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.