Appearance on Channel News Asia concerning warming Viet Nam – US ties

On 7 October I appeared on Singapore-based Channel News Asia (CNA) to discuss the US’s partial lifting of its arms embargo on Vietnam. You can view the programme below.

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Chat with Hong Kong students

The first part if an interview I conducted with four Hong Kong undergraduates in relation to the pro-democracy civil disobedience movement that intensified in late Sept/early October 2014.

In Part 2 I begin by discussing some the challenges of living as
a Hong Kong citizen and foreigners (especiallly academics)
in Hong Kong in an environment in which the promise of
an increasingly democratic society appears to be fading.

Here’s part 3. We talk about the complex relation between
democratic politics and livelihood issues and conclude.

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Warming US ties and Vietnam’s future

Vietnam Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh’s visit to Washington this week marks an important event in a large process of warming ties between the US and Vietnamese state’s. The talks come after several months of high-level discussions between various representatives of the two sides in the face of the Chinese state’s aims to enforce its legally baseless sovereignty claims over vast swathes of the maritime Southeast Asia and change the status quo through various coercive means.

In the face of these threats – to Vietnam’s sovereignty and to regional security – a great deal of attention has been directly to the imminent easing of Washington’s ban on the sale of lethal weapons to Hanoi. Beyond transfers of military and security equipment and technology and its not inconsiderable symbolic meaning, the lifting of the ban portends deeper military-to-military cooperation. Yet talks between the two countries leaders extend well beyond the military sphere. Nearly 40 decades on from their disastrous war, the US and Vietnamese states share numerous interests spanning trade and investment, education, and not least a need to manage what the Vietnamese have diplomatically described as Beijing’s “unchecked unilateralism.”

Internationally, the spectacle of warming ties between Hanoi and Washington nearly 40 years after the culmination of their disastrous war in interesting on all sorts of levels. What is perhaps less understood among foreign observers is the incredible and almost indescribably complexity of recent developments in Vietnam’s domestic politics. These developments, though difficult to make complete sense of, are nonetheless deserving of attention. For Vietnam’s leaders and indeed its people are today engaged in a grand debate about the country’s direction.

The questions facing the Vietnamese today are large and they are multifaceted. Among these the urgent (if familiar) problem of ‘how to cope with China now’ is only the most obvious and intractable. The far more interesting and in many respects more important debates raging in Vietnam concern the course of the country’s institutional and political development. For there is an increasing sense that the country’s institutions and politics – and not any foreign power – are the key factors undermining the country’s economic performance, slowing improvements in living standards, and intensifying inequalities of income, opportunity, and rights.

Vietnam remains an authoritarian polity. Yet in recent years debates about democracy and (to a lesser extent) rights have slowly but surely become regularized features of the country’s tense but gradually liberalizing political discourse. Many of the strongest calls for fundamental institutional and political reforms are longtime party members, whose decades of service immunize them against repression. Other voices for change are found in the country’s vibrant, diverse, and increasingly confident civil society that, though subject to waves of repression, has become a robust force in the country’s politics. Last but not least are millions of overseas Vietnamese – including earlier and very recent international migrants – who together with their countryman are keen to see Vietnam break through its self-made pathologies and join the ranks of East Asia’s open and democratic societies.

How, then, should we understand Vietnam amid the clinking of champagne glasses in Washington? Vietnam remains a country with vast economic potential. The country’s economy can and should be preforming much better than it is, something virtually all Vietnamese sense or know. Vietnam’s people have seen very significant improvements in their living standards, but the improvements have come from a very low base, are unequal across income groups, and are proceeding too slowing owing to various institutional constraints that adversely effect everything from education, to health care, to economic opportunities.

Standing between Vietnam and a more prosperous future are a series of important political decisions about the country’s institutional development. Closer ties with the US are welcome and may assist Vietnam in addressing its institutional challenges. But ultimately it is the Vietnamese who must together decide.

JL

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Interview with the Southeast Asia Research Centre (SEARC)

SEARC interviewI recently sat for a 10 minute interview with the Southeast Asia Research Centre at the City University of Hong Kong. The interview talks mostly about my blogging activities.

City University of Hong Kong’s Southeast Asia Research Centre is among the leading centers for research on contemporary Southeast Asia, featuring leading experts on Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Viet Nam. The Centre’s working papers series features analyses by top scholars from across the region and around the world. Video of the interview can be viewed below.

 

 

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Coping with untenable demands

This piece has been published in a special issue of Atlantisch Perspectief (‘Atlantic Perspective’), the Dutch international relations and security policy journal.This particular issue is focused on the Asia security environment, specifically in relation to ‘the rise of China.’ The issue includes several country profiles, including Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.
A link to download the entire special issue appears at the conclusion of this essay

AP 5 2014 Integraal (2)Only two decades ago Vietnam was among the poorest countries in Asia. Reeling from decades of war and subject to a punishing US-Sino trade embargo, the country remained largely isolated from world trade and suffered intermittent food shortages. Thanks to market-reforms and two decades of economic growth, Vietnam is today a rapidly globalizing lower middle-income country governed by a state intent on sustaining economic growth, industrialization, and improving living standards through a development strategy premised on independence, self-styled institutional modernization, and access to foreign markets. To realize it’s long-term development aims, Vietnam’s leaders face numerous domestic challenges, most of which stem from deficiencies in the country’s governing institutions. Beyond these, Vietnam faces significant external challenges, particularly those stemming from the increasingly aggressive behavior of the country’s colossal neighbor and leading trading partner, the People’s Republic of China.

