Chinese and Vietnamese Leaders Meet Over Tensions in South China Sea

Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) shakes hands with Vietnam’s Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong (left) in Beijing.

“Regarding issues at sea, the two leaders exchanged sincere and frank opinions in depth, emphasizing the need to better control and actively resolve disagreements at sea, maintaining peace and stability in the Sea. East and Region.”

The waters surrounding the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea are paramount to the interests of the surrounding states due to the potential energy reserves, geo-strategic locations, and fishing resources.  Although China maintains de facto control over the Paracel Islands, Vietnam also has laid claim to them, leading to increasing tensions. On 12 December 2023, Chinese President Xi Jinping met with the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Central Committee, Nguyen Phu Trong to ease these tensions. According to the first excerpted articles from the Vietnamese news media aggregator Báo Mới, General Secretary Trong requested both sides respect each other’s legitimate interests and resolve disputes by peaceful means per international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. As per the second excerpted article from the military-focused China Military Network[i], it was noted that China and Vietnam were at a “critical stage of reform and development.” The article also highlighted the nearly three dozen agreements signed during the visit as proof of improving relations between the two countries. However, the December Xi-Trong meeting is set against the backdrop of longstanding tension between China and Vietnam stemming from both countries’ claims of sovereignty over both the Paracel and Spratly Island in the South China Sea. China has codified its claims across the region with its nine-dash line maritime policy, a visual representation of China’s claims that appears on some official and comparative maps of disputed claims in the region, but which has been refuted by international maritime law.[ii] While China would like to settle tensions with Vietnam, it is unlikely that the recent meeting between Xi and Trong, and subsequent bilateral agreements, would dissuade Vietnam from its current claims of  Vietnamese features in the South China Sea.[iii]


“Việt Nam và Trung Quốc nhất trí xây dựng Cộng đồng chia sẻ tương lai (Vietnam and China agreed to build a Community of Shared Future),” Báo Mới (Hanoi-based Vietnamese news aggregator), 12 December 2023. https://baomoi-com/ viet-nam-va-trung-quoc-nhat-tri-xay-dung-cong-dong-chia-se-tuong-lai-c47792276.epi   

General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong emphasized that in the context of complex international and regional developments, it is important that countries jointly implement policies of peace, cooperation, and development, and comply with the law. Internationally respecting each other’s equality and legitimate interests.

“志同道合携手行,命运与共创未来中共中央政治局委员、外交部长王毅谈习近平总书记、国家主席对越南国事访问 (Like-minded people join hands to create a shared future – Wang Yi, member of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee and Foreign Minister, talks about General Secretary Xi Jinping and President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Vietnam),” China Military Network (Chinese military news focused media aggregator), 14 December 2023. 

Currently, both China and Vietnam are at a critical stage of reform and development. Strengthening mutually beneficial cooperation has both inherent advantages and practical needs. During this visit, the two sides signed more than 30 cooperation agreements, covering all aspects of the “Belt and Road”, development cooperation, digital economy, green development, transportation, inspection and quarantine, defense and law enforcement security cooperation, maritime cooperation, etc., expanding the breadth of China-Vietnam relations.


[i] China Military Network can also be translated “Chinese military web.” The page banner includes links to the Chinese Ministry of Defense, military newspapers, and topical sites like “Strategy,” and Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry press briefings. The URL is significant because 81 represents 1 August 1927, the founding date for the Red Army.

[ii] In 2016 the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague had ruled China’s nine-dash line maritime policy to be illegitimate. China had disregarded the Court’s ruling, and the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and has continued to aggressively enforce its nine-dash line maritime policy. For a U.S. government’s perspective of the Arbitration’s ruling see: “South China Sea Arbitration Ruling: What Happened and What’s Next?,” U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 12 July 2016. Brief, South China Sea Arbitration Ruling What Happened and What%27s Next071216.pdf

[iii] For additional context, see: Jacob Zenn, “Vietnam Taking Diplomatic Approach to Spratly Islands Territorial Disputes,” OE Watch, 08-2023.; For a comparison of China’s claims and recent confrontations with the Philippines in the Spratly Islands, see: Dodge Billingsley, “China and Philippines Spar Over Grounded Ship in Spratly Islands, OE Watch, 08-2023.

