Secretary Trong’s Beijing Adventure

Today I was asked to comment on Vietnamese General Party Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong’s upcoming trip to Beijing…. I’m no Carl Thayer, but here’s what I had to say:

Trong’s trip is an important opportunity for he and Xi to establish greater clarity on relations between the two states, particularly though by no means only with respect to the East Sea. In the past, Chinese leaders have always seemed to present Vietnam with a combination of “carrots” and “sticks” and there is no reason to expect this to change. At present, China appears intent on using “infrastructure diplomacy” to gain favor with countries across the region and around the world together with provocative displays of military expansion. Xi is also going full steam ahead in efforts to change the status quo by unilateral means, most notably by building up installations in disputed areas.

For Secretary Trong it is an opportunity to state his positions and his views of his own party to China in his own terms and to explore areas of mutual interest in party-to-party relations, ideology, the emerging global situation, and Vietnam’s relations with US in particular. The strategic calculus of the talks will be different this time however, in part owing to China’s aggressive behavior and challenges to Vietnam’s sovereignty and in part owing to the ability and willingness of Vietnam to collaborate with other regional and world actors in promoting its legitimate rights and interests.

As in the past, Trong is likely to hear a combination of seductive offers of assistance and threats of collaborating with “external” powers. Trong’s warm personality and great interest in cultivating stronger ideological ties are likely to result in a public display of friendship and solidarity. Nguyen Phu Trong and the Communist Party of Vietnam recognize the importance of having good and stable relations with China. The Party – and it is hoped Trong, too – also recognize that though China is a large and powerful country, a subordinate relationship based on outdated the principles of “big brother dominates little brother” are not in the best interest of  mutually beneficial relations.

Perhaps not the most nuanced analysis, but my two cents for the moment.


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Getting Rights Right at Vietnam’s Crossroads

Vietnam Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong’s upcoming visit to Washington comes at a critical juncture for Vietnam and a time when a confluence of domestic, regional, and geopolitical factors are giving increasing salience to the importance of expanding and protecting civil and political liberties in the country. The most important step in making the case for human rights in Vietnam is to convince the country’s leadership that better rights will generate significant benefits for Vietnam both domestically and in the international arena.

Weak rights protections are harming Vietnam. Domestically, they are compromising the performance of the country’s political and economic institutions and undermining the party’s legitimacy. Weak rights also harm Vietnam’s international image and damage the country’s prestige at a time when international support is vital.

While there is no use in overstating progress, political and civil freedoms in Vietnam have improved significantly in recent years. These improvements are due to decisions and calculations by party elites and to the determined efforts of a diverse set of rights champions operating within and outside the party itself. Today, the party presides over a country in which political and civic freedoms are being openly discussed and debated, through admittedly more often online than in the public square. Vietnam’s increasingly pluralistic and open political culture should be recognized for what it is: an emerging strength that sets it apart from more repressive regimes like China’s.

As Vietnam’s leading ideologue and the author of such statements as “our regime must never change,” the congenial and soon to retire Trong might strike some as an odd choice to travel to Washington, particularly given the high stakes. But this is Vietnam. A country where party elders must be respected, party conservatives must be placated, and where pantomimed expressions of unity must be performed continuously before statues of the famous patriot Ho Chi Minh, who would no doubt cringe at his contemporary religious deification.

Vietnam’s political leaders have an historic opportunity to improve the country’s economic performance, bolster their legitimacy, and vastly enhance the country’s international standing. To do this they must strike a new balance between the need to protect rights and the need to ensure social order. Three areas deserve particular attention.

Freedom of speech. Vietnamese within and outside the party have found their political voice and they are unlikely to relinquish it. The Internet has emerged as a lively platform for public analysis of official news and has reawakened Vietnam’s rich tradition of social criticism, debate, and intellectual exploration. While party elites bristle at Internet whistle-blowers and despise anti-party haranguing, the Internet nonetheless provides unparalleled opportunities for expression and openness. Arresting and intimidating bloggers and rounding up dissidents under draconian anti-sedition laws will not deliver Vietnam the civilized knowledge-based society its leaders envision or earn the country international respect. Releasing dissidents and protecting the free flow of ideas will.

Freedom of association. The party began as an illegal organization committed to the causes of social justice and national independence. Protecting freedom of association need not be seen as a threat to the party’s survival. Surely a party that traces its heritage to struggles against brutal exploitation on French rubber plantations should recognize that sole reliance on employer-dominated trade unions is likely to place the interests of employers and investors before those of workers. Vietnam’s workers are not revolutionaries. They want decent wages and their basic rights to be respected.