In early May, the tense equilibrium that has characterized relations between Hanoi and Beijing for decades was thrown violently off kilter when Beijing decided to press forward with attempts to enforce its illegitimate claims over vast areas of maritime Southeast Asia. In the two months that followed relations between the two countries descended to lows not seen in decades. More recently tensions have eased. Yet barring unforeseen breakthroughs, relations between Hanoi and Beijing remain fragile, to put it mildly.

No country in the world has as much experience coping with an expansionist China. For Vietnam in particular, there is a perpetual need to keep relations on an even keel to the extent that is possible. Yet relations between the two countries, which have been strained in the best of times, face major difficulties, as Beijing’s determination to dominate the region have forced Hanoi to rethink its entire strategic outlook. To grasp Vietnam’s new strategic predicament, it will first be useful to review what has changed in Vietnam’s relations with China, particularly since May.

Making sense of oil rig 981 and its aftermath

Beijing’s decision to place China National Offshore Oil Corporation’s giant Haiyan 981 oil rig in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone was a political move intended to change the status quo. This action was accompanied by a steady combination of coercion and propaganda and promises of even more provocative actions. Beijing’s arrogance, belligerence, and shortsightedness impressed the world while profoundly damaging its relations with Hanoi.

Not surprisingly, Beijing’s behavior produced wide outrage across Vietnam and severely aggravated regional tensions, needlessly jeopardizing East Asia’s prosperity and social order. In the immediate aftermath of the oil rig’s placement, elements of Vietnam’s Communist Party who imagined an alliance with China quickly lost their credibility, while tensions and debates within the party as to how to respond boiled vigorously but saw no resolution. The riots that took place in May in three Vietnamese provinces were for Hanoi a self-inflicted wound, even as the precise causes of the rioting remain unclear to this day.

While Beijing has long signaled its expansionist designs, it did not and does not yet appear to grasp its full ramifications, particularly with respect to its relations with Vietnam and their broader strategic significance. Outlandish claims from Beijing that it has been bullied only resonate within the echo chamber of Beijing’s political scene, as do claims that China has never invaded another country in modern times. Indeed, outrage in Vietnam about Beijing’s behavior stem principally from the PLA’s deadly and illegal seizure of the Paracel Islands in 1974, its 1979 military invasion that left perhaps 100,000 dead, and its massacre of Vietnamese sailors in the Spratly’s, in 1988. Since 1988, Beijing’s creeping territorial claims and conduct have resulted in scores of deaths and illegal detentions of Vietnamese fishermen.

It’s not everyday that the leading ideological journal of the Communist Party of Vietnam publishes an article online entitled “The Need for American Intervention”. Yet this is precisely what occurred on 10 June. And while the said article was removed within days of its online release, the fact that such an article could be written by Party stalwarts was and is indicative of the sheer scope of changes in Vietnam’s strategic outlook; changes fueled and fanned by the untenable demands of Beijing’s aggressive posture. By July it was evident Hanoi was indeed prepared to take a new approach.

Until recently, Hanoi has followed its own path in relations with Beijing and has tended to avoid the perception or reality of coordination (let alone alliance) with other interested states. Indeed, Vietnam’s communist leadership has since 1990 retained a close if deeply contradictory relationship with Beijing, balancing awkwardly the need to conciliate and appease with the need for independence. Unlike the Philippines, Vietnam’s political establishment has elements that have imagined China to be an ally. Yet one of the principal effects of China’s new assertiveness has been to bring Manila and Hanoi closer to embracing a common principle: that Beijing’s regional sovereignty claims must be subjected to a legal test. Acting alone, both Manila and Hanoi face formidable challenges in dealing with Beijing. Yet joint action by the countries is entirely reasonable and should be welcomed.

The “China Question”

Still, the difficulties Hanoi faces are far more complex. For Hanoi’s relationship with Beijing inextricably overlap with Vietnam’s domestic politics and questions about the country’s long-term direction and strategic outlook. While China and Vietnam both feature Leninist political regimes, Vietnam’s particular brand of market-Leninism is ripe for change. Indeed, Beijing’s actions are forcing all Vietnamese to ask profound questions about the country’s future and to imagine a Vietnam embracing real reforms; reforms that would bolster domestic legitimacy and economic performance while garnering the country international respect and true independence from China.

Responding to present challenges, some prominent figures in Vietnam’s politburo (such as Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung) have spoken forcefully in opposition to Beijing’s coercive expansionism. Whereas others (such as the Communist Party’s number two figure, Phung Quang Thanh) have perhaps for diplomatic reasons emphasized the ‘mostly wonderful’ state of relations between the two Parties and two countries. Over two months, differing and often muted responses by Vietnam’s political elite have generated considerable unease in the Vietnamese street, which remains alarmed by the prospects for armed conflict but determined to defend national integrity by all necessary means.