Image Information:

Image: Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) shakes hands with Vietnam’s Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong (left) in Beijing.
Attribution: CC BY-SA 4.0

Vietnam Taking Diplomatic Approach to Spratly Islands Territorial Disputes

Vietnam People’s Navy honor guard at ASEAN defense ministers meeting in 2010.

“The presentations examined many aspects of the East Sea and the issue of Vietnam’s sovereignty over the sea and islands from historical, cultural, political, and legal perspectives.”

In June, the Vietnamese Embassy in France hosted a conference in Paris to reaffirm Vietnamese sovereignty of the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. As reported in the Vietnamese-language publication, the conference was attended by the Vietnamese Ambassador to France, European scholars on Vietnam, and Vietnamese citizens in Europe who had previously visited the Spratly Islands.[i] Vietnam, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei each lay claim to territory in the island chain.[ii] Conference attendees examined the historical, cultural, political, and legal perspectives on the Spratly Islands, and concluded with a consensus for Vietnam to avoid using force to regain sovereignty over the islands. The scholars stated that historical evidence showed Vietnam had occupied the islands since at least 300 years ago. They urged Vietnam to use diplomacy and negotiations as well as displays of solidarity with allied nations to push forward their territorial claims.[iii] The conference attendees further emphasized the need not just for older Vietnamese to support the Vietnamese Navy and to donate money to the cause, but also for Vietnamese youth and the international Vietnamese community to stand beside Vietnam. Consistent with this diplomatic approach to the Spratly Islands, Vietnam has also avoided direct naval confrontations in the South China Sea.[iv] For example, as the second excerpted Vietnamese-language article from notes, Taiwan conducted live-fire military training drills near the islands. Vietnam responded by announcing its opposition to the drills and demanded that they be canceled, stating that Taiwan was threatening peace in the South China Sea. Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry also asserted it had legal and historical justification to claim sovereignty over the Spratly Islands.[CR1]


“Biển Đông và chủ quyền biển đảo Việt Nam dưới góc nhìn của các học giả châu Âu (East Sea and Vietnam’s sovereignty over the sea and islands from the perspective of European scholars)” (Vietnamese publication covering hot topics in domestic and international affairs concerning Vietnam), 11 June 2023.

On June 10, in Paris, France, a scientific conference with the theme “East Sea and Vietnam’s sovereignty issues” took place with the participation of a large number of Vietnamese scholars and admirers of the sea and islands. On this occasion, a meeting between overseas Vietnamese who had visited the Spratlys was held together with an exhibition of photos and artifacts about this archipelago. Speaking at the opening ceremony, Vietnamese Ambassador to France, Dinh Toan Thang, highly appreciated the efforts of individuals and associations contributing to organizing the workshop. 

The situation in the East Sea, and solutions to handle disputes and options for marine economic development, were mentioned by the speakers. Mr. Patrice Jorland, professor of History and former president of the France-Vietnam Friendship Association, stated that, according to the law of the sea and international law, Vietnam has a large exclusive economic zone. Mr. Jorland claimed Vietnam has sovereignty in the East Sea. Regarding sovereignty over Truong Sa and Hoang Sa, he said that historical evidence shows that Vietnam has asserted sovereignty over these two archipelagoes, especially Hoang Sa, since the late 18th century, under the Nguyen Dynasty.

As for Ms. Malgorzata Pietrasiak, a professor at the University of Lodz in Poland, an expert on Vietnam, she highly respected Vietnam’s method of handling issues at sea, which she calls “hedging.” According to her, this is a wise, flexible, and peaceful strategy devoid of tension, but also is not giving in…. With 14 presentations, the workshop contributed to bringing to the public perspectives and initiatives for mutual building and developing on the basis of respecting each other’s sovereignty and territory.

