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Thayer Consultancy Background Brief:

ABN # 65 648 097 123


Vietnam and U.S. Sign MOU to
Counter Intimidation of
Vietnamese Fishermen
Carlyle A. Thayer
July 26, 2020
We are currently preparing a report about tensions in the South China Sea, more
specifically in relation to the recent signing of an MOU between the United States and
Vietnam. The terms of the MOU provide for the U.S. to help prevent illegal
intimidation of Vietnamese fishing vessels. We request your analysis of the following
issues:
Q1. How will the U.S. help stop illegal intimidation of Vietnamese fishing vessels?
ANSWER: My understanding of the MOU is that the United States will confine itself to
training assistance, fisheries management, legal expertise, capacity building and the
possible sale of relevant equipment and technology to the Vietnam Coast Guard.
The United States will not get directly involved as a matter of policy and because the
U.S. lacks the means to offer effective support on the sea. The policy is that this is
Vietnam’s responsibility as it has sovereign rights. The U.S. would not want to place
warships in a constabulary role as this would degrade their deterrent effect and divert
them from presence patrols and other operations.
Vietnamese fishermen are intimidated by both the China Coast Guard, maritime
militia and provincial fishing fleets.The use of grey hulled U.S. warships would be an
escalation.
The U.S. Coast Guard does not have the capability to provide constant presence over
a widely dispersed area involving so many fishing craft. Vietnamese fishermen are
intimidated by both the China Coast Guard, maritime militia and provincial fishing
fleets.
The U.S. will provide diplomatic and political support to Vietnam and other littoral
states and assist in building up the capacity of their maritime law enforcement
agencies. Neither of these support activities will stop China from intimidation,
especially during the May-August period when China’s unilateral fishing ban is in force.
The question of illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing (IUUF) and the humane
treatment of fishermen in the South China Sea is much broader than Chinese
intimidation of Vietnamese fishermen in the waters near the Paracels and elsewhere.
Vietnamese fishermen are the main culprits intruding into Indonesian waters.
Indonesia has regularly seized and burnt Vietnamese fishing boats.
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Q2. Will Vietnamese government officials change their thinking now that the U.S. is
showing them much more support?
ANSWER: Vietnam will be immediately thinking how it can take advantage of the
change in U.S. position. The most obvious area is in multilateral forums, either part of
ASEAN-related institutions or non-ASEAN multilateral forums. Vietnam and the U.S.
could discuss coordination to try and enlist Malaysia, Philippines, Brunei and Indonesia
in a common legal front. This would be a long shot.
Vietnam has also launched two initiatives at the UN, a debate on compliance with the
UN Charter and the convening of the first UN-ASEAN meeting. The U.S. could provide
diplomatic support.
Because the U.S. has not ratified UNCLOS it cannot play any official role in legal action
that Vietnam – and other littoral states – might take. In 2013 the U.S. applied for
observer status at the Arbitral Tribunal proceedings in the case brought by the
Philippines against China. The U.S. was turned down.
The U.S. could offer legal assistance to littoral states on a bilateral basis.
Q3. Do you think there was any significant outcome from the recent conversations
between foreign ministers Pham Binh Minh and Wang Yi?
ANSWER: The 12th meeting of the China-Vietnam Joint Steering Committee for
Bilateral Cooperation was pretty much a cut and dried affair. This body has not served
as a venue for discussion of their maritime disputes in the South China Sea in the past/
The South China Sea was discussed in general at this meeting.
The Joint Steering Committee meets annually, alternating between China and
Vietnam. It provides a high-level overview of all cooperative relations, identifies
bottlenecks, and sets objectives for the future. That this meeting had to be held via
video conference makes it even more likely that sensitive South China Sea issues were
not discussed.
The fact that the meeting was held is a positive sign. Wang Yi was conciliatory
reflecting the current propaganda line that the U.S. is the trouble maker in the South
China Sea. This meeting took place after Vietnam’s leaders ordered a halt to oil
exploration activities at block 06-1 and terminated the contract for the drill ship. This
would have been viewed positively in Beijing as evidence that China’s policy of steady
unrelenting pressure on Vietnam is working.
Wang Yi’s conciliatory tone likely reflects that Beijing is still calculating how to respond
to the marked step up in U.S. naval activities, including three naval exercises by U.S.
Carrier Battle Groups and the multinational exercise among the U.S, Japan and
Australia. In addition, Beijing also must be weighing the implications of the U.S. policy
shift on the legal front announced by Secretary Pompeo on 13 July.
Finally, China is well aware that Vietnam will be holding its thirteenth national party
congress in less than six months. Any Chinese heavy-handedness in the South China
Sea would be counter-productive, provoke an anti-China backlash and an
accompanying step up in Vietnam-U.S. relations.
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Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “Vietnam and U.S. Sign MOU to Counter
Intimidation of Vietnamese Fishermen,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, July 26,
2020. All background briefs are posted on Scribd.com (search for Thayer). To remove
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Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and
other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially
registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.