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.



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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.



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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.

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Truly extraordinary times

The situation in Vietnam is as fluid as it is fascinating. In the space of the last three days, the national mood has seemingly changed in dramatic fashion. Virtually all Vietnamese are following closely what is happening. I am not simply reporting the echo-chamber of cyberspace.  The sense of uncertainty and possibility is palpable.

Beijing’s decision to tow its giant oil-rig into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone was an unexpected, bold, and invasive move that has triggered a concatenation of events no one could have envisioned.

Yesterday’s speech by Nguyen Tan Dung in Manila has impressed Vietnamese. At the very least it represents Vietnam’s determination to resist what it sees as Beijing’s bullying. At most, recent developments amount to a watershed in Vietnam’s politics, effectively forcing Hanoi to contemplate a new strategic outlook.

Not two days ago the situation in Vietnam was extremely tense, in largely foreboding ways. It still is. Yet the character of those tensions has also shifted dramatically from one of resignation to one of possibility, as it seems apparent (or is it illusory?) that Vietnam is on the verge of fundamental changes, the great irony of which is that the whole process has owed to Beijing’s own short-sighted rapaciousness.

The riots

While a great deal of discussion has been given to the riots of last week there are a substantial amount of questions that remain. While the outside world has been fixated on the images of chaos and destruction, much less attention has been given to Beijing’s apparent effort to harm Vietnam’s image. Here is what, according to my own understanding, we know and do not know about the riots of last week.

  1. The precise causes of the riots are still unknown. While it is true that Vietnamese authorities organized or gave green-lights to protests in more than 20 provinces, it is not the case, as has been widely reported, that the chaos extended to 22 provinces. We do know that violence and chaos were concentrated in Ha Tinh and Binh Duong provinces. We also know that protests around the same time were undertaken peacefully and without incident. The 22 provinces figure was traced to Vietnam’s Minister of Planning and Development, but indicated the number of provinces in which demonstrations were held, not the number of provinces in which there was chaos. I have met the Minister on several occasions a few years ago as part of child-poverty reduction projects and know him to be a man of integrity.
  1. Reports on the number of fatalities has fluctuated from a figure of two (according to Vietnamese authorities) and four (according to Chinese sources). And yet as recently as last week Reuters was still circulating a figure of 20 deaths, a figure that was also recently quoted in the Guardian. In fact, the total number of fatalities is not know.
  1. There are mixed accounts of the causes of the chaos and violence, with unconfirmed reports that payments were made in Binh Duong (where the largest scale chaos was seen), with rumors swirling around. I am only reporting here the ideas circulating in Vietnam: Unconfirmed reports from Ha Tinh report Vietnamese protesting non-violently were provoked by Chinese workers around an industrial site in which relations between the Chinese and Vietnamese were already extremely tense. Hypothesized sources of the payments in Binh Duong have include: (1) The banned Viet Tan Party, (2) Corrupt local authorities and criminal elements along with foreign (read mainland) elements (3) A combination of 2 and an inept response force.

What occurred is consistent both with a mob run amok but also an organized campaign to cause widespread damage and destabilize Vietnam. In such an opaque political environment it is near impossible establish at this point precise causes. To ply in conspiracy theories is as easy as it is dangerous. Again, with respect to these points I am only reporting ideas circulating in Vietnam.

What is certain is that Vietnamese of all brands are shocked and disappointed at the scale and indiscriminate manner of the damage wrought in Binh Duong. The fact that the damage was indiscriminate is difficult to understand. Particularly as Vietnamese (contrary to certain media portrayals) are generally polite and know the difference between Korea, the mainland, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

The mood swings

The biggest change in recent days has been the change in the national mood. The most recent event was the Prime Minister’s unprecedented speech in Manila in which he steadfastly stated that Vietnam be not part to a subordinate relationship. But bigger than that is the unprecedented sense, however ephemeral, that Vietnam is making a clear break from China as must boldly embrace both fundamental institutional changes and new friendships and alliances, which Vietnam lacks. Yesterday a woman self-immolated herself in Saigon, adding still further tension.

I don’t have time for any more comments at the moment… more soon. These are very interesting and exciting if occasionally scary times. Best regards to the undercover security agents stationed across the street and in my hotel lobby.

Stay tuned!
JL, Hanoi

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Crisis Demands Vietnam Leadership Breakthrough

South China Sea Crisis Demands Vietnam’s Leadership Breakthrough

Institute of Strategic and International Studies • 

By Jonathan London

The deadly riots in Vietnam last week, while harmful to the country’s image and stability, is of secondary importance to Hanoi’s main challenge: its enduring political stalemate. As Adam Fforde, a longtime Vietnam expert, has observed, Vietnam up to now displays “no order or leadership capable of the efforts that will be needed.” Indeed, Vietnam has virtually no chance of coming out of the South China Sea crisis in good shape if fails to address its disabling political stalemate.