“Việt Nam phản đối Đài Loan tập trận ở Trường Sa (Vietnam opposes Taiwanese drills in Truong Sa)” Vietnamese daily newspaper), 8 June 2023. June 7, Taiwan conducted a live-fire drill in the waters around Ba Binh in the Spratly archipelago of Vietnam. Vietnam strongly opposes this and demands that Taiwan cancel illegal activities. On June 8, in response to a reporter’s question about Vietnam’s response to this activity, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Pham Thu Hang stated “Vietnam has a full legal basis and historical evidence to assert its sovereignty over the Truong Sa archipelago…. Therefore, Taiwan holding a live-fire drill in the waters around Ba Binh in the Spratly archipelago of Vietnam is a serious violation of Vietnam’s sovereignty over this archipelago and threatens peace, stability, safety, and maritime security, while creating tensions and complicating the situation in the East Sea.”


[i] Although the South China Sea is the name most associated with the body of water shared by Vietnam, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, Vietnam refers to this body of water as the East Sea. A similar naming dispute occurs between South Korea, North Korea, and Japan. Japan refers to the body of water separating itself from the Korean Peninsula as the Sea of Japan, whereas North Korea refers to it as the Korea East Sea while South Korea refers to it simply as the East Sea. The naming of these bodies of water is entangled in the struggle for territory and sovereignty over the regions in question. Regarding Korea and Japan, U.S. officials have historically referred to the waterway as the Sea of Japan, at times raising the ire of South Korean leaders.

[ii] China, Taiwan, and Vietnam all claim sovereignty over the entirety of the Spratly Islands. The Philippines, in contrast, only claims sovereignty over several features in the Kalayaan Island Group, while Malaysia also claims only some features and Brunei claims one reef. In terms of control, Vietnam occupies 26 features in the Spratly Islands, while the Philippines occupies nine, China occupies seven, Malaysia occupies five, and Taiwan occupies one. The contesting parties have officially sought to settle the dispute through bilateral agreement under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), but all efforts have ended without a permanent solution. See Hasan, Monjur and Jian, He, “Spratly Islands Dispute in the South China Sea: Potential Solutions,” Journal of East Asia and International Law, 2019, 12(1), pp. 145-168.

[iii] Vietnam claims its occupation of the Spratly Islands can be traced to the Nguyen lords, who from the 1600s annually sailed to the Bai Cat Vang island groups to retrieve shipwrecked goods and remained in the archipelago for up to six months. During the reign of the Nguyen emperors from the early 1800s, there is documentation that identified the Truong Sa archipelago from the Hoang Sa Islands in the Spratly Islands as Vietnamese possessions. It was not until the French protectorate was established over Vietnam in 1884 that sovereignty over the islands became contested. Kelly, Todd C., “Vietnamese Claims to the Truong Sa Archipelago,” Explorations in Southeast Asian Studies, Fall 1999, 3, pp. 1-21.

[iv] For a short video documentary on tensions in the South China Sea, see: South China Sea,; and Eric Hyer, Pragmatic Dragon: China’s Grand Strategy and Boundary Settlements, UBC Press (2015), Chapter 12 (pages 236-262).

Image Information:

Image: Vietnam People’s Navy honor guard at ASEAN defense ministers meeting in 2010.
Source: Master Sgt. Jerry Morrison, U.S. Air Force
Attribution: (CC x 2.0)

Vietnam Defense Exhibition Shows Diversified International Partnerships To Balance Against China

Vietnam claims Paracel and Spratly islands.

Vietnam claims Paracel and Spratly islands.

“An exhibition was officially opened for international partners and domestic citizens to observe the capacity, technological progress, and weapons and equipment manufactured by Vietnam.”

