HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam – The movements of Chinese shippers in disputed waters have rekindled tensions between Beijing and Vietnam.
Vietnam is seeking allies such as the European Union, United States and Russia to establish themselves as the main brake on the ambitions of its neighbor in the South China Sea.
The last focus of tension has been the incursion in waters near the disputed Spratly Islands by Chinese shipping company Haiyang Dizhi 8, which since early July has carried out surveys escorted by several Chinese coastal surveillance ships.
Its withdrawal was confirmed on Thursday by the Vietnamese Government and quiets for the moment the waters of the South China Sea, a key strategic area for trade routes and rich in fishery and hydrocarbon resources, but does not reduce the growing background tensions between Beijing and Hanoi.
The Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs denounced this week the “violation of its sovereignty” and said it involved illegal military exercises by China next to the Paracel Islands, the other archipelago that both countries dispute in the same sea.
Beijing, which has built military-use facilities on several islets, claims almost the entire South China Sea, whose islands and reefs are also partially contested in Vietnam, the Philippines and, to a lesser extent, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
The Philippines had been the strongest ally of Hanoi in its resistance to Beijing and in 2016 it achieved an important legal victory before The Hague Arbitration Court, which decreed that there is no legal basis for China’s alleged historical rights in those waters.
Since the triumph of Rodrigo Duterte in the presidential elections of the same year, the former Spanish colony has lowered the tone, leaving Vietnam as the main dam to contain Chinese ambitions.
Although a military confrontation does not seem likely at the moment, the Vietnamese Navy has stressed this week that it is prepared “for all circumstances.”
Vietnam’s weakness was evident last year, when Beijing’s threats forced Hanoi to cancel an oil project awarded to Repsol in its own waters.
Aware of its isolation in the region and its military inferiority, Vietnam has been weaving alliances with different powers in the hope of achieving a deterrent effect.
The last movement in this direction was the negotiation of a defense agreement with the European Union, whose main lines were drawn last Monday in Hanoi at a meeting between the High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini and the Vietnamese Defense Minister Ngo Xuan Lich.
Hanoi has also approached the US in the last decade, which in 2016 lifted its embargo on arms sales which was in force since the end of the Vietnam War.
The thaw with Washington was evident last year, when nuclear aircraft carrier Carl Vinsson docked for five days at the base of Cam Ranh, south of Vietnam.
In recent months, the communist regime in Hanoi has strengthened its relationship with Russia, its largest arms supplier, with whom it has maintained historical ties since the time of the Soviet Union.
Although the Kremlin has not taken sides in the conflict over the islands, surveys by Russian oil companies in the area commissioned by the Vietnamese government may have, according to some analysts, deterrent effects for China.