HANOI — A SENIOR official in Hanoi points to a sock-shaped line on a map, recently bought in Beijing, that reveals most of the South China Sea as being claimed by China.
The official, a member of the prime minister's Border Issues Committee, dismisses the far-flung boundary as Chinese propaganda. But then he admits Vietnam can't ignore the map's message.
"It is part of China's strategic plan to take over the whole South China Sea," he says. "If other countries in the region don't take appropriate action, the Chinese will expand more."
Then he cites one country that Vietnam would like as a possible ally. "The involvement of the US in assisting the countries to settle this dispute peacefully is most welcome," he says.
Few countries have more to fear from Chinese expansionism than Vietnam. China once occupied Vietnam for a 1,000 years and since 1979 invaded it twice, killing thousands and taking some Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
Both nations claim all of the Spratlys, a collection of islands that straddle a key ocean shipping lane and may contain rich petroleum deposits.
Besides the dispute over the Spratlys, Vietnam and China disagree also over drilling rights to a large ocean area west of the Spratlys known in Vietnamese as the Tu Chinh Bank.
China and Vietnam skirmished in the Spratlys in 1988. Vietnam lost 78 sailors and six shoals to China. And before that in 1974, Chinese forces evicted former South Vietnamese forces from the Paracels, an island chain to the north.
Vietnam, seeking to bolster its position against China, plans to join the six-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on July 28. Hanoi is also pushing hard for full ties with the US.
Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan, and the Philippines claim some of the Spratlys. Tensions between China and the Philippines mounted when Manila discovered permanent Chinese-built structures on Mischief Reef in February, an area Manila considers its own. (See story, left) With every claimant except Brunei stationing troops in the Spratlys, the islands have become a potential powder keg for regional conflict.
The US State Department appears to share this view. In a May statement, it said the US "is willing to assist in any way that claimants deem helpful." It urged all parties to restrain themselves from using force.
Vietnam hopes to persuade China to settle the dispute in an international forum. Beijing insists on dealing from a position of strength by negotiating individually with each of its smaller rivals.
Vietnamese officials, apparently afraid of upsetting the Chinese, are careful to avoid saying publicly that they want the US as a strategic counterweight to China. But Vietnam is striving to win US diplomatic support. In the past few months, it has provided hundreds of pages of documents slated to US servicemen missing or dead from the Vietnam War. They have discussed human rights with US officials and aided US efforts to combat drug trafficking. As a result, President Le Duc Anh is expected to be the first top Vietnamese leader to visit the US, perhaps in October.
While Hanoi sees the US as the most powerful restraining force in the region against China, notions of a strategic partnership between them are premature, says an Asian diplomat here. "I don't foresee a port visit by the US Navy," he says, speaking anonymously.
President Clinton said earlier this month that he is considering upgrading relations with Vietnam, but he may be waiting for the best timing to avoid strong criticism in the US.
The editor in chief of the Vietnamese newspaper World Affairs Weekly, Nguyen Ngoc Truong, insists that Vietnam's joining ASEAN does not mean it is aligning itself against China.
ASEAN now includes three Spratlys claimants - Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines - as well as Thailand, Singapore, and Indonesia. Diplomats say Vietnam is sure to strengthen its position in relation to China in the South China Sea by becoming a member. ASEAN, alarmed at China's incursion on Mischief Reef, implored all parties to seek a peaceful solution to the Spratlys dispute in an unprecedented joint statement in March.
"We can't say the Vietnamese are pushing us," says the Asian diplomat. "We have all along maintained that this is one issue that should not be allowed to degenerate into a shooting war." He says, however, that ASEAN would probably take a more active role in trying to resolve the problem after Vietnam joins.
Diplomacy aside, Hanoi has made a determined effort to building physical structures on the 21 islands and reefs it occupies in the Spratlys. The Hanoi official wouldn't say how many troops are stationed there but says Hanoi has based an unspecified number of navy vessels in the archipelago.
Covington & Burling, a Washington law firm hired by Vietnam, disclosed its opinion that Hanoi's claims in the South China Sea are justified on the basis of the 1982 Law of the Sea treaty.
The legal opinion offers some comfort to US companies exploring for oil in parts of the Tu Chinh area also claimed by China. But one US oil executive says Vietnam's dispute with China has little bearing on his firm's operations. "We wouldn't have taken a lease in the first place if we didn't think Vietnam had a legitimate claim to it," he says.