Vietnam’s history is full of heroic tales of resistance to China. But this month Hanoi bent the knee to Beijing, humiliated in a contest over who controls the South China Sea, the most disputed waterway in the world. Hanoi has been looking to Washington for implicit backing to see off Beijing’s threats. At the same time, the Trump administration demonstrated that it either does not understand or sufficiently care about the interests of its friends and potential partners in Southeast Asia to protect them against China. Southeast Asian governments will conclude that the United States does not have their backs. And while Washington eats itself over Russian spies and health care debates, one of the world’s most crucial regions is slipping into Beijing’s hands.
There’s no tenser set of waters in the world than the South China Sea. For the last few years, China and its neighbors have been bluffing, threatening, cajoling, and suing for control of its resources. In June, Vietnam made an assertive move. After two and a half years of delay, it finally granted Talisman Vietnam (a subsidiary of the Spanish energy firm Repsol) permission to drill for gas at the very edge of Hanoi’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea.
Under mainstream interpretations of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Vietnam was well within its rights to do so. Under China’s idiosyncratic interpretation, it was not. China has never even put forward a clear claim to that piece of seabed. On July 25, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang would only urge “the relevant party to cease the relevant unilateral infringing activities” — but without saying what they actually were. In the absence of official clarity, Chinese lawyers and official think tanks have suggested two main interpretations.
China may be claiming “historic rights” to this part of the sea on the grounds that it has always been part of the Chinese domain (something obviously contested by all the other South China Sea claimants, as well as neutral historians). Alternatively, it may be claiming that the Spratly Islands — the collection of islets, reefs, and rocks off the coasts of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines — are entitled as a group to their own EEZ. An international arbitration tribunal in The Hague, however, ruled these claims incompatible with UNCLOS a year ago. China has refused to recognize both the tribunal and its ruling.
In mid-June, Talisman…