Yet after two months of obvious internal fragmentation, Vietnam’s leadership is today displaying a united front on the “China Question”, warning the Vietnamese public that while Vietnam will pursue peace, the people must prepare for the worst. Whether this new united-front reflects genuine consensus in Vietnam’s politburo is unknowable. Be that as it may, the sheer fact that Hanoi’s leading figures are broadly in tune suggests some common ground has been reached, a development some have credited to tough-talking Yang Jiechi’s recent visit to Hanoi.

Equally important, and more strikingly, have been recent efforts to forge deeper ties with Manila, evidenced by bilateral talks this week in Hanoi; a week in which the appearance of US surveillance aircraft over maritime areas near Vietnam has been warmly welcomed. We are truly in uncharted waters.

Hanoi in particular faces momentous decisions. As China is Vietnam’s largest trading partner, a rising military power, and permanent neighbor, Hanoi naturally desires to keep relations with Beijing on as even a keel as possible. Yet Beijing’s outsized claims and steady stream of bad behavior make doing so increasingly untenable. Interestingly, many (though not all) politically engaged Vietnamese accept the notion that a worsening of relations with Beijing would actually be beneficial to Vietnam. According to this line of thinking, while a clear break with China would certainly present challenges, it would effectively necessitate the kinds of reforms that Vietnam is assumed to need to escape its perceived internal malaise.

Still, if relations with Beijing were to worsen, Hanoi’s ability to gather international support would for the moment appear to face familiar constraints, including its repressive posture in domestic politics and mistrust among some political elite of alliances with countries outside the Chinese and Russian orbits. (In this context, David Brown’s suggestion that ‘Finlandization’ of Vietnam might be a sensible path has certain appeal, particularly if one recalls Finland’s transparent political system and strong record on human rights.)

Paths forward

Nearly three months have passed since Beijing launched new efforts to enforce its illegitimate claims over vast areas of maritime Southeast Asia. What paths should Vietnam pursue? In one recent proposal, Vu Quang Viet and I have suggested Hanoi take three concrete steps moving forward: First, Hanoi should seek a judgment from an arbitration tribunal under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea that no natural features in dispute are entitled to exclusive economic zones or continental shelves. This would mean that even those islands in the Paracels under Beijing’s de facto control would be entitled only to 12 nautical mile territorial seas, and that the placement of its drilling rig would be illegal.

Second, while initiating its own case, Vietnam should seek to join the Philippines’ case against China, which among other things challenges the validity of the “nine-(now ten-) dashed line” that demarcates virtually the entire Southeast Asian Sea as China’s territory and Beijing’s claim that several features in the Spratly’s are habitable. Third, Hanoi should prioritize early resolution of all outstanding disputes with the Philippines and Malaysia and enter into agreements with other claimants in ASEAN. These steps toward resolving the disputes through international norms would play well at home and regionally (excepting Beijing, of course). By early July, Hanoi began publically signaling its readiness to take legal action.

Yet Hanoi’s signaling of this intent, combined with noisy protests from other countries, and several other factors have for the moment obviated the need for immediate legal action. For on the 15th of July Beijing removed the 981 rig, and since public talk among Vietnamese officials of bringing immediate legal action has swiftly faded. Since 15 July, relations between Hanoi and Beijing have calmed. Yet the longer-term problems remain uncertain at best and are in any case deeply disconcerting. While some suspect a secret quid-pro-quo agreement was reached (promise not to take it to arbitration and we will withdrawal the rig, for now), others suspect Beijing’s real intent was to influence deliberations of Vietnam’s politburo, which was scheduled to meet late this month. Regardless of the real causes, tensions between Bejing and Hanoi have dissipated, at least for now.

As for the longer term, there are many more questions than answers. Hanoi is understandably taking an extremely cautious approach. One interpretation is that doing so is a wise approach to be taken in the context of an asymmetric conflict. Another is that Hanoi’s slowness is a symptom of lingering disunity in Ba Dinh Square. Hanoi’s decision to send a senior politburo member to the US for talks (instead of its younger Prime Minister) is a reflection of the complexities of Vietnamese politics, an analysis of which is necessary to make any sense of the country’s unconventional and at times incoherent approach to foreign policy. In the meantime, Hanoi is likely to continue efforts to rapidly upgrade its military preparedness.

Regional security

Since the 1990s Hanoi has habitually deferred to Beijing. The challenge Vietnam and the entire region face today is to promote a regional security framework grounded in binding norms and based on principles of respect and cooperation. Vietnam is a coastal nation. Its prosperity and security depend on a stable regional environment. While Vietnam’s domestic challenges may not be ignored the country’s ability to navigate regional instability is of critical importance.

In the short term and in the long term, Hanoi must and is working to stabilize its relations with Beijing, while also cultivating its ties with other regional and world powers, including Japan, Korea, and the United States. Yet in both the short term and the long term, this is an exceedingly difficult challenge.

On the one hand is the perceived need to avoid antagonizing Beijing and the real need to keep relations with Beijing on an even keel. On the other is Hanoi’s need for friends (it has no real friends now). Arguably the biggest obstacles Hanoi faces stem from its self-defeating conservative impulses and consequent inability to undertake the kinds of reforms that would produce the international support it requires to strengthen its hand with Beijing.

