officials are unsure whether U.S. President Donald Trump would help Vietnam defend itself against China if needed.

Vietnam may have decided long term diplomacy may be the way to go

Officials in Hanoi may figure long-term stable relations with Beijing could lead to negotiations over the Paracels or Spratlys, said Oscar Mussons, international business advisory associate with the Dezan Shira & Associates consultancy in Ho Chi Minh City. China has the world’s third strongest military and Vietnam ranks number 17 on the database.

“At least they know what they’re going to find. They are going to find only one party, and so somehow they are comrades,” Mussons said. “The only way left for Vietnam is perhaps the diplomacy. They cannot match China’s military power.”

China strengthening its hold on the Paracel Islands

A South China Sea project under Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies this month described new evidence that Beijing is adding naval and air facilities in the Paracel Islands.

China and Vietnam also compete for control of the Spratly Islands, which are claimed as well by Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines.

Vietnam’s foreign ministry had published no response on its English-language website to the think tank’s findings as of Monday, consistent with a softer approach to Beijing following senior-level meetings in September and January.

Vietnam will likely continue to protest but not take any action

Experts say leaders in Hanoi are learning to accept in private China’s control over the Paracel Islands, despite 43 years of resistance. But, according to Carl Thayer, emeritus professor of politics at The University of New South Wales in Australia, Vietnam, with strong anti-China sentiment among its 93 million citizens, will stick to its sovereignty claims in public but mute official anger or retaliation as it cements stronger economic cooperation, including at sea.

“I think Vietnam will make a pro forma protest about Chinese activities in the Paracels, because it also claims sovereignty,” he said. “So that’s a bit of a ritual. There’s nothing Vietnam can do about it. It’s adjusting to that.”

China cites historical usage records to claim 95 percent of the South China Sea, which stretches from Taiwan to Singapore. All six claimants covet the sea for its rich fisheries. Some are also prospecting for undersea fossil fuels and prize the sea for its marine shipping lanes.

Vietnamese have had little access to the Paracel Islands, 130 tiny land features off its east coast and southwest of Hong Kong, since the People’s Liberation Army of China took control in 1974 after a naval battle with what was then South Vietnam.

Of China’s 20 holdings in the Paracels, three have harbors that can hold “large numbers of naval and civilian vessels,” the Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative said on its website in a Feb. 8 report. China has used landfill to enlarge some of the once uninhabitable Paracel islets in addition to an estimated 3,200 acres of reclamation in another disputed chain, the Spratly Islands.

Four other Paracel islets controlled by China include smaller harbors and a fifth is being built on another islet that previously lacked major military infrastructure, the think tank initiative said. Five islands support helipads and Duncan Island, China’s second most advanced military base in the archipelago, berths a “full helicopter base,” it said.

Woody Island, the biggest land mass, has an airstrip, hangars and a deployment of surface-to-air missile batteries, the think tank report added.

On Feb. 5 the Vietnamese foreign affairs spokesman described as “illegal” the establishment of a Bank of China branch on Woody Island. But media reports say Vietnamese authorities put down a protest in Hanoi last month by about 100 people on the anniversary of China’s Paracel takeover.

Deadly anti-China riots followed Beijing’s permission in 2014 for an oil firm to place a rig in disputed waters near the Gulf of Tonkin, which is just east of Vietnam and south of China.

China and Vietnam working together

After Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong’s visit to China last month for a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the two sides issued a statement agreeing to settle maritime disputes peacefully and work toward joint development in the gulf.

The countries have lived by a fishery agreement for more than a decade and discussed working together on oil exploration.

In September, China’s premier and the Vietnamese prime minister pledged they would “properly manage maritime differences and further enhance bilateral substantial cooperation.”

China is one of Vietnam’s top trading partners, with $66 billion in imports and exports in 2015, according to Beijing’s state-run China Daily newspaper online.

Officials in Hanoi may value China more as they try to gauge U.S. policy on the South China Sea, analysts say.

President Trump has not indicated whether he will help Vietnam in its dispute with China, as predecessor Barack Obama had.

But Trump is angering China. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has suggested blocking China from islets that it has reclaimed and on Saturday the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson reached the South China Sea. That move poses a “military threat to China,” the China-based Global Times newspaper online said.

A balancing act for Vietnam

Trump’s decision to scrap the 12-country trade Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal makes the U.S. president look shaky to Vietnam as well, Mussons said. Vietnam was one of four East Asian partnership members.

China looks “more reliable” by comparison and if economic ties go well, China eventually may be open to talks with Vietnam on rights to the Paracels, he said.

The Vietnamese government knows that it “must avoid upsetting China” while staying open to defense ties with the United States, said Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei.

“For Vietnam, regional stability is closely tied to national security,” Spangler said. “Vietnam, like other rival claimants, needs to balance the benefits of its economic ties with China and the political risks of not defending its sovereignty claims and thus appearing weak domestically.”