You may have heard about the building of artificial islands in the South China Sea in recent years. This is usually associated with China staking territorial claims to an assorted medley of islands, islets, cays, and reefs before building on them. Vietnam has taken a similar route with the expansion of its own islands within the area, most notably the Spratly Islands.
The expansion of these islands has been used to fortify territorial claims to the area, which is thought to be bountiful in natural resources such as oil and gas.
Spratly Islands: First Come, First Serve
But many countries are situated in the South China Sea… Surely they all want a claim to these islands too right?
Indeed they do. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Taiwan also claim parts of the Spratly Islands. This has made the issue incredibly sensitive politically, militarily and also diplomatically. Thankfully in 1992, all of the parties involved signed an enunciation that any dispute would not resort to violence. This was codified through the ASEAN declaration on the South China Sea. It has, however, not lessened any tensions within the region with China and Vietnam, in particular, asserting their sovereignty through the drenching, expansion and building of the Spratly Islands.
Vietnam vs. China
We have heard about China building on the Spratlys, but Vietnam? What have they been doing?
Vietnam claims that it has occupied the Spratly Islands since the 17th century, predating any Chinese sovereignty to the area. Similar to the Chinese, Vietnam has been slowly expanding their territorial presence within the past ten years, yet any significant constructions have only recently been reported. Runways have been expanded, military bases have been installed and several hundred settlers are known to inhabit the islands. The now-inhabited areas of Vietnam’s claim to the Spratlys have held elections to the people’s commune councils and developed local amenities, suggesting that an ‘affirmation-through-colonisation’ agenda appears to reinforce any territorial claims.
Challenging Chinese Hegemony
This sounds like Vietnam is challenging China’s attempted hegemony within the region. Is this correct?
Yes. It would be fair to say that Vietnam, as well as other regional nations, are trying to challenge China’s often dominant stance in the South China Sea. Curiously, the United States have stepped up cooperation in defence with Vietnam. The Obama administration acknowledgied some of the measures Hanoi has taken in recent years. This is emblematic of the American ‘Pivot to Asia’ strategy, and it is predicted by many pundits that Donald Trump will continue to pressure Chinese hegemony in Asia.
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