Jonathan D. London is a professor in the Department of Asian and International Studies and Core Member of the Southeast Asia Research Centre at the City University of Hong Kong. His recent publications include Politics in Contemporary Vietnam: Party, State, and Authority Relations, Palgrave/ Macmillan, 2014.

You may download the entire special issue of Atlantic Perspectives here.

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Steps forward and advice for Mr. Xi

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post, 9 July 2014 under the headline Hanoi must meet the challenge of standing up to Beijing

Two months have passed since Beijing intensified efforts to enforce its illegitimate claims over vast areas of maritime Southeast Asia. The placement of a giant oil rig in disputed waters, in violation of international norms, has been accompanied by coercive diplomacy and propaganda as well as threats and use of violence. Beijing’s aggressiveness and obstinacy have impressed the world.

Until recently, the two Southeast Asian countries most threatened by Beijing’s outsized sovereignty claims – the Philippines and Vietnam – have pursued divergent paths in their dealings with Beijing. Yet Hanoi is now likely to join Manila in challenging the legality of Beijing’s claims and its actions.

For Vietnam, the challenges in standing up to Beijing are particularly formidable. As militarising China is Vietnam’s neighbour and largest trading partner, Hanoi naturally desires to keep relations with Beijing on as even a keel as possible. Indeed, the riots in May were an aberration. And yet Beijing’s behaviour has made business as usual impossible, thrusting Vietnamese into a grand debate about the country’s direction and its strategic outlook.

After two months of internal fragmentation and mixed messages, Vietnam’s leadership is now projecting unity, warning that while Vietnam will pursue peace, Vietnamese must prepare for the worst.

But what specific steps might Vietnam pursue? The US-based analyst Vu Quang Viet and I have suggested the following. First, Hanoi should seek a judgment from an arbitration tribunal under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, establishing that no natural features in dispute are entitled to exclusive economic zones or continental shelves. This would mean that even those islands in the Paracels and Spratlys under Beijing’s de facto control would be entitled only to 12-nautical-mile territorial seas.

Second, while initiating its own case, Vietnam should join Manila’s case against Beijing, which challenges the validity of the bogus dashed line that demarcates virtually the entire Southeast Asian sea as China’s territory, and Beijing’s claim that several features in the Spratlys are habitable.

Third, Hanoi should prioritise early resolution of all outstanding disputes with the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan, use the Association of Southeast Asian Nations where appropriate, and further develop strategic partnerships.

However important, steps along these lines will in and of themselves be insufficient to the task of securing Vietnam a prosperous and independent future. That is why growing numbers of Vietnamese are convinced that still bolder actions are required; that Vietnam must embrace fundamental institutional reforms. For only with such reforms, they argue, will Vietnam achieve the levels of economic performance, national unity and international support needed to meet the challenges of the times.

In the long term, the challenge for Vietnam and the entire region is to forge a regional security framework grounded in binding norms and based on principles of mutual respect, equality and cooperation. Certainly, we should hope Beijing would adopt a more constructive approach.

In a recent speech, President Xi Jinping noted that “the notion of dominating international affairs belongs to a different age”. Might Xi consider his own sound advice?

Jonathan D. London is a professor in the Department of Asian and International Studies and core member of the Southeast Asia Research Centre at the City University of Hong Kong, and author of Politics in Contemporary Vietnam: Party, State, and Authority Relations

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Hanoi projects unity, but next steps are unclear

Two months have passed since Beijing launched new efforts to enforce its illegitimate claims over vast areas of maritime Southeast Asia. The placement of China’s giant oilrig in disputed waters have been accompanied by a steady combination of coercion and propaganda and promises of even more provocative actions. Beijing’s arrogance, belligerence, and shortsightedness have impressed the world.

Not surprisingly, Beijing’s behavior has severely aggravated regional tensions, needlessly jeopardizing East Asia’s prosperity and social order. Outlandish claims that China is being bullied make sense only within the echo chamber of Beijing’s political scene.

Until recently, the two Southeast Asia countries most threatened by Beijing’s claims –the Philippines and Vietnam – have pursued divergent paths in their dealings with Beijing. The Philippines, which was once effectively colonized by the US, has maintained reasonably close ties with the United States and has now rushed to strengthen these ties amid recent tensions. By contrast, Vietnam’s communist leadership has since 1990 retained a close if deeply contradictory relationship with Beijing, balancing awkwardly the need to conciliate and appease with the need for independence. Unlike the Philippines, Vietnam’s political establishment has elements that have imagined China to be an ally.

Times have changed, however. As one of the principal effects of China’s new assertiveness has been to bring Manila and Hanoi closer to embracing a common principle: that Beijing’s regional sovereignty claims must be subjected to a legal test. Acting alone, both Manila and Hanoi face formidable challenges in dealing with Beijing. Yet joint action by the countries is entirely reasonably and should be welcomed.

Still, the difficulties Hanoi faces are far more complex. For Hanoi’s relationship with Beijing inextricably overlap with Vietnam’s domestic politics and questions about the country’s long-term direction and strategic outlook. While China and Vietnam both feature Leninist political regimes, Vietnam’s particular brand of market-Leninism is ripe for change. Indeed, Beijing’s actions are forcing all Vietnamese to ask profound questions about the country’s future and to imagine a Vietnam embracing real reforms; reforms that would bolster domestic legitimacy and economic performance while garnering the country international respect and true independence from China.

