The tensions in the South China Sea took a new twist last month when Washington and Hanoi forged closer military ties during US President Barack Obama’s three-day visit to Vietnam.
Obama’s decision to end a decades-old embargo on arms sales to Vietnam looks set to accelerate an already intense arms race in Southeast Asia and further complicate the situation in the South China Sea, analysts say.
Although Obama insisted the move was not aimed at China and new Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc pledged not to pursue militarization, all signs seem to point to the contrary.
Analysts say the US and Southeast Asian nations appear keen to gain leverage to counter China’s assertive diplomatic and military posture ahead of a key international court ruling on China’s expansive claims to the disputed waters.
Shanghai-based military expert Ni Lexiong said defence ties between the US and former foe Vietnam were thawing at a sensitive time in the long-standing territorial disputes in the hotly contested waters. The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague is expected to hand down rulings within weeks on a case brought by the Philippines against China.
“It opens the door to closer military cooperation between the US and Vietnam and will bolster Vietnam’s capacity to challenge China in the South China Sea,” he said. “The highly symbolic step is part of Washington’s strategy to beef up its coalition across the Pacific and Indian Oceans against China.”