In the recent years China has been expanding their prowess over the South China Sea, notably islands claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. China has added significantly to its holdings by reclaiming land from the shallow waters in the South China Sea around the Spratly Islands. News sources in the Philippines and other countries repeatedly show what looks like the makings of military bases, including air strips long enough for just about any plane, extending from Atolls long since taken by China. (forbes.com)
The results of these aggressive expansion movements have been heightened tensions. This has been particularly the case of Vietnam who, over the last three years, has been directly threatened by China with an assortment of concerning actions including the deployment of an oil rig to the South China Sea. The equipment was set up near Vietnam’s coast in waters claimed by Vietnam.(learningenglish.voanews.com)
The situation between Vietnam and China presents danger that reaches onto a greater geo-political scale. Unsure of their circumstances with the U.S. or Russia, whose situation in Southeast Asia has remained desultory, Vietnam has looked to build alliances with more dependable partners.(thediplomat.com)
In the midst of all this turmoil India has since moved in to exploit the situation. India will also help Vietnam modernize its defense forces, including a $100m (£60m) credit line to buy Indian patrol vessels. All this points to the possible provocation of China.(bbc.com)
For the last few years China’s island-building spree has alarmed other countries with interests in the region. China has focused its efforts on construction. So far it has constructed port facilities, military buildings and an airstrip on various islands, with recent imagery showing evidence of two more airstrips under construction. The installations bolster China’s foothold in the Spratly Islands, a disputed scattering of reefs and islands in the South China Sea more than 500 miles from the Chinese mainland. (nytimes.com)
As of this year Chinese fishing fleets based in the tiny port town on Hainan Island are getting everything from military training and subsidies to fuel and ice as China creates an increasingly sophisticated fishing militia to sail into the disputed South China Sea. The government has also provided Global Positioning Satellite equipment for at least 50,000 vessels, enabling them to contact the Chinese Coast Guard in maritime emergencies, including encounters with foreign ships.
The fishing militia raises the risk of conflict with foreign navies in the strategic waterway through which $5 trillion of trade passes each year. It also provides the Chinese with cover to operate more liberally when Indonesia attempted to detain a Chinese fishing vessel for fishing near its Natuna Islands in the South China Sea. A Chinese coast guard vessel quickly intervened to prevent the Indonesian Navy from towing away the fishing boat, setting off a diplomatic row. Beijing does not claim the Natunas but said the boats were in traditional Chinese fishing grounds. (thanhniennews.com)
This extension of military action has been seen as a threat by many nations in the South China Sea. In the last few years this has led to near military show-downs particularly with Vietnam who has been threatened heavily. China deployed an oil rig in 2014 which worsened years-long disputes over control of islands in the South China Sea. The equipment was set up near Vietnam’s coast, in waters claimed by Vietnam. (learningenglish.voanews.com) And the threats have not stopped there.
Vietnam’s situation has become even more contentious as its relations with traditional allies become ever more desultory. Russia is of particular interest for Vietnam. Following the conquest of South Vietnam in 1975, Hanoi sought to retain the equilibrium of its wartime relations with both China and the Soviet Union, but mounting tensions with Beijing, culminating in the loss of Chinese aid in 1978, compelled Hanoi to look increasingly to Moscow for economic and military assistance. As Vietnam's exclusive donor of military aid, the Soviet Union in 1987 was also Vietnam's largest contributor of economic aid and its biggest trade partner. During the Third Five-Year Plan (1981-85), the Soviets provided some US$5.4 billion in balance-of-payments aid, project assistance, and oil price subsidies.