Responding to present challenges, some prominent figures in Vietnam’s politburo (such as Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung) have spoken forcefully in opposition to Beijing’s coercive expansionism. Whereas others (such as the Communist Party’s number two figure, Phung Quang Thanh) have perhaps for diplomatic reasons emphasized the ‘mostly wonderful’ state of relations between the two Parties and two countries. Over two months, differing and often muted responses by Vietnam’s political elite has generated considerable unease in the Vietnamese street, which remains alarmed by the prospects for armed conflict but determined to defend national integrity by all necessary means.

Yet after two months of obvious internal fragmentation, Vietnam’s leadership is today displaying a united front on the “China Question,” warning the Vietnamese public that while Vietnam will pursue peace, Vietnamese must prepare for the worst. Whether this new united-front reflects genuine consensus in Vietnam’s politburo is unknowable. Be that as it may, the sheer fact that Hanoi’s leading figures are broadly in tune suggests some common ground has been reached, a development some have credited to tough-talking Yang Jiechi’s recent visit to Hanoi.

Equally important, and more strikingly, have been recent efforts to forge deeper ties with the Manila, evidenced by bilateral talks this week in Hanoi; a week in which the appearance of US surveillance aircraft over maritime areas near Vietnam has been warmly welcomed. We are truly in uncharted waters.

Hanoi in particular faces momentous decisions. As China is Vietnam’s largest trading partner, a rising military power, and permanent neighbor, Hanoi naturally desires to keep relations with Beijing on as even a keel as possible. Yet Beijing’s outsized claims and steady stream of bad-behavior make doing so increasingly untenable. Interestingly, many (though not all) politically-engaged Vietnamese accept the notion that a worsening of relations with Beijing would actually be beneficial to Vietnam. According to this line of thinking, while a clear break with China would certainly present challenges, it would effectively necessitate the kinds of reforms that Vietnam is assumed to need to escape its perceived internal malaise.

Still, if relations with Beijing were to worsen, Hanoi’s ability to gather international support would for the moment appear to face familiar constraints, including its repressive posture in domestic politics and mistrust among some political elite of alliances with countries outside the Chinese and Russian orbits. (In this context, David Brown’s suggestion that ‘Findlanization’ of Vietnam might be a sensible path has certain appeal, particularly if one recalls Finland’s transparent political system and strong record on human rights.)

What paths should Vietnam pursue? In one recent proposal, Vu Quang Viet and I have suggested Hanoi take three concrete steps moving forward: First, Hanoi should seek a judgment from an arbitration tribunal under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea that no natural features in dispute are entitled to exclusive economic zones or continental shelves. This would mean that even those islands in the Paracels under Beijing’s de facto control would be entitled only to 12 nautical mile territorial seas, and that the placement of its drilling rig would be illegal.

Second, while initiating its own case, Vietnam should seek to join the Philippines’ case against China, which among other things challenges the validity of the nine-(now ten-) dashed line that demarcates virtually the entire Southeast Asian Sea as China’s territory and Beijing’s claim that several features in the Spratlys are habitable. Third, Hanoi should prioritize early resolution of all outstanding disputes with the Philippines and Malaysia and enter into agreements with other claimants in ASEAN.

These steps toward resolving the disputes through international norms would play well at home and regionally (excepting Beijing, of course). At present, however, Hanoi appears to be biding its time, deciding on the right moment to step forward. One interpretation is that doing so is a wise approach to be taken in the context of an asymmetric conflict. Another is that Hanoi’s slowness a symptom of lingering disunity in Ba Dinh Square.

Since the 1990s Hanoi has habitually deferred to Beijing. But times have changed. The challenge Vietnam and the entire region face today is to promote a regional security framework grounded in binding norms and based on principles of respect and cooperation.

JL

 

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Vietnam Should Take Three Steps in Response to China’s Oil Rig

COGIT ASIA BLOG – Center for Strategic and International Studies

The chaos and violence that erupted in Vietnam in early May diverted the world’s attention from the fundamental causes of tensions between China and Vietnam and, indeed, China and the region. These stem from Beijing’s legally baseless claims over 80 percent of the South China Sea and its calculated efforts to impose these claims through coercive means.

Internationally, Beijing’s placement of its oil rig within contested waters under military guard has been understood correctly as a political and military maneuver aimed at changing the status quo in East Asia. Yet Beijing’s actions have also led Vietnam to fundamentally rethink its entire strategic outlook.

At present, Vietnam’s leadership faces two important sets of challenges. The first of these concerns the need to address and overcome any doubts about the country’s economic security. The second concerns the much larger questions about Vietnam’s future; questions Beijing has forced the Vietnamese state and people to confront.

The precise causes of the May riots have not been established yet but appear to have differed across provinces. Disorder occurred in 3 provinces, not 21 as has been widely misreported. Certainly the death, injury, and damage wrought did Vietnam’s image no favors. Nor have Beijing’s subsequent efforts to increase pressure through political, economic, and military means, and an increasingly large-scale propaganda campaign. To build trust, Hanoi needs to provide the clearest possible accounting of the causes of the chaos, deliver swift compensation to affected parties that exceeds expectations, and demonstrate through concrete actions why Vietnam is an attractive investment climate.

