Concerns about China’s expanding military influence in the South China Sea has led Vietnam and the United States to establish a new defense agreement, bolstering Vietnam’s claims over the portions of the waterway near its shores, and expanding American influence in the region.

In recent years, China has declared sovereignty over the majority of the South China Sea, a large waterway that sees as much as 30 percent of global commerce shipped over its surface.  A number of nations, including Japan and the United States, have refused to acknowledge China’s territorial stakes, declaring them illegal according to international law.  Vietnam, a nation that is not allied with the United States, has found itself increasingly bullied away from their own legitimate territorial claims.  Last month, they were forced to suspend off shore oil drilling as a result of pressure from Beijing.

Territorial claims in the South China Sea; courtesy of Wikipedia

 

On Tuesday, American Secretary of Defense James Mattis met with his Vietnamese counterpart, Ngô Xuân Lich, in Washington, wherein an agreement was made that will see an American aircraft carrier visit the Southeast Asian nation in 2018, the first such visit since the conclusion of the Vietnam War in 1975.  A visit of this sort was also discussed between President Donald Trump and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc during a visit to the White House in May.  That trip will be the first part of a growing defense agreement.

Modern Vietnam employs a foreign policy strategy of being “open to all countries,” meaning this fledgling defense agreement sits comfortably within their existing diplomatic methods, while also providing the United States with yet another nation in the Pacific that seems willing to stand alongside the U.S. Navy in its efforts to maintain freedom of navigation throughout the South China Sea.

“This relationship is based on mutual respect and common interests, including the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and globally; respect for international law; and recognition of national sovereignty.” A Defense Department press release reads.

USS John S. McCain passes within 12 miles of armed Chinese artificial island in the South China Sea

Read Next: USS John S. McCain passes within 12 miles of armed Chinese artificial island in the South China Sea

In order to bolster China’s ever expanding claims of ownership over the South China Sea, the nation has been rapidly developing its own naval defenses, in conjunction with enacting a wide-spread reorganization of the country’s national military, the People’s Liberation Army, intended to bring the war fighting organization into the 21st century.  Since the beginning of 2016, China has launched as many as 18 new naval vessels, including two entirely new designs developed completely within China for the first time: the Type 055 Destroyer and Type 001 Aircraft Carrier.

Once the Type 001 carrier enters service, it will double China’s carrier fleet, and offer a significant increase in the nation’s ability to project its presence throughout its massive territorial claims.  Bolstering the presence of these new ships are China’s continued efforts to militarize both existing islands, and man-made ones, drawing sharp criticism from the United States and other Pacific powers.

We oppose countries militarizing artificial islands and enforcing excessive maritime claims unsupported by international law.  We cannot and will not accept unilateral coercive changes to the status quo.” Defense Secretary James Mattis said of China’s efforts in the South China Sea to the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) last month.

At the ASEAN meeting this week, Australia, Japan and the United States banded together to call on China to help ensure the South China Sea code of conduct the nations have committed to establishing together will be legally binding, claiming in a joint statement that they strongly opposed “coercive unilateral actions.”

 

Featured image courtesy of DoD