China and Southeast Asian nations including Vietnam have over the past couple of years reached fundamental consensus on maintaining the stability of the South China Sea. But it seems that the US is unwilling to see the waters turning from a hotspot "battleground" into a region of relative tranquility. That's why it has been wooing Vietnam and its neighbors to support its efforts of establishing a US-dominated South China Sea. Most recently, a guided-missile destroyer of the US Navy sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Nansha Islands.
The trip by US Defense Secretary James Mattis to Vietnam came at a time when China-US trade tensions are running high. His visit is also part of US President Donald Trump's overall strategy to contain a rising China. According to a report by AFP, Mattis said en route to Ho Chi Minh that the US remains "highly concerned with continued militarization of features in the South China Sea". In addition, he scolded China for its "growing" military presence and "predatory economic behavior" against smaller Asian nations.
With such moves, the US has put itself on a high moral ground to elicit support from smaller countries, which is similar to its clamor about China "plundering the US economy".
Nguyen Phu Trong, general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) Central Committee, was nominated the next president of Vietnam. If approved, he will undertake more diplomatic activities as the country's president. He prefers stable, pragmatic and China-friendly policies, so the US and other Western countries are worried about pro-China political moderates dominate Vietnam's diplomacy. Mattis' visit this time might aim at finding out the real diplomatic intentions of Hanoi.
But Vietnam is unwilling to submit to become a pawn of America.
In pursuit of "diversified and multilateral" foreign policy, Hanoi expects to keep its independence by being friends with other countries. It has been trying to strike a balance with great powers and refuses to take sides. Since the 2016 12th National Congress of the CPV, Vietnamese leaders have adopted a more flexible and moderate foreign policy and there have been no clashes with China over the South China Sea. From 2016 to 2018, Vietnam has also made remarkable progress in economic development.
In fact on the one hand, the country wants to cozy up with the US to latch on to its activities in the South China Sea and oppose China building islands; on the other, it's unwilling to see a distant, unsure America excessively interfere in the South China Sea conundrum so as to affect its balance with China and damage the hard-won peace and development at home.
When Zhao Leji, member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, visited Vietnam in September, Trong said that bilateral relations are at their best in history.
Hanoi actually has multiple contradictions with Washington. It is reluctant to be under US control over security and the US has never given up sponsoring a color revolution on Vietnam's territory. Hanoi has been cautious against the US stirring up trouble in the name of democracy, human rights and various other social issues.
Since Trump entered the White House, new disputes have surfaced between the two countries. Vietnam's economy is heavily reliant on foreign capital and global trade, so it's very disappointed with Trump's protectionism. Moreover, Trump may anytime in the future shoot his tariff darts at Vietnam - a country which also has a trade surplus with the US.
In the meantime, Hanoi is grouchy with Washington's withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, since climate change is precipitating a migration crisis.
Furthermore, Vietnam will not abandon its claim to and presence in the South China Sea but it may probably resort to a different way of showing it. It proposed at the eighth session of the 12th CPV Central Committee earlier this month a new version of sea-based economic development strategy which highlights tourism, shipping, exploration of resources and fishery. To this end, cooperation is the only way out. Seeking to dovetail with China's 21st Century Maritime Silk Road is obviously a better deal than purchasing weapons and embarking on a full-scale military confrontation.
After all, Mattis' Vietnam trip was just a drop-by before his visit to Singapore for the ASEAN Defense Ministers' Meeting. Vietnam's state media did not go all out with Mattis' visit and desisted from mentioning "South China Sea". Therefore, some Western media outlets might have read too much into it.