Vietnam faces future dangers and opportunities. On one level, Hanoi faces tactical questions as to how to counter Beijing’s conduct in the near and medium term. Beyond this, the country faces pressing questions about its broader strategic outlook and, in particular, the relationships and conditions it need to live in peace, prosperity, independence, and security.

That Hanoi’s immediate response to Beijing has been cautious is to be expected given the power asymmetries and the fact that Vietnam has at present no allies. Given limited options, Vietnam’s leadership has indicated with increasingly clarity that it does not and will not accept China’s claims and that it will respond through diplomatic, legal, and self-defensive means. While every country has the right to self-defense, Vietnam has rightly emphasized the need to avoid military confrontation.

Barring any diplomatic breakthroughs, Vietnam should take three steps:

First, Hanoi should seek a judgment from an arbitration tribunal under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea that no natural features in the South China Sea are entitled to exclusive economic zones or continental shelves. This would mean that even those islands in the Paracels under Beijing’s de facto control would be entitled only to 12 nautical mile territorial seas, and that the placement of its drilling rig would be illegal.

Second, while initiating its own case, Vietnam should seek to join the Philippines’ case against China, which among other things challenges the validity of the nine-dashed line and the habitability of several features in the Spratlys.

Third, Hanoi should prioritize early resolution of all outstanding disputes with the Philippines and Malaysia and enter into agreements with other claimants in ASEAN.

The tensions in the South China Sea show no sign of abating. Hanoi and Manila have indicated they desire friendship with China based on respect, cooperation, and international agreements and norms. Hanoi and Manila should lead by example and immediately resolve their own disputes in the Spratlys, while reaching out to Malaysia, Indonesia, and other partners. China can then sit down with main claimants in Southeast Asia to discuss the formula for sharing of resources in and under the sea.

Of all parties to the conflict, Vietnam faces the most formidable decisions. Indeed, Beijing’s actions have triggered a concatenation of developments that have forced Hanoi to strike a new path. But which path will Vietnam choose?

Many in the country are convinced Vietnam’s best defense will be to move confidently away from China, and embrace the kind of “game-changing” institutional reforms that would be necessary to gain both broad international support and enhance domestic legitimacy. This would include a demonstrated commitment to introduce the rule of law, embrace basic constitutional reforms, and bring Vietnam swiftly into compliance with the international human rights norms to which it has committed. The state’s massive security apparatus would need to be urgently overhauled.

While Vietnam must pursue friendly relations with China, it can only gain security and strength through the international respect and support achieved by granting Vietnamese a democratic and transparent social order. As Myanmar has shown, international support would be immediate.

Dr. Jonathan D. London is a professor and Core Member of the Southeast Asia Research Centre at the City University of Hong Kong. Follow him on twitter @jdlondon1.Vu Quang Viet is an independent analyst and former Chief of National Accounts Statistics at the United Nations.

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Reflections on an eventful weekend in Singapore

This weekend’s Shangri-La meetings in Singapore provided the clearest evidence yet that the East Asian social order is in the midst of momentous changes. The status quo that has prevailed in the region for decades has now seemingly given way to an increasingly chaotic period that is deeply disconcerting, on a variety of levels.While I was not at the meetings I, like millions across the region, have followed developments with great interest.

Over the weekend, the three speeches that drew the greatest attention were those of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Wang Guanzhong, PLA Deputy Chief of General Staff. While Abe and Hagel criticized Beijing for its apparent attempts to destabilize and change the regional status quo through coercive means, and promised to respond to these efforts, Wang accused Washington and Tokyo of trying to “instigate provocations against China, ” neglecting to recognize that Beijing’s claims over eighty percent over the entire maritime area is in fact at the root of regional instability.

Amid the spectacle of loud disputes among leaders of China, the US, and Japan, it is not surprising that Vietnam’s presentation at the conference received little international attention, particularly as it politely claimed that Vietnam’s relationship with China was in most respects ‘tốt đẹp,’ an expression which in Vietnam means ‘all is well’ or ‘all is not well but we will still say all is fine.’

These were the words used by Defense Minister General Phung Quang Thanh in a speech that, while drawing few remarks among international observers, has created a fierce debate within Vietnam and Vietnamese cyberspace in particular. While some have argued that the tenor the speech was appropriate, given the circumstances, others have howled in protest, claiming the General’s words did Vietnam a disservice by sending, in their view, all the wrong signals to Beijing, Washington, and Tokyo, not to mention the Vietnamese people.

That the general’s speech which, we could reasonably assumed to have been vetted by the Politburo and therefore reflect a minimum consensus among Vietnam’s leaders, was a source of disappointment for many politically-engaged Vietnamese owes to the sense that it reflected precisely the kind of diffident, unequal approach to bilateral ties that they believe Vietnam must overcome if it is to withstand threats to the country’s sovereignty. Use of specific language, such as drawing analogies to family disputes is, according to this view, not befitting of relations among sovereign equals and leads us to wonder whether some in Hanoi’s leadership remain wedded to old patterns of thinking. One would never, for example, find South Korea or Japan’s leadership using such analogies.