According to the first excerpted 6 April article from Vietnam’s national television broadcaster, the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs deputy spokesperson denounced the National Natural Science Organization of China’s plans to conduct surveys in 33 areas of the South China Sea. Among the archipelagos in the South China Sea are the Spratly Islands (Truong Sa), which are claimed and controlled by Vietnam but are also claimed by China. Vietnam considers the Chinese survey’s encompassing of the Spratly Islands as an act of aggression. One way Vietnam has responded to China’s more aggressive military posture in the South China Sea, such as through surveying, is by branching out to multiple international actors to balance against China, if not also China’s ally, Russia. This was demonstrated at the 2022 International Defense Exhibition in Hanoi last December.[i] As the second excerpted article on the government-funded Voice of Vietnam website noted, the exhibition was intended to highlight Vietnam’s military modernization and diversified international partners.[ii] While Russian artillery systems, which Vietnam has historically acquired for its army, were on display alongside Vietnamese ballistic missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles, there were also weapons from companies of Western countries and their partners, such as the United States, Czechia, Israel, and India. China was not among the nearly 70 countries that attended. The weapons at the exhibition are among those that Vietnam could acquire and employ during any future confrontation without relying on Chinese allies.[iii]


“Việt Nam phản đối việc Trung Quốc công bố khu vực khảo sát bao trùm Trường Sa (Vietnam opposes China’s announcement of conducting a survey area throughout the Spratly Islands),” (official website of the Voice of Vietnam radio broadcaster), 6 April 2023.

Regarding the information that the National Natural Science Organization of China announced 33 survey areas, including some lines covering the Truong Sa archipelago in Vietnam’s waters, Deputy Spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Pham Thu Hang at the press conference on April 6 stated, As it has repeatedly affirmed, Vietnam has a full legal basis and historical evidence to affirm its sovereignty over the Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagoes based on international law.

“Người dân Hà Nội háo hức với Triển lãm quốc phòng quốc tế 2022 (Hanoians are enthusiastic about the 2022 International Defense Exhibition),” (Vietnamese government’s national television broadcaster), 8 December 2022.

On the morning of December 8, an exhibition was officially opened for international partners and domestic citizens to observe the capacity, technological progress, and weapons and equipment manufactured by Vietnam…. Many Vietnamese people witnessed the modern weapons of the army for the first time


[i] Among the purposes of the exhibition was to “diversify defense equipment procurement sources” and to “introduce Vietnam’s defense capabilities and Vietnamese-made weapons” to the international community. Although Russia has historically been Vietnam’s main weapons supplier, the presence of Western countries at the exhibition indicates Vietnam’s interest in gradually diversifying by engaging in weapons transfers with them. See: “Vietnam hosts its first international defense expo.”, 8 December 2022.

[ii] Unlike Truong Sa, the Hoang Sa (Paracel Islands) have been under Chinese control since the Chinese navy expelled the South Vietnamese navy from the islands in 1974. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam has inherited the South Vietnamese claims over the islands since 1975, as well as concerns about China attempting to occupy Truong Sa in the future.

[iii] After 1991, Vietnam sought to “multilateralize and diversify” its foreign ties by normalizing its relations with China and all Southeast Asian states and becoming a member of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). By 2001, Vietnam and Russia revived bilateral relations in the form of a strategic partnership and Vietnam and the United States signed a Bilateral Trade Agreement. Vietnam’s broader goal was to insulate the country from Sino-U.S. competition or other major power rivalries and protect its independence and self-reliance. See Carlyle A. Thayer (2017), “Vietnam’s Foreign Policy in an Era of Rising Sino-US Competition and Increasing Domestic Political Influence,” Asian Security, 13:3, 183-199.

Image Information:

Image: Vietnam claims Paracel and Spratly islands.
Source: Tonbi Ko
Attribution: CC x 3.0

India Strengthens Security Cooperation With Vietnam

Defense Minister Shri Rajnath Singh

“The Indian military has the advantage of operating similar platforms to Vietnam’s.”