Total economic aid for 1986 was an estimated US$1.8 billion. The Soviets also have been a major supplier of food and commodity aid on a mostly grant-aid or soft currency basis. By 1983 they were supplying 90 percent of Vietnam's petroleum, iron and steel, fertilizer, and cotton imports and 70 percent of its grain imports.(globalsecurity.org)
Some no longer trust much in the Russian-Vietnamese friendship, arguing that Russia has changed since the days of the Soviet Union. There are hopes in Vietnam that Russia could take a more proactive stance on the South China Sea issue. Russia openly opposes the internationalization of South China Sea disputes–in other words deciding not to commit to Vietnam’s interests–Vietnam may think differently about this choice. After the annexation of Crimea and the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, Russia seems to be feeling that now is the time to prioritize relations with China. Thus Moscow joined Beijing in opposing the G7 joint statement about the South China Sea. (thediplomat.com)
What should be more disconcerting is the greater cooperation between Moscow and Beijing coming two years after the Kremlin’s rift with the West. Ever since Europe imposed sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, Moscow has held high hopes of countering them by strengthening its alliance with China on energy, defense, agricultural trade and investments. Russia needs China, but China has options. As more resource rich countries vie for Chinese business, Russia becomes more inclined to tread lightly when involved in relations that could run afoul of China’s international agenda.(thediplomat.com)
However, at the same time Russia has not completely abandoned Vietnam and continues to engage in overtures with the south Asian country. During his official visit to Russia from May 16-19 of this year, the Prime Minister held talks with his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev. They then witnessed the signing of eight cooperation documents between the two countries. During the talks and meetings, the two countries’ leaders reaffirmed the determination to strengthen the Russia-Vietnam comprehensive strategic partnership, while discussing numerous measures to boost the bilateral ties to meet the two peoples’ long-term interests. (english.vietnamnet.vn)
Russia, in partnership with India, has also agreed ‘in principle’ to export the world’s fastest anti-ship cruise missile, BrahMos, to Vietnam. (financialexpress.com)
Public opinion in Vietnam is now splitting into two main camps with differing foreign policy recommendations: make the best of U.S support or seek Russia’s instead. There are also hopes that the United States can help Vietnam more by lifting the arms embargo completely. The Obama administration seems willing to do this. Its positive attitude toward Vietnam was also highlighted in the visit of U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter to Vietnam in 2015, and the U.S.-Vietnam Joint Vision Statement on Defense Relations. Unfortunately, support from the United States is also hanging in the balance, as much will depend on the next U.S. president. (thediplomat.com) This situation of uncertainty in the face of a looming Chinese threat has led Vietnam to look for reliable allies. This has opened the door for India to enter into the picture.
In 2014 India pledged to supply naval vessels to Vietnam and also secured oil exploration rights from Hanoi in parts of the contentious South China Sea, in moves that promise to ruffle a few feathers in Beijing. (time.com) In the signing of this agreement, a statement clearly aimed at China, both countries agreed “freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea should not be impeded”.
Towards this agreement India will give naval vessels to Vietnam under a $100 million defense line of credit it intends to operationalize soon. India also offered Vietnam $300 million for trade diversification. (deccanchronicle.com)The agreement also added an expedited sale of four offshore patrol ships. In addition India delivered enhanced training programs for the Vietnamese military. (time.com) India remains committed to the modernization of Vietnam’s defense and security forces. This will include expansion of their training programme, which is already very substantial, joint-exercises and cooperation in defense equipment. (deccanchronicle.com)
It was also during this time India agreed to share civil nuclear cooperation with Vietnam. The Indian atomic energy sector has wanted to sell the DAE's small 220 MW nuclear reactors to Vietnam. Indeed this relationship has recently gone much further. As of 2016 India will set up a satellite tracking and imaging centre in southern Vietnam that will give Hanoi access to pictures from Indian earth observation satellites that cover the region, including China and the South China Sea.