One could put forward several additional hypotheses. For example, that the presentation for the Shangri-La meetings was prepared months in advance and was not given the attention it deserves. Or that the speech purposively uses old language, so as not to alarm Beijing, even though Hanoi’s thinking may have changed or have been in the process of changing. In this latter case, the speech reflects the polite and even deferential facade of state that is ‘behind-the-curtains’ confronting exceedingly difficult decisions. While Vietnam may well be changing its strategic outlook, we need to recall that persons such as Thanh and indeed most of the leadership of the Politburo have spent their entire professional careers wedded to a world view that is no longer tenable.

Whatever the case there is no denying the present is an exceedingly difficult period for Vietnam, its political leadership, and indeed the entire country’s population. We are in unchartered territory. Many Vietnamese perceive a fork in the road, insisting that Hanoi must embrace basic reforms and respect human rights to win the international support it needs to check Beijing’s claims. Recent statements by Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has invited speculation if not confidence that a clear change in Vietnam’s strategic outlook is nigh. For reform-minded Vietnamese, General Thanh’s presentation appeared to reflect a leadership which, having approached a fork in the road, seems still determined to go straight, causing worry among Vietnamese that such a path will only leave Vietnam vulnerable.

In the context of rapid changes it is understandable, though unsatisfying for many Vietnamese, to see their country’s leadership seemingly reading from an outdated script. Going forward, Hanoi faces the decision of whether to seek international arbitration of its disputes with Beijing; a decision that Deputy Defence Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh recently told the South China Morning Post would hinge on China’s actions in the disputed maritime regions.

Clearly we are witnessing rapid changes in the social order. Of all parties to the dispute, Hanoi arguably finds itself in the most difficult position of all. While the country must maintain minimally strong ties with Beijing, pathways to a resolution of the disputes can only be struck though a confident, prudent set of actions that send clear signals to the region and the world as to nature and bases of Vietnam’s claims. One of the great ironies of the current dispute is that a strong, internally-united, and independent Vietnam may be the last great hope for avoiding the further militarization and destabilization of the entire region.

JL

 

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Oil rig set Vietnam on a new direction: Interview with Người Việt

Professor Jonathan London: “Chinese oil rig set Vietnam on a new direction” Interview with Người Việt English

By Ha Giang, Nguoi Viet
Editor’s note: Dr. Jonathan D. London, a professor in the Department of Asian and International Studies and a Core Member of the Southeast Asia Research Center at the City University of Hong Kong, told Nguoi Viet Daily News that he believes with the current China oil rig crisis, Vietnam has been set on a new course of direction with respects to its relations with China. This interview was conducted by Ha Giang on May 25, when Dr. London was in Hanoi.

 

china oil rig in vietnam

This picture taken on May 14, 2014 from a Vietnamese coast guard ship shows a Chinese coast guard vessel (L) sailing near China’s oil drilling rig in disputed waters in the South China Sea. Vietnam is experiencing its worst anti-China unrest in decades following Beijing’s deployment of an oil rig to disputed waters, with at least one Chinese worker killed and more than 100 injured. (Photo: HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)

Hà Giang (NV): Vietnamese all over the world are following the China oil rig crisis very closely, and everyone has a different reading on the situation. Some worry that China is finally taking over Vietnam completely. Others hope that this crisis will bring about a leadership change and finally allow Vietnam to be independent from China. Many others think that this noise will eventually die down, China will withdraw the oil rig in August, and everything will be back to the status quo. What do you think is the most likely outcome of this crisis?

Professor Jonathan London: I think the mostly likely outcome is that there will not be an outcome for some time. But we will a face continuation of tensions, and it is hard to predict the future. A lot has happened already, and the most fascinating thing about the present situation is that it has produced many unexpected outcomes. The question whether or not Beijing was wise in doing what it has been doing does not change the fact that what they have done has started a chain reaction that has gone off in very many surprising directions, and in a sense it’s out of control. It’s a fascinating state of affairs, and I think barring under-the-table diplomatic breakthroughs, the possibilities for momentous changes in Vietnam are within possibility.

NV: Are you saying that if we fast forward to August 15, even with no major changes, Vietnam will have set on a new course of direction much different from three months ago?

Professor London: Yes, I do believe that. I believe that a set of processes of unknown outcome have started in Vietnam in earnest, and the tone of political discussions in Vietnam today is truly unprecedented. One can imagine that after some surprise breakthroughs on the diplomatic front, things could die down rather quickly and we could return to the status quo, but I don’t think everything will be quite the same. I also think that if the tensions do not decline, that the possibility of major changes [regarding] Vietnam’s strategic outlook and its policies is almost certain.

NV: I understand you have you talked to many of your friends in Hanoi. What is the mood there right now?

Professor London: I have to say that the mood in Hanoi has changed really dramatically in a few days, and a lot of that has to do with Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dzung’s speech, which was greeted genuinely warmly, and in a supportive way, with Vietnam’s population. It is positive in the way that Vietnam may be forced to think about alternatives to the path the country has been on, and the picture that is very clear now is that Vietnam needs friends.