At the risk of oversimplification, the stalemate features two groups centered on four individuals. The first coalesces around Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, who though tainted by corruption, has the support of the local and national state-business elite as well as the police, among others. Although likely the country’s most skilled statesman, he is seen by reform-minded detractors as something less than a genuine reformer and incapable of delivering the institutional reforms Vietnam needs.

The second grouping gravitates toward a triumvirate of Communist Party Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, President Truong Tan Sang, and leader of the National Assembly Nguyen Sinh Hung. These are Vietnam’s conservatives, or defenders of the status quo. Domestically, their loyalty has been largely to each other, the party, and the military. Internationally, their loyalty has been to the enduring investment in the idea that Beijing is a “good comrade.”

The stalemate does not paralyze the state but severely impinges on its capacity. Instead of communicating with the world with confidence, we have been greeted with protracted silence. The party’s recently concluded Central Committee plenum offered only passing allusions to the current crisis. Deliberations in Vietnam’s secretive Politburo remain opaque.

What has occurred? Parts of the state have responded to the challenge in a spirited manner. These include, most notably, the outmatched and outgunned coastal defense forces and Vietnam’s state media, which has been given the green light to impugn China and has not held back. The state has been notably less capable in other areas. Absent close allies, Hanoi has sought to convey to the world its displeasure through public displays of patriotism. These efforts by the state have been weak largely, though not wholly, owing to authoritarian constraints.

One of the many important differences between Vietnam and China is the former’s more open (though still repressed) political discourse. From the start of the crisis, Vietnamese cyberspace has been on fire. And Vietnamese of diverse persuasions have demanded their rights to protest peacefully. While the first protests were allowed to go forward, they were still partially repressed. Rather than boisterous street scenes, the state went to tightly-scripted “protest meetings” at various auditoriums, featuring patriotic tunes. Photos have caught some people sleeping.

The state’s attempt at anti-China protests among industrial laborers quickly ran amok. And yet it is all somehow unsurprising. For up until after the riots, the Vietnamese people had not heard a single statement issued by any leader. Social order requires coordination and co-operation, not simply an opening of the floodgates to the politically and indeed socially inexperienced masses. There is no need here to go into the ugly results, which have gained widespread international attention.

To address the current crisis, bold steps must be taken. In particular, the following developments need to occur:

1. As soon as possible Hanoi must issue a major statement. This should be televised live and presented by a leading figure. The government should consider two statements, one in Vietnamese directed to the people by a leader such as Prime Minister Dung, and one in English, delivered by a suitably high-ranking official who is fluent in English. Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Ha Kim Ngoc, who has a sophisticated understanding of western diplomacy, may be a suitable candidate. These statements should address both the international and domestic dimensions of the situation, explaining in the clearest possible terms Vietnam’s position and intention to address the crisis through diplomatic and legal means, rather than the use of force. If Beijing delivers an ultimatum in the coming days, Hanoi must offer a clear and public response.

2. Undertake immediate efforts to restore economic confidence. Appoint a commission of persons including trusted international advisors to address the problem of damaged factories, injured persons, and challenges facing managers and workers of affected foreign corporations. Restoring confidence quickly is vital. The job must be done in a way that exceeds expectations.

3. Vietnam’s state leaders and leaders of the country’s developing civil society, which has elements both within and outside the government, need to enter discussions over the terms of popular participation in the nation’s political responses to the crisis. These should include top government officials, representatives of the Group of 72 Petitioners (a loose grouping of prominent, reformist intellectuals with longstanding links to the party), and senior members of leading civil society organizations. This is the most promising and indeed the only conceivable strategy for Hanoi to both gain control over the domestic narrative and achieve the kind of big-tent solidarity necessary to engage the international arena in an effective manner. Releasing prisoners of conscience and making real gestures to overseas Vietnamese will send the message that Vietnam is changing and that Vietnam is a country worthy of international support.

4. Vietnam must steer away from zero-sum politics and zero-sum rhetoric. The country and the region cannot afford a military conflict, and military use must be avoided at all costs.

In the long run, Vietnam should pursue peaceful and strategic actions, both through diplomatic and defense channels, aiming to show Beijing that violating international law and disrespecting its neighbors will only work against its long-term interests. Hanoi needs to step up serious engagement with the international community, in particular the United States. The discussion should be not about containing China but achieving and sustaining a prosperous regional order.

Dr. Jonathan D. London is a professor in the Department of Asian and International Studies at the City University of Hong Kong and Core Member of the Southeast Asia Research Centre. His recent publications include Politics in Contemporary Vietnam (Palgrave MacMillan 2014). Follow him on twitter @jdlondon1.

