US can’t use energy cooperation with Vietnam to further its regional interests

By Cheng Hanping Source:Global Times Published: 2019/11/24 18:48:40

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

The Wan'an Tan in the Nansha Islands, claimed by Vietnam as "Vanguard Bank," has witnessed a protracted standoff between China and Vietnam this year. Against the backdrop, Vietnam has been hoping powers outside the region, including the US and Japan, could endorse it.

Vietnamese Minister of Industry and Trade Tran Tuan Anh paid visits to Japan and the US in September and October in an attempt to encourage more energy enterprises to cooperate with Vietnam in offshore energy exploration. 

On September 30, US Assistant Secretary of State for Energy Resources Francis R. Fannon and Dang Hoang An, then Vietnamese vice minister of industry and trade, signed in Washington a memorandum of understanding (MOU) memorializing a US-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership on Energy. Over a month later, an MOU to implement the Son My 2 combined cycle gas turbine power plant in Vietnam was signed by US-based ASE Corporation and representatives of the Vietnamese Ministry of Industry and Trade on November 8. Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and US Ambassador to Vietnam Daniel Kritenbrink attended the signing ceremony. 

Washington has ulterior motives in improving energy cooperation with Hanoi at such a rapid pace. 

First, the US intends to further deepen and implement its Indo-Pacific Strategy, and Vietnam is an anchor to achieve it. On November 4, Vietnam officially took over ASEAN's annually rotating chairmanship from Thailand and has thus increased its utility for the US.

Second, US President Donald Trump's administration has been paying increasing attention to the South China Sea issue. After ties between China and the Philippines improved, Vietnam has provided an important leverage the US can rest on to contain China. The scramble over offshore oil and gas between Beijing and Hanoi has been a unique anchor for Washington. Some hawks in the Trump administration have repeatedly tried to sow discord between China and Vietnam, especially instigating Vietnam to provoke China at sea. This can turn the two countries into enemies, which the US can benefit from.

Third, Washington is aware that Hanoi's oil and gas exploration and production are on the decline. If the US can help Vietnam combat its power shortage, the Asian country will be obliged to Washington, obey its command and become its important pawn in the Indo-Pacific Strategy.

The core strategic intention of the US is to use joint energy development with Vietnam as a cover to instigate Hanoi to take bigger steps in maritime confrontation with China.

Hanoi also has its own calculations in cooperating with Washington. 

First, Vietnam hopes to multiply its strategic value. It is clearly aware of its values for the Trump administration under the current geopolitical environment. As an anchor in Indo-Pacific Strategy, Hanoi can attract Washington's attention for bigger gains. 

Second, Hanoi wants to cooperate with Washington and Tokyo to upset Beijing, because Vietnam tends to believe Washington and Tokyo could make China feel the fear. 

Third, amid the tensions with China at Wan'an Tan, inking deals with Japan and the US for resource exploration can help Vietnam tie up with major powers outside the region, so as to effectively make China aware of the difficulties of tensions with Vietnam.

However, this amounts to lack of proper judgment. Addressing a grand gathering to celebrate the People's Liberation Army's 90th anniversary in 2017, President Xi Jinping said, "No one should expect us to swallow the bitter fruit that is harmful to our sovereignty, security or development interests." China is willing to negotiate for joint projects with other countries but will not tolerate any harm to its sovereignty. 

Washington and Hanoi's intentions are widely clear: The US needs a helper in the region and its purpose is to bolster Vietnam to stand up to China at sea; Vietnam looks to the US in an attempt to make Washington endorse it while making huge economic gains.

The author is senior research fellow and professor at the Collaborative Innovation Center of South China Sea Studies, Nanjing University.


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