Vietnam has no close friends and allies, and the country obviously needs to have good relations with China. Hopefully it will continue to. That is absolutely essential, even in the middle of all of the talk about the tensions and threats and possibility of some sort of military conflicts. Over the long term, the country has to find a way to live side by side with China. As the prime minister indicated, the relationship has to based on mutual respect and not bullying. And the only way for that to be conceivable is for the country to stand on firmer ground, and to form better and deeper relations with many countries. In short, the country would need to be more open, to change in ways that Vietnam’s leaders had so far resisted. There is a sense that the political dynamics within Vietnam are evolving in a very rapid and interesting way.

NV: In respect to the need for Vietnam to form a deeper relationship with the U.S., in a conference in Malaysia, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dzung reiterated Vietnam’s “three no policies,” one of which is no participation in military alliances with any country. Do you see that as a conflicting policy?

Professor London: No, I think that’s wise. China is a rising power and a potential hegemonic power, and the U.S. is the only creditable countering force, so if Vietnam were to develop a military alliance, we would expect that China would view that as being hostile, and one would expect some sort of reaction from Beijing. The region, which has grown from decades and decades in the absence of war, is not ready for the path to militarization, and so what you need is some sort of buffer between, for example China and the U.S., or China and other regional powers. And I think that Vietnam can still have friends, can still have allies, and can still have creditable diplomatic responses to instances in which China is acting outside of international norms. I understand the argument and criticism that Vietnam is being soft, but I think that’s the wrong argument. I think it’s important to think about the longer term and to by any means necessary try to handle this in a way that does not simply lead to a new era of the militarization of the Southeast Asian Sea. Now, if things deteriorate and there are military conflicts, then perhaps that will change, but I think right now it’s appropriate what Vietnam is doing.

NV: If Vietnam does form military alliances with any country, and if China sees that as a weakness and decides to invade, for whatever reason, who is going to come to Vietnam’s aid?

Professor London:  Military alliance is one thing, military cooperation is another. As eager as Washington had said that they are expanding ties, at this point, ties remain superficial, and I think that there are ways to develop security relationships and perhaps to use that term instead of military alliance. There are ways to develop security relationships that could achieve considerable effect given the challenge. The challenge is enormous and is extremely complex. It’s difficult for me to envision the U.S. being able to shove off or dislodge China at the moment. What we are dealing with is a sensitive state of affairs. The prime minster himself said that Vietnam [has been] in enough war. I think the world would agree with that and so, while the situation may change, I think for the time being we need to think about things a step at a time. There are ways and means to aggressively develop a security relationship without announcing, for example, a military alliance.

NV: Mr. James Hardy, the Asia-Pacific editor at Jane’s Defence Weekly, said he believes that “U.S.-Vietnam ties have been steadily improving in recent years to the point that a lifting of the arms embargo is now conceivable.” Do you agree with his assessment?

Professor London: There have been consistent limitations on U.S. and Vietnam relations. It has to do with Vietnam’s human-rights situation, and any steps into that direction [relations] will still face a barrier. So there are lots of things Vietnam needs to do immediately if it truly has the desire to have friends and alliances. To command international respect, Vietnam needs to address the restraints on ties with the U.S. and other democratic countries. That’s why there’s the sense of possibility here in Vietnam. Because if the country is to set out on its own on a truly independent course, one that is not one of subordination [to China], it absolutely must address these institutional issues, including, but not limited to, rights issues that so far have hampered the development of alliances. Whether or not Vietnam is permitted to acquire military technologies and self-defense technologies, we will see if lifting of the arms embargo ban might be something we observed, it really depends.

NV: China has already said that it will disregard whatever the international court ruling is. Do you think Vietnam will achieve much in taking China to court?

Professor London: There is a good reason to do it. If Beijing doesn’t change its policies, what other choice does Vietnam have? They have a decent legal case, there are arguments to be made, and I think Vietnam will benefit ― especially if it undertakes other kinds of measures, such as forming deeper relationships with other countries. It will gain in the court of world opinion if it can demonstrate fairly to the world that its sovereignty is being unjustly violated. Whether or not Beijing accepts or refuses the judgment, it perhaps still is a worthwhile course because it’s one of the ways Vietnam can strengthen the legitimacy of its claims. Vietnam also has to be prepared to accept the judgment of the court itself if the decision goes against Vietnam’s claims, so Hanoi has to keep an open mind. It is essential that these disputes have a fair hearing. The resolution of this conflict should involve international arbitration or legal proceedings. This is one piece of a jigsaw puzzle that needs to be put together.

NV: You have written that the current South China Sea crisis demands Vietnam’s leadership breakthrough, and the end of the current leadership stalemate. Do you think that such a breakthrough in Vietnam is possible?

Professor London: Perhaps. I think there has been a shift of balance in power, and that one important element in the stalemate, namely relations with China, has transformed. That’s fundamentally different. It’s a different kind of variable than it was in the past. I also think that whatever Nguyen Tan Dzung’s future role is in Vietnam’s politics is uncertain, but at the moment, he is clearly emerged as the country’s most prominent statesperson, whereas some of the other leaders have been largely silent about the current conflicts with China. Vietnam has everything to gain from using this unfortunate situation as an opportunity to achieve breakthrough reforms that all Vietnamese and many other countries in the world have been waiting for and encourage. What is required is political courage.

Contact the writer: hagiang@nguoi-viet.com

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