Even as the United States continues to bolster its presence in the South China Sea region as a means of keeping sea lanes open while challenging outsized territorial claims to the whole ocean by China, Vietnam is emerging as the biggest challenger to Beijing and is becoming nearly as aggressive with its neighbors.

The fishing industry accounts for more than 10 percent of Vietnam’s annual GDP, and as many regions in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone have been depleted, the country’s fishermen have begun to venture further into the South China Sea, often encroaching in the exclusive economic zones of other Asian nations.

In addition, Vietnam — a country of 93 million — has recently renewed oil exploration agreements with an Indian firm ONGC to explore for fossil fuels under the ocean floor. That will no doubt upset Beijing, but nuclear power India has become Vietnam’s new best friend in the region. In addition, Hanoi and Washington have also moved closer in recent years.

Beyond that, Vietnam is a country whose population is increasingly nationalistic and demanding of government leaders in Hanoi to more aggressively assert Vietnamese claims in the region. That won’t sit well with an equally aggressive China.

“Vietnam’s maritime interests lie in defending its sovereign stakes in the South China Sea,” says Abhijit Singh, a research fellow at India’s Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. “This includes patrolling its legitimate Exclusive Economic Zone and maintaining its claims over the Spratly and Paracel islands, even though the latter are controlled by China. Vietnam’s principal challenge has been to counter Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea. And although it continues to remain inferior to the People’s Liberation Army Navy, the Vietnamese navy has improved its effectiveness in protecting its maritime interests.”

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