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Vietnam diary: 18 May – Interviews with Tuổi trẻ and VietWeek

Below, please find responses to interviews with Vietnamese press. Apologies for the errors, I only have so much time. Best regards, JL.

Interview with Tuổi trẻ

1. There is hope to find a diplomatic solution to the current conflict between Vietnam and China over the oil rig in the South China Sea as both Hanoi and Beijing sent its deputy Foreign Minister-led diplomat delegation to other’s country to deal with the tensions. In your opinion, is that an optimistic sign or the first step for a long-term diplomatic solution? 

Ultimately, the conflict can only be resolved through diplomatic means, the question is whether leaders in both countries will have the foresight, wisdom, and courage to find a solution that is fair, durable, and based on a sound set of mutually-agreed to and.or perhaps legally binding principles. It is important and at least minimally encouraging that talks are taking place, what is important is that those talks of of substance rather than simply a collection of ultimatums and threats.

2. What are main purposes behind Beijing’s deployment of oil rig Haiyang Shiyou to Vietnam’s EEZ and continental shelf in the South China Sea?

Internationally, there is general agreement that the purposes of deploying the oil rig are mainly political, serving at least three distinct but related purposes: changing the status quo, by exploiting resources in disputed areas, which is against international norms; testing the reaction of other states, principally Vietnam and the U.S.; and engaging in coercive diplomacy.

3. Why did China take this step this time? Is it true that China deployed the rig to cause conflict overseas, aiming to cover up domestic governance problems ?

Like any country, China has no shortage of problems at home. One of the unfortunate byproducts of Beijing’s outsized and legally basely sovereignty claims and its attempts to enforce them is that it will tend to fuel a regional arms race, which is already underway owing in part to Beijing’s rapid military expansion. By contrast, if peaceful solutions to regional disputes can be arranged all states, including China and Vietnam, can focus their resources on serving the needs of their respective populations. Attempts to enforce legally baseless sovereignty claims by military means will be unfortunate as it will lead all countries in the region to divert resources away from where they are most needed. By contrast, a peaceful resolution of the conflict would allow both countries to focus resources on where they are most needed.

4. What should Vietnam do to prevent aggressive acts from the Chinese side in the oil rig tension? Is there any possible peaceful solution to the VN-China conflict to which both sides would agree? Or it will lead to a military conflict?

The most promising way to address aggression is to prevail on Beijing that it would be in its own best interest to cease and desist from aggressive acts, provocations, and efforts to change the status quo through force. I must emphasize, that this point, both countries are trading allegations but neither appears prepared to enter real discussion. Yes, there is a range of peaceful solutions, but none of these are prefabricated and all of these will require an order of imagination that leaders in the region have yet to display.

Across the region, from Japan to China to Vietnam, a new approach to diplomacy is needed; one that goes beyond hyper-nationalism and the ‘politics of face’ (e.g. rigid stances based nationalistic pride and machismo). Vietnam has seen too much military conflict. So has the region and the world. A military conflict must be avoided by all possible means and Vietnam must engage the community of nations with greater energy and depth than it is accustomed to doing.

This is why I believe it is essential that Vietnam show the world why it is worthy of support. This, in turn, will require energetically implementing the sorts of reforms outlined in the PM’s New Years address and even releasing controversial prisoners of consciousness as a way of demonstrating to all of Vientam, the global Vietnamese population, and the Community of nations that Vietnam needs and deserves support. Finally, Vietnam will derive strength from unity. Urgent efforts are needed to address long-neglected issues such as national reconciliation internal political divisions, and even a different policy toward civil society organization, as even former top-level Party and State officials have acknowledged.

5. Up to now, Washington only called Beijing’s recent actions in the South China Sea are “provocative” as well as called on both sides to deal with conflict through diplomatic channels and to observe freedom of navigation in the sea. They said they are not in favor of any side. However, in recent days, some US officials sent message that they want to build military cooperation with Vietnam. Did you realize that?

Yes, I have read of this, and greater military would seem logical, given regional power imbalances. However, military cooperation with the US on any significant scale will carry with it certain ramifications. In a recent email exchange, the noted US based intellectual Amitai Etzioni, a prominent advocate of “mutually assured restraint” in US-China relations, has warned of the risk of treating the dispute with China as a potential military conflict, stating that “forming military alliances and placing military forces in nations hereto considered neutral or China allies (such as Vietnam)” would make China respond in kind.

So I think it is sensible that Vietnam explore the deepening of military cooperation with Vietnam, but that these decisions be made in view of the broader regional strategic calculus and with minimizing the likelihood of militarizing the region. Vietnam needs to balance the imperatives of self-defense with those of the need for a peaceful order. Ultimately, relations between Vietnam and China must be stable. But they cannot be stable if the overriding principles in the region follow the laws of the jungle.