If the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement is successfully negotiated among the 12 member countries, both Vietnamese workers and employers will benefit. By strengthening rights and protection for its workers, Vietnam can attract new investment and build a reputation for social responsibility, distinguishing itself from competitors. Increased freedom for labor unions will likely be required before the U.S. Congress will ratify a TPP agreement that includes Vietnam. But the main reasons for doing this should be to promote the rights and livelihoods of Vietnamese workers and enhance Vietnam’s attractiveness as a destination for foreign investors who take labor rights seriously.

Beyond the shop floor, independent research organizations should be encouraged rather than suppressed. Silencing criticism and dissent is self-defeating. Similarly, permitting peaceful protest under principles of enlightened policing and zero tolerance for unruly behavior should be chosen over arrests, brutality, and intimidation. The appeal of ultra-nationalist and radical groups will decline if ordinary Vietnamese are granted their natural rights to to peacefully demonstrate and petition their government.

Freedom of the press. Absent a substantially independent press, accountability and transparency suffer. When a tiny circulation newspaper reported that a member of the party’s anti-corruption commission had accumulated properties through illegitimate means it was the editor who was pressured to resign. And yet a more independent press is precisely what Vietnam needs if it is to improve state responsiveness and combat and reduce corruption. Policies are needed to promote press freedoms, not suppress them. Reformist members of Vietnam’s political establishment should prevail upon their conservative colleagues to abandon their proposals to further restrict press freedoms.

This year marks 20 years of normalized U.S.-Vietnam relations and 40 years since the conclusion of the two countries’ disastrous war. It also marks the 70th anniversary of Vietnam’s Declaration of Independence, in which Ho Chi Minh famously announced the birth of a free and independent Vietnam. This was followed by the 1946 constitution, which promised freedom of speech, freedom of association, and a free press. Since 1945, Vietnam has travelled a long and difficult path. If Vietnam’s leaders can embrace a real commitment to rights, a strong, prosperous, and independent Vietnam is well within reach.

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

This essay is presently featured on the Asia blog of the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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Comments 50 years later

The UK newspaper The Guardian recently asked me for comments on the 50th Anniversary of the US Marine landing at Nam Ô Beach, near Danang.

The article appears here:

The author was particularly interested in knowing the meaning of the (US) war in Vietnam for Vietnamese youth, Vietnam’s development, and US-Vietnam relations. Disclosure: I’m not the most informed person on Vietnam-US relations and am not an expert on Vietnam’s youth. But here are my comments in full.

Does the war play much of a role in the lives of the Vietnamese youth or have they moved on?

It plays a significant role in the lives of young people, though it takes on many different forms. Take memories and representations of the war and their meaning. On an individual level, young peoples’ families have been shaped by wars and families’ memories and histories and their salience for young people vary across the country, depending on families’ specific connections to the war and its effects. This is particularly salient in a places like Da Nang, where the fighting and its destructive impacts were most widely and severely felt and where the war was experienced not only as an international war involving a global superpower but also a civil war that divided communities and even families. A lot of that history is subdued. But it’s there. People light incense on family prayer altars to remember those lost in battle, for example. This happens in households in ways that are hidden from view but which carry intimate meanings in ways hard to grasp. Families’ trajectories and their physical and mental health have all been profoundly impacted.

More broadly, young people continuously encounter state-approved and state-managed memories and narratives, which are continuously being transmitted to the young through the education system and through various channels of the state-run media and propaganda apparatus. Young people are not only taught about the war they are taught what to think about it. The officially correct lesson to be drawn is that the war and its outcome remind us of the historical indispensability of the Communist Party’s leadership in freeing the country from external domination and subordination. But once again, we shouldn’t lose sight of the war’s tremendous and lasting destructive impacts, which stunted Vietnam’s development for decades.

 Just how significant has the development of Vietnam been over the last few decades?

As recently as the early 1990s Vietnam was one of the poorest countries in Asia. The country’s development since has been very impressive. Economic growth has permitted rapid improvements in living standards and sharp declines in poverty. Life for the vast majority of Vietnamese is much, much better than in the past. Access to essential services has vastly improved. The country is motorized and internet penetration is among the fastest growing the world. Still, large shares of the population still live under conditions of socioeconomic vulnerability and social inequalities have intensified. The country’s economic growth is set to continue. The real questions are about what the pace of that growth will be and the equability of its outcomes. This will mostly depend on the effectiveness of the government’s economic policies and the success of reform efforts.

How much warmer do you expect Vietnam-US ties to become in the next few years?

I expect US-Vietnam relations to improve rapidly. This year is a particularly important year, not only because of the 40th anniversary but because of the culmination of the TPP talks and the high-level diplomatic talks that are scheduled to take place. Whatever the fate of the TPP, economic ties between the US and Vietnam are likely to improve considerably. Attitudes toward the US among Vietnam’s leadership have evolved swiftly, particularly within the last several ears and especially last year when the reality of China’s efforts to enforce its outsized maritime claims  directly challenged the country’s sovereignty. Enthusiasm for improving and deepening ties with the US remains uneven within the leadership and conservatives remain fixated on the US threat to the Party’s survival. But virtually all members of the leadership recognize the critical importance of further developing US ties, not only for reasons of trade but for national security. Vietnam finds itself in an extraordinarily challenging set of relationships. It needs good relations with both China and with the United States and must also promote its own interests. This is a tall order.

