When Beijing built a deep-sea drilling platform squarely in Vietnam's exclusive economic zone earlier this summer, it once again flouted widely accepted rules and sought to extend its reach far into the South China Sea. Washington and its Asian partners are struggling to calibrate an appropriate response.
The United States has an interest in resisting Chinese coercion in the Pacific and in bolstering the open, rules-based regional system that has permitted Asian economies to flourish. But with China defending its platform with patrol circles of military, coast guard and fishing vessels, the danger of escalation is clear. Ramming enemy ships is a common tactic, and one Vietnamese fishing vessel has already been sunk. How should the U.S. respond to China's coercive efforts in an effective and measured way?
One answer lies in relations with Vietnam. Vietnam's capacity to resist creeping assertions of sovereignty is outmatched by Beijing's superior might. While Washington and Hanoi have taken modest steps to normalize military relations through joint exercises and strategic dialogue, the U.S. should take additional steps to bolster Vietnam's ability to defend itself. Most importantly, the U.S. should lift the existing ban on lethal arms sales to Vietnam.