Asia's Game of Thrones
Vietnam and Taiwan Spar over South China Sea

Taiwan has been engaging in military drills this week around Taiping Island, its major foothold in the South China Sea—and Vietnam is having none of it. Reuters:

Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh said the drills were “a serious violation of Vietnam’s sovereignty over the (Spratly) archipelago, threatening peace, stability, and maritime safety and security, stressing and complicating the situation in the East Sea (South China Sea).”

“Vietnam resolutely opposes (the drills) and asks Taiwan to not repeat similar actions,” Binh said in a statement posted on the ministry website.

Taiwan’s drills around Taiping Island (known also as Itu Aba) are not exactly a new development: in the past few years, Taiwan has made a major effort to bolster its claims there, investing millions in infrastructure and stepping up its military drills and naval patrols. Such efforts have only increased since last July’s Hague ruling decided that it was legally a rock—a designation that Taiwan disputes, since it precludes Taipei from claiming more extensive economic rights. Vietnam, for its part, is one of three rival claimants of Itu Aba and has been building up its own facilities and troops on nearby islands, which Taipei considers a threat.

The Taiwan-Vietnam spat is a reminder that China is not the sole cause of escalating tensions in the South China Sea; the region proliferates with smaller countries sparring over territorial claims. Nevertheless, these disputes are useful to China: they help prevent a united front from forming against Beijing in ASEAN, distract from China’s own destabilizing actions, and allow Beijing to plausibly argue that the dispute is too complicated to be settled on a multilateral basis. So long as its fractious neighbors keep squabbling, Beijing can effectively play divide and conquer while it steadily builds its own military supremacy in the region.

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