Vietnam diary: 18 May – Interviews with Tuổi trẻ and VietWeek

Below, please find responses to interviews with Vietnamese press. Apologies for the errors, I only have so much time. Best regards, JL.

Interview with Tuổi trẻ

1. There is hope to find a diplomatic solution to the current conflict between Vietnam and China over the oil rig in the South China Sea as both Hanoi and Beijing sent its deputy Foreign Minister-led diplomat delegation to other’s country to deal with the tensions. In your opinion, is that an optimistic sign or the first step for a long-term diplomatic solution? 

Ultimately, the conflict can only be resolved through diplomatic means, the question is whether leaders in both countries will have the foresight, wisdom, and courage to find a solution that is fair, durable, and based on a sound set of mutually-agreed to and.or perhaps legally binding principles. It is important and at least minimally encouraging that talks are taking place, what is important is that those talks of of substance rather than simply a collection of ultimatums and threats.

2. What are main purposes behind Beijing’s deployment of oil rig Haiyang Shiyou to Vietnam’s EEZ and continental shelf in the South China Sea?

Internationally, there is general agreement that the purposes of deploying the oil rig are mainly political, serving at least three distinct but related purposes: changing the status quo, by exploiting resources in disputed areas, which is against international norms; testing the reaction of other states, principally Vietnam and the U.S.; and engaging in coercive diplomacy.

3. Why did China take this step this time? Is it true that China deployed the rig to cause conflict overseas, aiming to cover up domestic governance problems ?

Like any country, China has no shortage of problems at home. One of the unfortunate byproducts of Beijing’s outsized and legally basely sovereignty claims and its attempts to enforce them is that it will tend to fuel a regional arms race, which is already underway owing in part to Beijing’s rapid military expansion. By contrast, if peaceful solutions to regional disputes can be arranged all states, including China and Vietnam, can focus their resources on serving the needs of their respective populations. Attempts to enforce legally baseless sovereignty claims by military means will be unfortunate as it will lead all countries in the region to divert resources away from where they are most needed. By contrast, a peaceful resolution of the conflict would allow both countries to focus resources on where they are most needed.

4. What should Vietnam do to prevent aggressive acts from the Chinese side in the oil rig tension? Is there any possible peaceful solution to the VN-China conflict to which both sides would agree? Or it will lead to a military conflict?

The most promising way to address aggression is to prevail on Beijing that it would be in its own best interest to cease and desist from aggressive acts, provocations, and efforts to change the status quo through force. I must emphasize, that this point, both countries are trading allegations but neither appears prepared to enter real discussion. Yes, there is a range of peaceful solutions, but none of these are prefabricated and all of these will require an order of imagination that leaders in the region have yet to display.

Across the region, from Japan to China to Vietnam, a new approach to diplomacy is needed; one that goes beyond hyper-nationalism and the ‘politics of face’ (e.g. rigid stances based nationalistic pride and machismo). Vietnam has seen too much military conflict. So has the region and the world. A military conflict must be avoided by all possible means and Vietnam must engage the community of nations with greater energy and depth than it is accustomed to doing.

This is why I believe it is essential that Vietnam show the world why it is worthy of support. This, in turn, will require energetically implementing the sorts of reforms outlined in the PM’s New Years address and even releasing controversial prisoners of consciousness as a way of demonstrating to all of Vientam, the global Vietnamese population, and the Community of nations that Vietnam needs and deserves support. Finally, Vietnam will derive strength from unity. Urgent efforts are needed to address long-neglected issues such as national reconciliation internal political divisions, and even a different policy toward civil society organization, as even former top-level Party and State officials have acknowledged.

5. Up to now, Washington only called Beijing’s recent actions in the South China Sea are “provocative” as well as called on both sides to deal with conflict through diplomatic channels and to observe freedom of navigation in the sea. They said they are not in favor of any side. However, in recent days, some US officials sent message that they want to build military cooperation with Vietnam. Did you realize that?

Yes, I have read of this, and greater military would seem logical, given regional power imbalances. However, military cooperation with the US on any significant scale will carry with it certain ramifications. In a recent email exchange, the noted US based intellectual Amitai Etzioni, a prominent advocate of “mutually assured restraint” in US-China relations, has warned of the risk of treating the dispute with China as a potential military conflict, stating that “forming military alliances and placing military forces in nations hereto considered neutral or China allies (such as Vietnam)” would make China respond in kind.

