Since July, China’s Haiyang Dizhi 8 survey ship and a coast guard escort have spent large amounts of time in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea. The region of the dispute, around three Vietnam-occupied islets at Vanguard Bank, is closer to Vietnam than any other country and is claimed by Vietnam as within its EEZ. China’s claim to the area as a historical territory is based on its so-called nine-dash line, which was ruled without a legal basis by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague in 2016. Vietnam is particularly endangered by this latest incursion and resulting standoff, having defended itself on numerous occasions and with great loss of life against China in the Battle of the Paracel Islands (1974), the Sino-Vietnamese War (1979), and the South Johnson Reef Skirmish (1988). In each instance, China initiated the aggression, and Vietnam lost lives and territory. Vietnam could greatly improve its security if it allied with the United States, the world’s only country still capable of defeating China alone. The United States, too, would benefit from the alliance by strengthening regional containment of China.
But despite an abundance of reasons for an alliance and improved friendship over the past decade, both countries are subject to fallacies that stymie strategic thinking on their key overlapping interest: the South China Sea. Vietnam has the “three nos”, which boil down to no alliances and no foreign bases on its soil. The United States’ strategy in the South China Sea has a narrow focus on freedom of navigation (FoN). It should, in addition, seek to degrade China’s relative economic and military power, including through denial of Chinese access to new sources of oil, gas, and fishing that will strengthen its economy and thereby empower its military against the United States. These resources within non-Chinese EEZs are, according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the sole property not of China through its legally invalidated nine-dash line, but of countries with coastal borders near them, including Vietnam’s long coastline.