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.