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) will fund and set up the satellite tracking and data reception centre in Ho Chi Minh City to monitor Indian satellite launches, the Indian officials said. Indian media put the cost at around $23 million. Hanoi has been looking for advanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance technologies as tensions rise with China over the disputed South China Sea. The facility will also be equipped to receive images from India's earth observation satellites that Vietnam can use in return for granting India the tracking site.(timesofindia.indiatimes.com)
This new program could irritate Beijing as it deepens ties between India and Vietnam, who both have long-running territorial disputes with China. India, along with Russia, has also agreed ‘in principle’ to export the world’s fastest anti-ship cruise missile, BrahMos, to Vietnam. In the case of Vietnam, China has expressed its reservations against India’s policies to supply weapons. BrahMos is a short-range ramjet supersonic cruise missile that can be launched from submarines, ships, aircraft or land.(financials-express.com)
In regards to this escalation, the U.S. response has been complicated. In 2014 it promised to closely observe the situation in the South China Sea to ensure steps are being taken to reduce tensions in the area. During this period the U.S. made a proposal at a meeting of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Secretary of State John Kerry called on ASEAN countries to manage territorial disputes based on international law.
The U.S. was largely unsuccessful with any bigger issue such as getting China and other countries to halt oil drilling. (learningenglish.voanews.com) However, it has recently been more aggressively conducting sea and air patrols near artificial islands China is building in the disputed Spratlys archipelago, including missions by two B-52 strategic bombers in November. Washington said in February it would increase the "freedom of navigation" sail-bys around the disputed sea.(thanhniennews.com)
The U.S. has not been seen to play a completely objective role in the eyes of many in the region. At the Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi in March 2016, U.S. Admiral Harry B. Harris made a strong plea that India and the U.S. undertake joint military operations. In addition, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s six- day visit to India and the Philippines indicated that the Pentagon would henceforth rely more heavily on military power to check China’s growing presence in the disputed South China Sea.
Joint patrols with India near the region were also hinted at. The statement issued by Carter and India’s Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar spelled out all the important points made in the original 2015 Vision statement issued by national leaders Obama and Modi. This included safeguarding maritime security and freedom of navigation and ensuring overflight throughout the region including the South China Sea.(atimes.com)
Two issues are apparent at this time:
(1) Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India, has shown a greater willingness to step up security ties with countries such as Vietnam, overriding concerns this would upset China, and by extension India is rising to assert themselves as the prime challenge to Chinese military expansion. (timesofindia.indiatimes.com) This is ultimately shaping into a modern age cold war between to rising world powers.
(2) The role the U.S. is playing in all of this. While trying to assume the role of a de-facto policing entity, the previously mentioned actions taken by U.S. officials toward building relations with India has led some Southeast Asian strategists to believe that the U.S. is clearly positioning itself on India’s side. Some even theorize the U.S. to be the shadowy puppet master using India to indirectly challenge China.
In any sense, the reality must be acknowledged that the situation in the South China Sea, and by extension, the Indian Ocean is becoming more threatening. Regardless of how the U.S wishes to see itself, it has neither the option to remove itself entirely from the region; leaving two traditional enemies and established nuclear powers to their own devices. Nor does it have the necessary ability to assert itself as the dominant force in the region and simply bring the situation to heel.
With the growing number of countries threatened by China and looking for an ally strong enough to curtail Chinese encroachment, India is not just looking to assert military strength as a world power but capitalize on the chance to enhance their economic situation by building on favorable trade agreements.
At present the U.S. has two clear options towards responding to this situation.
Option One: Draw back on any current joint military ventures with India beyond simple token exchanges. Continue working through the ASEAN council to effect amicable solutions while working to limit the degree of weaponry and military alliances either country wishes to pursue in developing smaller allies and their military capabilities.
Option Two: Assuming that the circumstances have gone far beyond the ability to work through the first option, the U.S. needs to accept that this has advanced into a cold war hostility reminiscent of the old NATO-Warsaw Pact situation. The U.S. then needs to commit clearly to a side. The most likely side being India, and work to create a state of detente as the two powers stake out the region into areas of influence.
Regardless, this is a growing issue of concern that must be approached carefully. The U.S. is dealing with two rising powers who are both building their militaries and their influence in the world. In previous years much of U.S. foreign policy has been centered around Islamic terrorism and issues in Europe. The concern should be if U.S. leadership and their advisors will be able to mentally make the necessary transition to the new rising situation.