6. Did the current tensions in the South China Sea affect the US pivot to Asia?

They certainly pose dilemmas for Washington. While some have voiced concern that the US has not taken a more forceful stance, I believe the US response to the tensions remain to be seen. One would expect these tensions to change the tenor of discussions between Hanoi and the US with respect to military intervention. It is still unclear what exactly the pivot means now and will mean in practical terms going forward. But if one aim of the US’s Pacific presence is to ensure a stable maritime conducive to the development of international commerce and supportive of security than we would expect the present tensions to add and not diminish attention to these goals.

No one wants to see the region descend into a tense never-ending contest for hegemony. The region would be much better served by diplomatic measures. The so-called pivot is not and should not be mainly about military issues. It should be about promoting prosperity through cooperation.

7. In your opinion, is it a good idea for Vietnam to file a lawsuit to an international tribunal against China over its illegitimate territorial claims in the South China Sea? Does the US support Vietnam to do so like it did with the Philippines before?

Barring any significant changes in Beijing’s position, very possibly yes. I have not studied the US position and not sure whether in fact it was the US that recommended the Philippines. If so, there’s some irony. For broadly, with respect to international norms, it’s worth noting that the US’s own failure to support UNCLOS over several decades is extremely regrettable. Having the US as a signatory to UNCLOS would likely give it even greater significance that it has today.

Unfortunately, saying that does not help Vietnam. So what about the international tribunal? Beijing has indicated that it would ignore any judgments against it, which is unfortunate and one would hope this position might change. The aim should not be to antagonize Beijing but to have a neutral body adjudicate between competing sovereignty claims on the basis of available evidence. If there is no change in Beijing’s position and diplomacy fails, the tribunal would at least provide an opportunity to make the world aware of how each country’s aims stand up.

That said, if there are alternatives to an international tribunal, those should be actively explored or created where none exist. All parties to the conflict are absolutely locked on the notion of preserving their sovereignty, which is understandable.

8. In a recent DW interview, Southeast Asia expert Gerhard Will says that Beijing is testing the solidarity of members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) with Vietnam and examining how much US support Hanoi can rely upon. He added that after realizing that the latest move has brought Hanoi and Manila closer together, China is now starting to backtrack. This is proof that China is not following a totally consistent strategy in the South China Sea. Do you think it is too early to jump to such conclusion?

While I am a big supporter of international cooperation I am not particularly optimistic about ASEAN. While it is a useful organization in respects it is not an especially meaningful political unit, principally because some of its members are insufficiently independent, effectively foreclosing the possibility of engaging states such as the United States of China in concert. The warming relations between Vietnam and the Philippines are intriguing.

Certainly the countries have similar concerns. Vietnam needs to show that it is more serious about forging ties with other regions affected by Beijing’s aggressive claims, including Indonesia and Malaysia. Last year a very well known Vietnamese official conveyed to me that Vietnam’s diplomatic forays into Indonesia were depressingly superficial.  It is one thing to be friends with everybody. It is another to have friends that will stand by you, shoulder to shoulder.

With respect to the US support, the situation is of course complex. Vietnam-US relations should be and could be much further along than they are now. As a scholar of comparative political economy, I do believe all countries should be careful in forging links with the US (even South Korea recognized that), or for that matter other countries. The current crisis certainly gives both Vietnam and the US a reason to deepen ties and new reasons to overcome various obstacles to deeper ties. Still, any deepening of relations with the US should be driven by the need to create a stable region. A protracted cold war would be costly, dangerous, and a massive diversion from pressing challenges of the day.

9. What are you opinions on the spirit of Vietnamese patriotism in the recent peaceful marches against China’s oil rig?

Patriotism is an admirable quality and Vietnamese are a patriotic people. Patriotism should never lead to extremist nationalism, name calling, or ‘China-bashing.’ Before anything else, we are all human beings. The present conflict needs to be addressed on the basis of mutual respect. Obviously, the chaos witnessed in a small number of foreign invested areas is extremely regrettable. A more responsible approach needs to be taken by all Vietnamese. The state also should communicate more effectively what is occurring. Perhaps some will find it controversial that I believe expressions of patriotism need not be organized or managed from the top down. While many in Vietnam are uncertain or even hostile to the notion of civil society, Vietnamese patriotism will be strongest when it is a “big tent,” habitable to the needs and aspirations of all Vietnamese, regardless of status, rank, or place of residence. The value of Vietnamese patriotism in Vietnam and globally will be greatest if patriotic passions are to the service of peace and to demonstrating to the world why Vietnam is worthy of its support.

Interview with VietWeek, a new English weekly

1. In the context of the Chinese mainstream media getting aggressively brunt in defending the Chinese sovereignty claims, what do you make of the fact that a popular publication like SCMP has also joined the fray?

