The capitulation is official. The New York Times confirms today that Vietnam has suspended gas drilling in the South China Sea, after mounting Chinese pressure and doubts about Washington’s commitments:
Vietnam appears to have retreated in a high-stakes maritime gambit against China, suspending a gas-drilling project that it had approved in the South China Sea but that was said to have irritated Beijing.
The drilling, by a subsidiary of the Spanish energy company Repsol, had started in June off the southern Vietnamese coast, analysts said. The offshore block where the drilling was occurring straddles the border of Vietnam’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone but is challenged by China, Vietnam’s hulking northern neighbor, which is building artificial islands in the sea for its military.
Analysts say the project’s suspension, which Repsol confirmed to Reuters on Wednesday, appears to be another strategic victory for China at a time when the Trump administration is distracted by turmoil at home. They say it also highlights the difficulty that Vietnam faces as it mounts long-shot challenges to Beijing’s claims to the South China Sea — without much help from its neighbors in Southeast Asia or from Washington.
When Vietnam initially gave Repsol the green light to proceed with drilling, it was a bold gambit that directly defied China, asserting Hanoi’s rights to its exclusive economic zone over Beijing’s nine-dash-line pretensions. It was also a rich opportunity for the United States to put some teeth into its South China Sea policy. Given the Trump Administration’s increasingly estranged relationship with Beijing, its tough talk about confronting China in the waterway, and even Rex Tillerson’s own history battling Beijing over drilling rights as head of ExxonMobil, Vietnam may well have banked on a forceful response from Washington backing up its rightful claims.
Instead, the Trump administration was silent, and Vietnam was left out on a limb, increasingly vulnerable to Chinese intimidation. According to Bill Hayton, a veteran reporter on Vietnam and the South China Sea, the Chinese pressure campaign included threats of military action against Vietnamese bases. And in the absence of credible U.S. commitments, that left the Vietnamese Politburo debating whether it dared to call Beijing’s bluff. From Foreign Policy:
After two acrimonious meetings in mid-July, the decision was made: Vietnam would kowtow to Beijing and end the drilling. According to the same sources, the winning argument was that the Trump administration could not be relied upon to come to Hanoi’s assistance in the event of a confrontation with China. Reportedly, the mood was rueful. If Hillary Clinton had been sitting in the White House, Repsol executives were apparently told, she would have understood the stakes and everything would have been different.
We can never prove the counterfactual of whether a President Clinton might have backed up Vietnam more forcefully; it was the Administration she served as Secretary of State, after all, that allowed China’s artificial island-building to metastasize. But it is true that the Obama Administration was more outspoken in protesting China’s claims than the Trump administration has been—and the recent absence of U.S. leadership in forums like ASEAN has enabled China to manipulate them more easily.
Reuters reported yesterday, for instance, that Beijing is set to run the table at an ASEAN summit this week. Draft documents reveal that Beijing has preemptively leaned on friendly member states to neuter language that was critical of China, while successfully pushing a non-binding, unenforceable maritime code of conduct that imposes no real restraints on China’s activity in the South China Sea. In the past, the United States might have used its clout with ASEAN members to urge a tougher line on Beijing—but it has recently seemed disengaged from that fight and distracted by the North Korea crisis.
To its credit, the Trump administration seems well aware of that perception, and eager to correct it. The State Department recently gave assurances that it would not let the South China Sea go to the back burner as Rex Tillerson meets with ASEAN ministers in Manila this week. But that belated promise will offer small comfort to Asian nations who have already concluded that the dispute is not a priority for the Trump administration. If the U.S. remains missing in action, that judgment will only set in further—and China will continue to have its way in the South China Sea with little to fear from its rivals.