Tillerson Offers Little Comfort for Vietnam

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China’s apparent delight at the visit of the US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, at the weekend will not have been matched by a similar sentiment in Hanoi.

The decision by the US official not to challenge China publicly over its territorial ambitions in the South China Sea can only have added to Vietnam’s concerns about the unreliability and unpredictability of the new administration in Washington.

It was Mr Tillerson, after all, who had appeared to throw down the gauntlet to China during his confirmation hearings in January.


“We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed,” he told Senators.

Any yet, just days before his visit to Beijing, China announced plans for construction work on Scarborough Shoal, the scattered rocks and reefs off the Philippine coast that were seized from Manila in 2012.

China said it would begin preparatory work for an environmental monitoring station on the shoal, and on other features in the Paracels, which are claimed by Vietnam. The work is likely to involve reclamation of land and docking facilities – a process that on seven features further south in the Spratlys quickly led to the construction of major military bases.

The Obama administration had made clear that any move to build on Scarborough Shoal would be seen as highly provocative.

Mr Tillerson, however, was content to mouth platitudes about cooperation and non-confrontation in Beijing – words seen by commentators in China, and in some neighbouring countries, as tantamount to accepting Chinese regional domination.

“Tillerson assured Xi of the Trump administration’s commitment to the principles of no confrontation, no conflict, mutual respect, win-win cooperation,” said the China Daily, reflecting the official view that the visit was a big success for China.

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