Vietnam is a coastal state and a disputing party in the South China Sea (SCS), which is called the East Sea in Vietnam due to its location vis-à-vis its mainland.1 Within the framework of this chapter, these two terms are used interchangeably. There, Vietnam claims sovereignty over the land features in the Paracels and Spratlys, and over a suite of maritime zones as stipulated by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which overlap wholly and partly with those of its neighbours. The country has been well-known as one of the claimants which has stood firmly in a series of stand-offs with its giant neighbour, China. It is a big puzzle for many why Hanoi would risk antagonizing Beijing, its most important neighbour, for a bunch of remote, barren and tiny features in the middle of the sea and for the waters off its coast. This chapter builds on the existing literature of Vietnam’s maritime activities and its statecraft to map and identify the importance of the East Sea in the Vietnamese perspective throughout the course of history. It should be noted that the SCS and the offshore islets have not only been incorporated into Vietnam’s political geography since at least the 17th century but also into its strategic thinking. In other words, the sea and islands serve as a layer of defence that increases the country’s strategic depth.
Vietnam’s strategic thinking is conditioned by history and geography. The combination of the asymmetry of power and geographical proximity created a permanent concern among Vietnamese political elites about the Northern threat.