The United States has offered Vietnam $18 million for the purchase of American patrol boats, to be used in self-defense against looming threats from China to Vietnamese and Philippine vessels that dare navigate into the South China Sea. China has both increased its belligerent activity in the disputed region and trumped up calls to condemn its neighbors for “provocative” behavior near the Spratly Islands.
Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced the multi-million-dollar initiative during a visit to Vietnam on Sunday, on the heels of multiple remarks by U.S. officials calling for China to stop building artificial islands and military utilities in the Spratly Islands area. Carter himself called last week for an “immediate and lasting halt” to construction in the Spratly Islands, following China’s groundbreaking ceremony on two lighthouses in the region, which would allow the Chinese government to more easily identify and intimidate foreign vessels.
Carter described the grant to Vietnam as an attempt to “modernize” the U.S.-Vietnam partnership in response to evolving national interests. In addition to discussing alliances, Carter toured several Vietnamese fishing vessels that had been rammed and attacked with water cannons by the Chinese for navigating Vietnamese waters the Chinese claim as their own. China has been attacking Vietnamese watercraft with increasing frequency in the past month, deterring fishermen and preventing them from attaining their livelihoods.
While Vietnam and China are still both nominally communist countries, their shared ideologies have not prevented a rivalry from developing in the South China Sea. Vietnam has reacted to the Chinese threat by calling in help from all over the world, the United States only the most recent ally to offer aid. Vietnam has purchased missiles from Russia, a warship from India (which has oil interests in the South China Sea to protect), and expanded its diplomatic relations with the Philippines.
While Russia appears to be playing on both sides of the dispute, scheduling military exercises with China in the disputed waters for next year, the United States has ramped up its condemnation of China. President Barack Obama has finally remarked on the tensions in the South China Sea, encouraging China to stop “throwing elbows and pushing people out of the way.”
China has blamed “provocative” behavior on the part of the Philippines in particular for the increased tensions. With the exception of the arrest of 11 Chinese fishermen in April 2014 for entering Philippine waters, the nation has taken little action near the Spratly Islands. Nonetheless, state news outlet Xinhua, in an editorial column published Tuesday, condemned the Philippines for maintaining friendly ties with Japan and the United States and an alleged “growing appetite for a more assertive role in the South China Sea.” The column calls accusations against China “cliche” and argues that accusing China of “bullying” is a “lousy trick” intended to turn the world against China.
Meanwhile, Philippine fishermen whose families have enjoyed free movement in the Spratly Islands for generations are being forced to find alternate means to make a living. Australia’s ABC reports that some fishermen have seen their month’s pay reduced exponentially as they are prevented from accessing the fish they sell to make profits, and any attempt to come near the Spratly Islands is met with water cannons and the threat of bullets.