Over the last several years the SCMP has published an increasing number of editorials written by mainland officials and establishment intellectuals, which is mildly annoying. It becomes extremely annoying when they publish articles that look like they belong in People’s Daily or China Daily. That said, the SCMP does a reasonably good job of separating news reporting from editorial and opinion, and in this respect is independent in a way stateowned press in China or Vietnam is not. It is also important to state that readers are free to write in with critical comments and those comments will be printed. Moreover, there is nothing to stop someone like me from writing an article for SCMP. I have written a number of articles about the maritime disputes in the last few years. This morning I shared my surprise with the editor about the article in question and indicated he would soon receive a piece from me for his consideration. What becomes worrisome is when the presence of a few opinion pieces from the mainland turn into a flood; then one begins to get uneasy. That said, I encourage readers to see that these one-sided pieces written by mainland officials are usually subject to lively criticisms from readers.

2. What is the repercussion of this? What is SCMP supposed to do in this matter? What do you make of such mistake?

Well, it’s up to readers to write in and complain, through letters to the editor and complaints. By the way, there was an OUTSTANDING op-ed piece by Philip Bowring published today in the SCMP that I urge everyone to read.

3. The Straits Times on May 15 also ran a photo about the riots in Vietnam with wrong caption. The photo featured 500 Vietnamese workers hospitalized due to food poisoning but The Straits Times captioned it as 500 Chinese workers hospitalized in the wake of the riot. See attached.

It’s really an egregious error. People should write in and let them now. Moreover, someone should establish a website devoted to correcting errors or clear reporting. For example, reports of 21 deaths are still circulating, though as far as I know have not yet been confirmed. So a website offering information in a non-propogandistic way might be useful.

Generally, I think it is essential for Vietnam to handle all information regarding what is occurring around the dispute in the most professional manner, perhaps even seeking help from international PR firms, if necessary. A great deal of how people perceive the dispute with China will depend on the information that is available to them and how that information is presented. For example, the PM’s SMS, which encouraged people to express their patriotism in accordance to the law was reported in the mainland press as ‘fanning the flames of nationalism,’ while conveniently failing to note Beijing’s indispensable role starting the fire.

4. What should be the role of the international press in covering the oil rig row? Should Vietnam allow or even invite the international press to the waters where the cat-and-mouse game between Chinese and Vietnamese vessels is going on?

I would rather invite the international press to observe a Vietnam politburo meeting.

More soon, JL



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Vietnam diary, 16 May – Amid chaos, conflict’s fundamentals remain

While most remain focused on the chaotic protests that have engulfed a number of foreign-invested areas in Vietnam, leaving scores injured and nerves frayed, the structural causes of the conflict are unchanged and will remain so until leaders of the two countries and other parties develop the imagination required to save the region from yet another dumb war. The people of both countries deserve better from both ‘socialist’ states.

Any relief Beijing may be feeling today that Hanoi has scored an own-goal in with its mishandled and self-defeating efforts to encourage public expressions of patriotism will be offset over the coming weeks and months, as those who learn about the conflict realize how grandiose Beijing’s claims are. The test for Hanoi (beyond sitting again for the exam on public relations management) is to find a more effective way of making their case.

This morning, I appeared on CNBC Asia’s Sqwak Box program. This hyper-linked clip shares mostly what I had to say (the clip can not be embedded).

Yesterday I urged Vietnam’s state to immediately launch efforts to communicate their messages to the Vietnamese people and the world. This obviously needs to be done in a more thoughtful manner and it should, in my view, make use of some of Vietnam’s more junior leaders, who fluent enough in English to get the job done.

IMG_2397Late yesterday afternoon, Vietnamese officials sent text messages out (pictured here) urging people to express their patriotism and resolve to protect Vietnam’s “sacred” maritime areas and EEZ while calling on them to do so in a law-abiding manner and in ways that avert being high-jacked by criminal elements.

While “too little, too late” certainly seems to have been lost in translation, this is the first of many, many efforts that Hanoi will have to undertake to (1) address the damage it has done and (2) refocus the world’s attention on the underlying conflict, for that conflict will simply will not go away.

With respect to point one, a Vietnamese civil society initiative suggests the following steps be undertaken:

Visit the companies affected most by the recent riots and issue real (formal if necessary) apologies for the incidence; Assure foreign investors that Vietnam government will assist in providing companies immediate and timely aid to recover their production as swiftly as possible as well as guarantee that such incidents will not occur again.

Organize meetings with Vietnamese workers to explain to them what has occurred and what is being done to address the issue in a way that speaks to the concerns of both workers and management; while instructing local authorities to address the needs of workers and employers at present and moving forward.

