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.

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.