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South China Sea: Vietnam Civil Air Service to Commence? By Carlyle A. Thayer

C3S Paper No. 0043/ 2015

Q1. Vietnam’s transport ministry is preparing a plan to start a civilian air service to the Spratly islands. They say the plan will be in place by this year’s end. Do you think, such a move is feasible, considering the implications it might have in the ongoing South China Sea dispute? ANSWER: If the Ministry of Transport has a plan to start up a civilian air service to the Spratly Islands, it is likely to be a reaction to China’s development of tourism in the Paracels. It is also a demonstration of effective control over the Spratly islands as well as that the islands have an economic function. Both aspects serve to bolster Vietnam’s sovereignty claims under international law. Such action would also play positively to Vietnamese public opinion.

Q2. Do you feel there’s been a shift in Hanoi’s diplomatic tactics off late (partnering with major players, strengthening its marine defense and raising sovereignty awareness to plans such as the one above)? ANSWER: Vietnam has for a long-time been consistent in pursuing a multilateral approach to the major powers. This policy dates back to 1991 when the seventh national party congress approved a foreign policy of diversifying and multilateralizing foreign relations. Vietnam pursues an equilibrium in its relations with China, the United States, Russia, Japan and India. Vietnam has also been modernizing its naval and air defence-air force since the mid-1990s. This has steadily picked up pace moving from acquiring surface combatants (frigates) to multirole jet aircraft (Su-27s and Su-30s) to a submarine fleet. The HD 981 crisis of last year has led to an intensification of efforts to raise the awareness of ordinary Vietnamese about sovereignty claims the East Sea.

(Article reprinted with the permission of the author Carlyle A. Thayer, Emeritus Professor,The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra email:

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