Asia's Game of Thrones
Vietnam Goes Bold In the South China Sea

Vietnam continues to be China’s feistiest rival in the South China Sea. Earlier this week, BBC News broke the story that Hanoi had allowed oil drilling to proceed in the South China Sea, setting off a diplomatic row with China:

An oil industry consultant told the BBC that a drilling ship on contract to international firm Talisman-Vietnam was working off Vietnam’s south-east coast.

This appears to be why a senior Chinese general cut short an official visit to Vietnam last month. […]

According to Ian Cross, of Singapore-based Moyes & Co, the drillship Deepsea Metro I, began to drill in an area of sea about 400km (250 miles) off the Vietnamese coast on 21 June. […]

The piece of seabed in question is known as Block 136-03 by Vietnam, but China calls it Wan-an Bei 21 and has leased out the same area to a different company.

Block 136-03 is not the only site where Vietnam is pushing China’s buttons. Reuters reports today that Hanoi has given an Indian company the go-ahead to proceed with oil exploration in block 128, another area of contention:

Vietnam granted Indian oil firm ONGC Videsh a two-year extension to explore oil block 128 in a letter that arrived earlier this week, the state-run company’s managing director Narendra K. Verma told Reuters. […]

A senior official of ONGC Videsh … said interest in the block was strategic rather than commercial, given that oil development there was seen as high-risk with only moderate potential.

“Vietnam also wants us to be there because of China’s interventions in the South China Sea,” the official said.

The timing here does not seem accidental. Vietnam renewed the Indian oil deal just after Vietnam’s Foreign Minister concluded a four-day visit to India, where he talked up greater security and economic cooperation. The same week, India’s External Affairs Minister was singing to Vietnam’s tune at an ASEAN event, insisting that countries uphold “freedom of navigation and respect for international law” in the South China Sea, while forecasting a greater Indian role in cooperating with ASEAN. Those signals add more data points to a growing picture of Indian-Vietnamese alignment as both countries cooperate to turn up the heat on China.

To top it all off, Vietnam also kicked off joint drills with the U.S. Navy yesterday. Those exercises were previously scheduled, but they came just days after an American warship sailed by a China-claimed islet in the South China Sea, provoking furious denunciations from Beijing. Taken together with recent promises of U.S.-Vietnamese intelligence sharing, China may swiftly conclude that the U.S. is about to more aggressively counter China’s claims and support Vietnam.

Until recently, China has enjoyed a substantially free hand in the South China Sea, making major progress without sufficient pushback. As Vietnam acts more boldly to defy China’s claims, and larger powers like the U.S. and India step up their commitments, could that be about to change?

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