India has taken several measures to counter China in the past several years, particularly after violent clashes on the Indian – Chinese border in 2017 and 2020.  In addition to strengthening the capabilities of its armed forces along the border, the accompanying excerpted article from the Indian independent think-tank Observer Research Foundation reveals how India is trying to improve security cooperation with Vietnam.  Following the 2020 border skirmishes, Indian officials believe future conflict with China will not likely be limited to one domain.  The article reports on Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh’s visit to Vietnam in early June, noting that he signed two security cooperation agreements.  One remains unpublished in the public domain, but the other agreement involved mutual logistics support and allows both to use the other’s military facilities for repairs and replenishment.  According to the article “this arrangement will mainly benefit the Indian Navy as it ramps up its profile in the Indo-Pacific.” Finally, the article addresses the impact of the war in Ukraine on Vietnam’s ability to procure weapons and equipment from Russia, noting that India has the potential to offer Vietnam various weapons and equipment.  India operates “similar platforms to Vietnam’s and…has leveraged this by assisting Hanoi in training and capacity building.”  Ultimately, India’s agreements with Vietnam mark another step to counter China and offer a potential market for the Indian defense industry.


Sameer Patil, “The importance of India’s defence partnership with Vietnam,” Observer Research Foundation (independent think tank in India), 28 June 2022.

Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh recently paid a three-day visit (8-10 June 2022) to Hanoi to strengthen defence and security ties with Vietnam…  India has also activated a satellite imaging and tracking station in Hanoi, enabling it to track Chinese naval activities in the region…

During Minister Singh’s recent visit, India and Vietnam signed two key agreements:

The first agreement, ‘Joint Vision Statement on India-Vietnam Defence Partnership towards 2030’, casts a long-term perspective on the mutual ties.  While contents of the agreement are not available in the public domain, according to officials, it aims to “enhance the scope and scale of existing defence cooperation.”

The second agreement, an MoU, focused on mutual logistics support to enable the two countries to use each other’s military bases to repair and replenish supplies.  According to the official statement, this agreement is “the first such major agreement which Vietnam has signed with any country.”  This arrangement will mainly benefit the Indian Navy as it ramps up its profile in the Indo-Pacific.

Besides, the two countries also agreed to expedite the extension of a US$500-million Line of Credit (LoC) to Hanoi… As part of the US$ 500 million LoC, India has offered Vietnam Brahmos cruise missiles, Akash missile air defence system, Varunastra anti-submarine torpedoes, and coastal radars…

Notwithstanding the pro-China orientation of the current political leadership, a key driver of Vietnam’s military build-up is the security rivalry with China.  Beijing’s stepped-up aggression to press its territorial claims in the South China Sea dispute has been a significant irritant for Hanoi…

Vietnam has traditionally relied on Russia for its weapons.  However, given its renewed proximity with the US and the US sanctions against the Russian defence industry, Hanoi has sought to diversify its recent arms purchases…

Since the South China Sea clashes, Vietnam has boosted its defence spending, averaging US $4.8 billion between 2014 and 2018.  But, compared to the threat posed by China and its military requirements, this spending is inadequate.  Therefore, Hanoi is looking for more affordable defence suppliers with this moderate defence spending.

India can potentially be one such source.  The Indian military has the advantage of operating similar platforms to Vietnam’s.  It has leveraged this by assisting Hanoi in training and capacity building in Kilo-class submarine operations and Sukhoi-30 fighter jet training.

The unrelenting Chinese hostility in the region will ensure that India and Vietnam will continue on the path of cooperation…  However, to optimise the gains of their collaboration and contribute to regional stability, New Delhi and Hanoi will have to show tangible progress…

Image Information:

Image: Defense Minister Shri Rajnath Singh
Attribution: Government Open Data License – India (GODL)

Vietnam Trains Cambodian Navy Amid Chinese Competition

Vietnam People's Navy honor guard at ASEAN defense ministers meeting 2010-10-12.