This is an ambitious agenda but it is one that must be under-taken with zeal. We have seen the Vietnamese state perform well in some area (e.g. disaster evacuation); here is another area of utmost importance and urgency. Finally, I will add that this morning I was pleased to meet the Honorable Felix Chung, who is a member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, representing the textiles and garment sector. He told me he would be going to Hong Kong’s Vietnam consulate today for discussions and assurances. I told him I would be happy to facilitate meetings in Vietnam or help in any other way. Trained in comparative international development, I have never been a huge fan of the apparel industry. But what can I say, the apparel industry needs Vietnam and Vietnam needs the apparel Industry.

With respect to point  2, i.e. the bigger picture, I was encouraged to learn that a working team from Beijing will be heading for Hanoi in the next days. Hopefully they will provide constructive proposals, rather than simply threats. Joint sovereignty proposals need to be explored and hopefully soon will. Otherwise we are in for a long, depressing-ride that will inflict untold pain on the region. I have never directly experienced war and nor would I care to. I hope others feel the same and work to holding Beijing and Hanoi’s leaders to account.

Finally, it is important for the world to know, particularly those living in affected countries in Asia, that the vast majority of Vietnamese are deeply sad about what has occurred. As a young Vietnamese reader shared:

To my international friends,

For the past few days, in protesting against Chinese Communist Party and its government’s violation of Vietnam’s sovereignty, demonstrations of workers in several factories in Vietnam have gone overboard. (While patriotic displays were encouraged in some areas, the chaos that ensued was) spontaneous and unplanned, and (not the result of) extreme nationalism. It could happen when workers work under dire conditions and could not trust their own labour unions. Worker riots working for Apple in China is one example. Crowd effervescence can divert from its original peaceful purpose. The problem is, under the banner of nationalism, such under-regulated (mobs) have destroyed several international factories in Vietnam, not just Chinese but Taiwanese, Korean and Japanese ones. Several Chinese and Vietnamese were hurt. Many of my Vietnamese friends and I feel very sad about this. We just want to express our sincere apology for this bad incident. We really need your understanding. Special apologies go to Chinese people living and working in Vietnam.

Well said.


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Ways forward: Vietnam Diary, 15 May

The situation is ugly, dangerous, and scary. The violence in Ha Tinh is likely to have repercussions. There are now (unconfirmed) reports of at least one and possible multiple deaths (of unknown nationality) and scores of injuries.  But even the riots must take second place to the main story, which is leadership, or lack thereof. Time to break the silence Hanoi. I for one hope that Vietnam can overcome this situation in the earliest possible time frame. In this essay I discuss concrete steps that need to occur.

I began yesterday’s blog post by calling the current situation in Vietnam a crisis, understood as a situation in which Vietnam’s entire strategic outlook in being called into question from many directions, and reminding that with crisis comes both danger and opportunity.

Within the last 24 hours the sense of crisis has deepened, in all three respects.

Today the world is abuzz about the riots that took place in Binh Duong Tuesday night and this buzz will continue amid reports of no-less intense and in respects ominous riots in Ha Tinh province, to the north of Hue. There are now pictures of the riots in Ha Tin online and they feature images of physical abuse. Four deaths (unconfirmed, nationalities unknown) have been reported. I certainly hope this will not result in open conflict. Things are getting scary, folks. The unrest has ended, but the repercussions are yet to be seen.

For this reason, the riots must take second place to the main story, which is leadership, or lack thereof. Indeed, it may not be going too far to call it a crisis of leadership. I for one hope that Vietnam can overcome this situation in the earliest possible time frame.


The Communist Party of Vietnam has always prided itself on its consensus based approach. Ho Chi Minh, for example, is commonly misunderstood to have been Vietnam’s ‘great helmsman,’ when in reality he was a consensus figure. While Vietnam’s consensus based approach has been useful at times, at other times it has thrown the country into protracted gridlock, such as occurred under the ‘reign’ of Le Duan (from the mid-1960s to 1986) (characterized subservient consensus) by and which has characterized Vietnam’s ‘leadership’ over the last decade or so (characterized by dysfunctional stalemate).

Specifically, Vietnam’s leadership has been characterized by a stalemate among its top leaders. On one side the stalemate has featured the reform-minded Nguyen Tan Dung (who has been indirectly linked to a number of large scale corruption scandals) and his political constituency of local and national state-business elite.

On the other is the triumvirate of the country’s General Party Secretary (Nguyen Phu Trong), its President (Truong Tan Sang) and the leader of the National Assembly (Nguyen Sinh Hung), who are generally seen to be more conservative and diffident (I wouldn’t use the word loyal) with respect to China. Domestically, their loyalty is to each other, the Party, and the status quo, with respect to Vietnam’s core institutions.  Internationally, their loyalty (how can I put this politely?) is to the enduring illusion that Beijing is a partner. While the current dispute has silenced such sentiments, these players have not yet developed an alternative rhetoric and this perhaps explains why they have said nothing.

