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.