Vietnam People’s Navy honor guard at ASEAN defense ministers meeting 2010-10-12.

“The cooperation program in education and training between Cambodian military schools and the [Vietnamese] Naval Academy will continue to expand and develop to improve its effectiveness…”

Vietnam’s Naval Academy has trained Cambodian naval officers for years.  Recently, the Vietnamese government-affiliated People’s Army Newspaper reported that the Cambodian navy sent senior officials to Vietnam to discuss how to improve the effectiveness of the program from which thousands of Cambodians have graduated.  The article notes the Cambodian cadets receive instruction in history, tradition and naval tasks and functions, while fostering friendship and solidarity between the two neighboring countries’ navies.  The continuation of the training program comes amid greater competition from China for influence on the Cambodian navy. 

A separate article posted on the Chinese Ministry of Defense website noted that U.S. media outlets and government officials have claimed that China’s development of the Cambodian Ream Naval Base in Sihanoukville lacked transparency and was part of Chinese military strategy to create a global network of naval bases.  The Chinese Ministry of Defense, however, claims its naval cooperation with Cambodia is a normal function of international relations and consistent with international law.  The ministry also condemned any suggestion that Chinese naval activities in Cambodia pose a threat.  Rather, the Chinese claim that Ream Naval Base will improve Cambodia’s ability to protect its maritime territorial integrity and combat piracy and other maritime crimes.

Vietnam is an historical ally of Cambodia and competitor of China with maritime territorial disputes with China over islands in the South China Sea.  Therefore, Chinese presence at the Ream Naval Base, near Vietnam’s own naval base in Phú Quốc, draws Vietnam’s attention.  Given Vietnamese perception of naval competition with China, continuing to train Cambodian naval cadets is important to Vietnam as it seeks to maintain military influence in Cambodia.


“Đoàn cán bộ cấp cao Hải quân Hoàng gia Campuchia trao đổi kinh nghiệm tại Học viện Hải quân (A senior official delegation from the Royal Cambodian Navy exchanged experiences at the Naval Academy),” People’s Army Newspaper (government-affiliated media source), 27 June 2022.

On June 27, a high-ranking delegation of the Royal Cambodian Navy led by Vice Admiral Non Sophat visited and exchanged experiences at the Naval Academy. Dr. Nguyen Van Lam, Director of the Naval Academy, introduced briefly the history, traditions, functions, tasks, achievements and development trajectory of the Naval Academy.  Simultaneously, he discussed with the delegation the situation and results of training Cambodian military cadets at the academy.  Over the years, the Naval Academy has trained and cultivated thousands of Royal Cambodian Navy officers.  Recently, despite the complicated situation of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Academy still organizes trainings for Cambodian students.

The cooperation program in education and training between Cambodian military schools and the Naval Academy will continue to expand and develop to improve its effectiveness further and contribute to fostering more friendship and solidarity between the armies, navies, and peoples of Vietnam and Cambodia to ensure peace, stability, and development of each country in the region and in the world.

Source: “国防部回应美炒作中柬合作:戴着有色眼镜 看什么都“不透明 (The Ministry of Defense responded to the United States exaggeration about China-Cambodia cooperation: Like wearing colored glasses to makes everything “blurry”),” (Chinese Ministry of Defence website), 22 June 2022.

Some media continue to exaggerate the normal exchanges and cooperation between China and Cambodia, which is entirely devoid of ulterior motives.  On June 8, the upgrading and reconstruction project of the Yunyang Naval Base assisted by China officially commenced.  It conforms to the domestic laws of the two countries and relevant international laws and international practices and is not targeted at a third party.  The construction of the Yunyang base is aimed at strengthening the Cambodian Navy’s ability to maintain maritime territorial integrity and combat maritime crimes.

Image Information:

Image: Vietnam People’s Navy honor guard at ASEAN defense ministers meeting 2010-10-12
Source: Master Sgt. Jerry Morrison, U.S. Air Force,
Attribution: CC x 2.0