Overall, the combination of corruption-tainted and insufficiently strong reformist tendencies combined mind-bogglingly dogmatic conservatism is what has Vietnam’s market-Leninist political economy growing much slower than it should be, while its people face greater economic and social vulnerabilities than they should.

Over several years, Vietnamese and reform minded analysts who know Vietnam have pleaded with its government for breakthrough reforms, but this has not occurred. Why the lengthy preamble? Because the crisis Vietnam faces today internationally and domestically may not be understood apart from the stalemate that is Vietnamese politics. Vietnam has virtually zero chance of coming out of the crisis in good shape if this stalemate is not somehow addressed. It is notable that at the 9th Plenum of the 11th Party Congress that is currently underway, the conflict with China has hardly been mentioned, at least to my knowledge.

A deafening silence

One of the clearest indications of the gridlock and the lingering hesitance to break with Beijing is the deafening silence issuing forth from Ba Dinh Square, where Vietnam’s Communist Party’s administration is located and where 69 years ago Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam’s Independence, quoting words from America’s own Declaration of Independence, in an ultimately failed bid to win Washington’s recognition.  A full one week on from China’s sovereignty challenge, a week in which Vietnam’s formidable news media has been given a green light to impugn China, a week in wich Vietnamese cyberspace is on fire and now, protests run amok, and Vietnamese have not heard one single statement issued by any leading figure of their Party, State, or Government. Not a word.

While domestic leaders have spoken in glowing terms about Nguyen Tan Dung’s forceful speech at last-week’s summit, ASEAN is not the answer to Vietnam’s problems, Vietnam is the answer to Vietnam’s problems. (I would not call the ASEAN summit a failure because at least of its members has been bought and paid for already while others fear China or are do not know courage.) The problem is Vietnam’s leadership, it pains me to say, is in a state of paralysis.

At a time when Beijing has by most accounts violated both Vietnam’s sovereignty and international norms, the silence of Vietnam’s leadership means that it has no voice and indeed no narrative in global discussions currently unfolding.

The absence of a clear, coherent voice from Hanoi is doing great harm. Instead of communicating with the world with the confidence it should, Hanoi is on the brink of a public-relations meltdown that would make even Malaysian aviation officials blush. Indeed, the situation would appear to confirm what my colleague Adam Fforde has said in an interview with the AFP (quoted here), that Vietnam at present exhibits a “regime that offers no order or leadership capable of the efforts that will be needed” to stand up against China. Can Hanoi prove otherwise?

The riots

Now let’s turn to the riots. As noted, yesterday, the riots reflect popular outrage but also illustrate the hazards of nationalist fervor unleashed, particularly in repressive institutional environments such as Vietnam. The vast, (I emphasize) vast majority of Vietnamese, including those highly critical of the Party-state, condemn such actions, as they risk putting Vietnam in a bad light at a time when the country’s sovereignty has come under direct external threat. We can expect authorities to clamp down with maximum urgency and force. Alas, the riots seem to be the result of a botched attempt at orderly protest.

While evidence remains scarce, the riots appear to be the result of carelessly planned small-scale protests initiated by state-run or state invested foreign ventures which then quickly exploded.  The situation illustrates the profound nature of the challenges Hanoi faces in handling the crisis.

While virtually all of the media attention has been focused on Binh Duong, developments in Vũng Áng – Hà Tĩnh province, north of Hue are in respects more worrying still, as they appear to have involved violence and caused the (unconfirmed) death of four persons, nationalities unknown. Once photos of this incident circulate (I have seen them) we can expect the tensions between China and Vietnam to worsen still further.

Prominent civil society advocates (such as Nguyen Quang A) have emphasized that chaos is not the answer, while rightly maintaining that a constructive role for civil society in the current crisis will require human rights protections to which Hanoi has so far only paid lip-service. The riots are unfortunate. Vietnamese people are understandably upset by Beijing’s conduct but they risk doing great damage.

It must be recalled that Vietnamese have virtually no experience in participating in real politics of any sort, least loosely organized protests.Vietnam’s state is a capable state in many areas, such as flood evacuation, for example. The country also has a very large state-managed media operation and a wired population. Steps must be taken to address unrest. However, the old pattern of threats against the population will not be useful. Vietnamese are worried about the future of their country. Repression won’t fix that.