The pace and scope of improvements really depends on the appetite for improvements among Vietnam’s leadership and whether the leadership will be willing and able to live up to its pledges to promote democracy, freedom, and protection of rights, as it has pledged to do.  Any substantial improvements in these areas would permit deep improvements in US ties. On the other hand, continued harassment and imprisonment of dissenters would damage prospects. There’s tremendous potential for US-Vietnam ties. No matter how you look at it, Vietnam and America have a special relationship. I think leaders in both countries and people in Vietnam, perhaps in particular the youth, are keen to make relations with the US special for all the right reasons.

Jonathan D. London

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Nguyễn Bá Thanh

Today word came that Nguyen Ba Thanh, one of Vietnam’s leading political figures, has passed away. The following is based on my own reflections and knowledge of Nguyen Ba Thanh and his significance. It can not be considered to be an authoritative account because I am not deeply familiar with his career nor did I ever meet him in person. I did, however, live in Da Nang and Quang Nam in 1999 and 2000 and have followed those localities’ politics with considerable interest. The following should be taken as my own amateurish attempt at grasping his significance with incomplete information.


Nguyen Ba Thanh (18 April 1953 – 13 February 2015) was a native of Da Nang and among the most important leaders in the city’s history. He was a rare commodity in Vietnamese politics: an entrepreneurial and pragmatic political conservative with a strong record of experimentation and achievement. He will forever be associated with the rapid transformation of Da Nang from a sleepy nondescript post-revolutionary town into a still-quiet but increasingly impressive showcase for large infrastructure projects – especially new roads and bridges – and innovative government reforms. While the city still lacks a distinctive flavor, it’s transformation is remarkable by any standard and residents of the City frequently report high levels of satisfaction with a range of public services, ranging from education to waste management. He was a City leader of national stature.

Nguyen Ba Thanh’s reputation was not without controversy. While his billing as Vietnam’s “Mr. Clean” gained him considerably notoriety and admiration, this characterization was increasingly questioned by critics who took issue with his aggressive tactics in clearing neighborhoods for new infrastructure and allegations that he himself had engaged in corrupt practices. While his achievements in promoting Da Nang’s development have been widely praised and are in respects undeniable, critics have noted that the City’s redevelopment occurred without the creation of public spaces, and with an insignificant industrial base and middling service economy. The city’s famous beaches that have been increasingly enclosed within lucrative joint-venture property developments which, while no doubt contributing to the City’s finances, have generated uncertain contributions to interests of the city’s general population. These criticisms notwithstanding, the native of Da Nang will forever be associated with the city’s development and transformation at the turn of the century.

Da Nang and its neighboring provinces have always occupied an important place in the politics of the Communist Party of Vietnam and Nguyen Ba Thanh’s status as an effective leader made him a natural candidate for ascending to the highest positions within the party. Widely respected among much of the political establishment, Nguyen Ba Thanh’s political ascent nonetheless fell short of expectations when in 2013 he failed to win a seat in the 16-member Politburo. Politically, he will be remembered as an enterprising and unusually effective administrator, which is significant insofar as his achievements have inspired greater openness to experimentation and innovation in public management.

Nguyen Ba Thanh’s reputation as corruption free was challenged toward the end of his career even as he was appointed as Vice-Chair of the Politburo’s anti-Corruption Committee. Notably, his illness and ultimate passing came at a time when Vietnam has been confronted by a fresh wave of allegations of high-level corruption, allegations that are potentially harmful to the Party’s legitimacy and which are fueling renewed calls from within and outside the state for systemic institutional reforms.

As a man of the Party, Nguyen Ba Thanh’s willingness to experiment and his penchant for emphasizing the need for transparent and efficient government will remembered fondly by his many supporters. Among Nguyen Ba Thanh’s most notable qualities was his ability to speak at very great length — sometimes as long as three hours — but in a disarmingly free-wheeling, often persuasive, and consistently playful and humorous way that made his public speeches and pronouncements a spectacle, winning him additional admiration among his fans and begrudging respect among his skeptics. (See the three-hour and seven minute “clip” below.) Nguyen Ba Thanh will be widely remembered across Vietnam.


Photo credit:

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Vietnam: Open Secrets on the Road to Succession

Happy New year!

It’s been a long while since I’ve posted on this site. But with the New Year I hope and intend to increase my activity and output. Below, please find a link to my recent piece for the Center for International and Strategic Studies (Washington), titled “Open secrets on the road to succession.

cogit photo jan

Best regards,



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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.


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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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