John Kerry is back in Vietnam -- his first time as Secretary of State -- with a mission different from the dozen he's taken before. This latest round of U.S. support for Vietnam is largely about energy: who can develop it, how they can develop it, and what the consequences will be.
That is especially important for countries bordering the South China Sea, theoretically a potential motherlode of oil and gas in the future, but a source of constant low-level conflict today.
Beijing estimates that there are more than 100 billion barrels of oil under the South China Sea, about ten times more than U.S. officials see there. And the Chinese are doing their best to keep that oil to themselves. Chinese vessels have interfered with Vietnamese and other foreign ships looking for oil in recent years. Just one year ago, a Chinese ship apparently deliberately interfered with Vietnamese oil-survey efforts by cutting the survey ship's cable. In November, Vietnam and India reached a deal for additional oil exploration in the South China Sea, which drew an immediate rebuke from China.
The United States announced Monday a new maritime partnership with Vietnam that on paper will help Hanoi police its waters. In reality, it's a way to give Vietnam a bit more muscle to defend its territorial interests in the potentially oil- and gas-rich but contested waters of the South China Sea.
At the same time, Kerry breathed new life into the so-called "Lower Mekong Initiative" that's meant to help Vietnam and its southeast Asian neighbors develop in a sustainable way, deal with the ravages of climate change -- and keep China's seemingly bottomless appetite for energy from wrecking Southeast Asia's agrarian economy.
The maritime partnership with Vietnam is particularly intriguing, because it gives the United States a way to strengthen a country that isn't an ally and to whom sales of military hardware are limited by law.
As part of a regional maritime partnership, the United States will provide Vietnam with $18 million "to enhance the capacity of coastal patrol units," including the provision of five fast patrol boats for the Vietnamese coast guard. Nominally, the State Department said, that's part of an aid package to help Vietnam and its neighbors deal with traditional constabulary duties such as anti-piracy, drug trafficking, and the like.
But Secretary Kerry made clear in Hanoi that the patrol boats will have a more important mission: "Peace and stability in the South China Sea is a top priority for us and for countries in the region. We are very concerned by and strongly opposed to coercive and aggressive tactics to advance territorial claims," he said, in a clear reference to China, which has used strong-arm tactics to lay claim to nearly the entire sea, most notably through the notorious nine-dash line. That's China's not-so-subtle way of trying to grab entire swathes of the South China Sea that are claimed by five other countries (six, if you include Taiwan).
Vietnam, like other countries surrounding the South China Sea, has long had confrontations with an increasingly aggressive China. The whole region has plenty of interests at stake in the South China Sea. It's one of the busiest waterways in world trade, and one of the most important fisheries in Asia. And then there's the potential for oil, which makes the South China Sea conflict fundamentally different than the territorial disputes and grandstanding that characterize tensions in the East China Sea.
Granted, a handful of patrol boats won't make Vietnam the maritime peer of China. But symbolically, at least, the deal shows how "the U.S. will help claimants strengthen their ability to resist coercion," said M. Taylor Fravel, a professor and expert on Chinese maritime issues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Significantly, U.S. aid comes in the form of a stronger Vietnamese coast guard. On the one hand, that's because U.S. military aid to its former enemy is constrained. But in the maritime games of chicken in the South China Sea, civil defense and fisheries-enforcement ships -- rather than fully-armed naval vessels -- are the currency of power. China, in particular, has beefed up its civilian maritime presence to press its claims, rather than its newly invigorated navy.
"Civil maritime capabilities are key to the territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea. China is effectively using its predominance in this area to bully and coerce its neighbors, without resorting to direct military action," said Ely Ratner, Deputy Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.
"It's therefore critical that other countries, while unable to match China pound for pound, at least have the ability to police their own shores and maintain a degree of maritime domain awareness about what's happening in their territorial waters," he said.
Onshore, Kerry also brought a little cash and a lot of encouraging words for the Lower Mekong Initiative, a plan launched by his predecessor Hillary Clinton that is meant to spur unity and sustainable development among countries in southeast Asia.
Like the maritime partnership, greater support for the Lower Mekong Initiative is one way the United States can help bolster countries that are wrestling with an aggressive China. Chinese hydroelectric development in its southern provinces threatens the flow of a river that's crucial for about 60 million people downstream.
"From Hanoi's perspective, Beijing's ability to regulate the river, the ecological and environmental impact of China's dams, and those planned by its upstream Southeast Asian neighbors hangs like a sword of Damocles over the Mekong Delta," concluded a 2012 report from the Mekong Policy Project at the Stimson Center.
So far, much as China has sought to deal with southeast Asian countries bilaterally when it comes to maritime disputes, Chinese hydropower development has played up divisions between downstream neighbors. That reduces their ability to push back in unison against development practices that could imperil the livelihoods of millions in the region.
That's one big reason the United States is trying to get downstream countries, including Vietnam, to work more closely together on hydroelectric development and policies for watershed management.
"No one country has a right to deprive another country of the livelihood and the ecosystem and its capacity for life itself that comes with that river," Kerry said Sunday, after a peaceful ride on the river he used to patrol on a swift-boat.
Richard Cronin, Southeast Asia program director at the Stimson Center, said that Kerry's reference to upstream countries and the threat they pose to Lower Mekong countries echo historic comments made by Hillary Clinton in 2011 in Hanoi. She made headlines, and raised hackles in Beijing, by wading into the territorial dispute in the South China Sea.
"We don't have the money to offer, and we can't compete on aid, but we can remind countries that they need to hang together, or they'll hang separately," Cronin said.
Of course, Kerry being Kerry, climate change also came to the forefront on his stop in Vietnam. (He called it the biggest global challenge in a speech in Washington on December 11.) He announced $17 million in aid to help Vietnam adapt to climate change. And he called the lower Mekong the "rice basket of Asia," warning how climate change could lead to sea level rise, threaten millions in the region, and lead to widespread displacements.
Don't expect that focus on the climate threat to dissipate during the rest of Kerry's trip, either. Next stop: The Philippines, including typhoon-ravaged Tacloban.