Vietnam and Australia have voiced united opposition to Chinese activities in the South China Sea, a day after the United States accused China of coercion in the disputed waters.
During a meeting in Hanoi on Friday between Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Xuan Phuc, the leaders expressed “serious concerns” about developments in the South China Sea, including land reclamation and militarisation of disputed features.
“They also expressed concern about disruptive activities in relation to long-standing oil and gas projects in the South China Sea,” a joint statement said.
The statement did not name China or refer to a specific incident, but Vietnam has demanded China withdraw all its vessels, including a survey ship, from Vanguard Bank, a Vietnamese-controlled area in the Spratly Islands, which China also claims.
“We are deeply concerned about the recent complicated developments in the East Sea and agree to cooperate in maintaining peace, stability, security, safety and freedom of navigation and overflight,” Phuc said, using the Vietnamese name for the South China Sea.
Alongside Phuc, Morrison pledged to work with Vietnam to “ensure a strong, independent, and vibrant Indo-Pacific”.
China and Vietnam have been locked in an intense stand-off at Vanguard Bank for more than a month, since the Chinese survey vessel Haiyang Dizhi 8 and several Chinese coastguard vessels entered the area. The Haiyang Dingzhi 8 briefly left Vietnamese waters before returning again to the Spratly Islands last week.
Analysts said the survey ship was deployed to block Vietnam’s joint gas and oil exploration activities with Russian energy firm Rosneft.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said on Friday that the Chinese ships were operating in China’s sovereign waters, and Vietnam was continuing exploration despite China’s opposition.
“China calls on relevant parties to respect China’s sovereignty … and work with China to maintain harmony and tranquillity of the waters,” he said.
A day earlier, the US accused China of trying to intimidate other claimants to the waters.
“In recent weeks, China has taken a series of aggressive steps to interfere with Asean claimants’ long-standing, well-established economic activities, in an attempt both to coerce them to reject partnerships with foreign oil and gas firms, and to work only with China’s state-owned enterprises,” it said, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
The US is not a claimant in the area but it accused China of blocking access to an estimated US$2.5 trillion in oil and gas reserves.
“US companies are world leaders in the exploration and extraction of hydrocarbon resources, including offshore and in the South China Sea. The United States therefore strongly opposes any efforts by China to threaten or coerce partner countries into withholding cooperation with non-Chinese firms, or otherwise harassing their cooperative activities,” it said.
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Analysts said that apart from the diplomatic support, it was unclear what the US or Australia could do for Vietnam if the Vanguard Bank tensions escalated.
“Without doubt there’s alignment of views on the South China Sea situation. However, I believe also that Vietnam is realistic about the extent to which external parties are able to support its position in this stand-off with Beijing,” said Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
“At the end of the day, Hanoi would have realised that it’ll still have to depend on itself to fight this struggle even though help from external parties, be it in the form of verbal support or material, would still be appreciated.”
Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia, said the US statement on Thursday marked a shift to stronger rhetoric from Washington.
“[The statement] serves two purposes, first, to demonstrate that the US is not an outside power regarding maritime disputes in the South China Sea and, second, to give China warning not to interfere with US companies, such as ExxonMobil, currently operating in Vietnam.”
Zhang Mingliang, a Southeast Asian affairs specialist at Jinan University, said the statements of support from Australia and the US would only complicate the situation.
“Vietnam’s strategy is to bring in bigger countries to lobby on its behalf in the South China Sea,” he said, adding that China and Vietnam were showing great restraint in their biggest stand-off since 2014, when a Chinese oil rig was erected near the disputed Paracel Islands, also in the South China Sea.
More from South China Morning Post:
- The Chinese survey ships that cause ripples in Vietnam and across the South China Sea
- South China Sea: Vietnam extends operation of oil rig on Vanguard Bank as stand-off with Beijing continues
This article Vietnam and Australia oppose ‘disruptions’ to South China Sea oil and gas projects first appeared on South China Morning Post