Ways forward

If Vietnam is going to confront the crisis in an effective manner, gain control of the situation, and address the underlying issues of sovereignty the following developments need to occur:

1. As soon as possible, hopefully within the next 24 hours THIS AFTERNOON, or at the earliest possible Hanoi must issue a statement. BUT NO ORDINARY STATEMENT. This should be televised (preferably live) and presented by a leading figure in Vietnam’s Party, State, or Government; In my view, the state should consider two statements, one in Vietnamese by a head of state, such as Nguyen Tan Dung (who has the greatest international experience) and one in English, delivered by a suitably high-ranking official in the Party, State, or Government who is fluent in English. Nguyen Thien Nhan, a member of the Communist Party of Vietnam’s politburo and head of the Party’s leading mass organization may be a suitable candidate.These statements, which would address both international and domestic dimensions of the situation; would aim to stabilize the situation by stating in the clearest possible terms Hanoi’s intention to address the crisis in its relations with China through diplomatic, legal means, and creative/cooperative means not yet discussed (e.g. joint development, shared sovereignty over buffer zones, etc).

* Visits by top leaders to the factories affected and meetings with enterprise managers of Chinese (and Taiwanese) factories and injured persons should be considered. With all necessary apologies, guarantees, and assurances.

2. Vietnam’s political leadership and leaders of the country’s developing civil society, which has elements both within and outside the state, need to enter discussions. These should include representatives of the country’s top leadership, representatives of the Group of 72 Petitioners (for constitutional reform, a loose grouping of intellectuals and others with longstanding links to the Party); senior members of leading civil society organizations. This is the most promising and indeed the only conceivable strategy for Hanoi to both gain control over the domestic narrative and achieve the kind of “big-tent” solidarity necessary to engage the international arena in an effective manner while also eliminating domestic chaos; I do not have great confidence in the current non-strategy of protest, which has featured meetings of local political elite in cities across the country; poorly organized protests, and extensive press coverage of the confrontation at sea; Leaders of Civil Society must, in turn, exercise leadership in their own right, by reiterating and broadcasting as widely as possible and through all possible means the need to refrain from violence and chaos; the trust of Civil Society and the support of the international community can be enhanced by the rapid release of important political dissidents under a set of principles to be negotiated. (Xin thông cẩm các bạn từ phía nhà nước Việt Nam, tôi rất ủng hộ Việt Nam và như vậy xin phép nói thẳng thắn như vậy! Đang nỗ lực để có môt cách tiếp cận xây dựng nhất!)

3. Vietnam must enter a national discussion and debate of all its options. The country and the region cannot afford a military conflict and conflict must be avoided at all costs. Obviously, discussion are ongoing within the Vietnamese leadership, and I recognize high level discussions are rarely open. That said, the country will benefit from open discussion and debate and as a contribution to those discussions and broader discussion I would like to share some final thoughts:

Yesterday I entered into an exchange with the noted US scholar and intellectual Amitai Etzioni, who has advocated a strategy of “Mutually Assured Restraint” in relations between the US in China. I asked him of his views on the Vietnam case, to which he offered the following sentiments, which I would like to share here:

No country should use coercive diplomacy, by establishing new facts on the ground, as a way to change the status quo.  It should be changed through negotiations, arbitration, or IR courts.  This was what I stated in the original Mutually Assured Restraint and what my colleagues stated in a position paper on MAR (“Changes to the status quo should be accomplished through negotiations between the parties involved; through arbitration, mediation, or international bodies and courts; or by finding new, creative solutions such as sharing sovereignty.”)

Nations stepping on an escalator of military preparedness should note it is much easier to get on it than to get off, and ask themselves where it is leading.  All the nations involved have burning domestic needs, whose service will suffer the more they invest in military assets. So will the stability of their regimes.

I support these general sentiments and believe Vietnam should be pursuing precisely these avenues. Etizioni had other things to say about Vietnam’s current policy tack, which I may address in the days head. In the mean time Hanoi needs to get its house in order by:

  1. Overcoming its self-defeating stalemate (the Vietnamese people need and deserve leadership, the region needs leadership, and right now);
  2. Ending the silence of its top leadership through clear communication to Vietnamese and international audiences, and;
  3. Entering into discussions with members of civil society both within and outside the state (and among the overseas community) to achieve the kind of order and legitimacy that will be necessary to lead the country from its present position of peril to a more promising future.

The most promising way to address the current crisis is some combination of the above together with serious engagement the international community and ongoing discussions about how best to achieve and sustain a  stable and prosperous regional order.

More later,

Note 1. Apologies for any mistakes, mistakes, over-statements, or insults. I don’t have much time and want to get this out.

Note 2.  Regarding the pronunciation of Vietnamese names: The surname Nguyen, which seems to challenge just about every non-Vietnamese speaker, can be pronounced phonetically as “Nwin.” Vietnamese features the letters D and Đ, which is a source of confusion as Đ does not translate. D is sometimes pronounced roughly as is “Z” in English, as in the case of PM Nguyen Tan Dung and Binh Duong province.

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