China and Vietnam’s Tensions in the South China Sea

China and Vietnam’s Tensions in the South China Sea

Tension between China and Vietnam over the Paracel and Spratly Island chains in the South China Sea mark the coming of age of Vietnam’s growing regional presence [1].

multilateral claims to South China Sea Islands:  courtesy of
multilateral claims to South China Sea Islands:
courtesy of

Though they are mostly uninhabited, these two island chains are hotspots for conflict because they allegedly sit atop large quantities of natural resources. Whichever country claims the Spratlys gains the right to drill for natural resources such as oil. Furthermore, the sea surrounding the islands is a salient trading route and fishing spot [2]. From the viewpoint of national security, the Spratly Islands are a checkpoint for passing ships; by ensuring control over the Spratlys, the mother country effectively secures the safe passage of its goods [3].

Both Beijing and Taiwan have made claims that the Spratly and Paracel Islands were essential parts of China in the past. In 1947, Beijing released a map confirming its claims. On the other hand, Vietnam argues that it has been in rule of the Paracels and the Spratlys since the seventeenth century and has documentation as proof [4].

There have been various past conflicts over the territories in the South China Sea. Recent moves made by both sides of the argument reignite the tensions between China and Vietnam. Two years ago, China set up a drilling rig near the Paracels, which led to conflict between several Chinese and Vietnamese ships. Most recently in April, China built an airstrip on domestic lands in the Spratlys. In previous standoffs, Vietnamese lives have been lost in military conflict with China [5].

While China has dominated the argument with an iron fist, Vietnamese officials are now  speaking out. The Vietnamese government has long been mocked by bloggers for its submissiveness to China. Last month, president Truong Tan Sang made a case for Vietnam at an Asia Society conference in New York. Sang countered China’s claims to the Spratlys and Paracels with the argument that Vietnam has had jurisdiction over the islands since ancient times. Though it cannot be directly proven which country the islands belong to, Vietnam voiced that the issue should be resolved via international law, whether it be through bilateral or multilateral negotiations. Vietnam’s recent efforts at speaking up have received much online appraisal [6].

Vietnam’s newfound endeavors at being heard underpin the efforts of a smaller country to rise to the world stage; Vietnam’s initiative could lead to more conflict with China. Indeed, the South China Sea issue does not show signs of ceasing anytime soon.

by Bradford Lin ‘18