So I think it is sensible that Vietnam explore the deepening of military cooperation with Vietnam, but that these decisions be made in view of the broader regional strategic calculus and with minimizing the likelihood of militarizing the region. Vietnam needs to balance the imperatives of self-defense with those of the need for a peaceful order. Ultimately, relations between Vietnam and China must be stable. But they cannot be stable if the overriding principles in the region follow the laws of the jungle.

6. Did the current tensions in the South China Sea affect the US pivot to Asia?

They certainly pose dilemmas for Washington. While some have voiced concern that the US has not taken a more forceful stance, I believe the US response to the tensions remain to be seen. One would expect these tensions to change the tenor of discussions between Hanoi and the US with respect to military intervention. It is still unclear what exactly the pivot means now and will mean in practical terms going forward. But if one aim of the US’s Pacific presence is to ensure a stable maritime conducive to the development of international commerce and supportive of security than we would expect the present tensions to add and not diminish attention to these goals.

No one wants to see the region descend into a tense never-ending contest for hegemony. The region would be much better served by diplomatic measures. The so-called pivot is not and should not be mainly about military issues. It should be about promoting prosperity through cooperation.

7. In your opinion, is it a good idea for Vietnam to file a lawsuit to an international tribunal against China over its illegitimate territorial claims in the South China Sea? Does the US support Vietnam to do so like it did with the Philippines before?

Barring any significant changes in Beijing’s position, very possibly yes. I have not studied the US position and not sure whether in fact it was the US that recommended the Philippines. If so, there’s some irony. For broadly, with respect to international norms, it’s worth noting that the US’s own failure to support UNCLOS over several decades is extremely regrettable. Having the US as a signatory to UNCLOS would likely give it even greater significance that it has today.

Unfortunately, saying that does not help Vietnam. So what about the international tribunal? Beijing has indicated that it would ignore any judgments against it, which is unfortunate and one would hope this position might change. The aim should not be to antagonize Beijing but to have a neutral body adjudicate between competing sovereignty claims on the basis of available evidence. If there is no change in Beijing’s position and diplomacy fails, the tribunal would at least provide an opportunity to make the world aware of how each country’s aims stand up.

That said, if there are alternatives to an international tribunal, those should be actively explored or created where none exist. All parties to the conflict are absolutely locked on the notion of preserving their sovereignty, which is understandable.

8. In a recent DW interview, Southeast Asia expert Gerhard Will says that Beijing is testing the solidarity of members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) with Vietnam and examining how much US support Hanoi can rely upon. He added that after realizing that the latest move has brought Hanoi and Manila closer together, China is now starting to backtrack. This is proof that China is not following a totally consistent strategy in the South China Sea. Do you think it is too early to jump to such conclusion?

While I am a big supporter of international cooperation I am not particularly optimistic about ASEAN. While it is a useful organization in respects it is not an especially meaningful political unit, principally because some of its members are insufficiently independent, effectively foreclosing the possibility of engaging states such as the United States of China in concert. The warming relations between Vietnam and the Philippines are intriguing.

Certainly the countries have similar concerns. Vietnam needs to show that it is more serious about forging ties with other regions affected by Beijing’s aggressive claims, including Indonesia and Malaysia. Last year a very well known Vietnamese official conveyed to me that Vietnam’s diplomatic forays into Indonesia were depressingly superficial.  It is one thing to be friends with everybody. It is another to have friends that will stand by you, shoulder to shoulder.

With respect to the US support, the situation is of course complex. Vietnam-US relations should be and could be much further along than they are now. As a scholar of comparative political economy, I do believe all countries should be careful in forging links with the US (even South Korea recognized that), or for that matter other countries. The current crisis certainly gives both Vietnam and the US a reason to deepen ties and new reasons to overcome various obstacles to deeper ties. Still, any deepening of relations with the US should be driven by the need to create a stable region. A protracted cold war would be costly, dangerous, and a massive diversion from pressing challenges of the day.

9. What are you opinions on the spirit of Vietnamese patriotism in the recent peaceful marches against China’s oil rig?

Patriotism is an admirable quality and Vietnamese are a patriotic people. Patriotism should never lead to extremist nationalism, name calling, or ‘China-bashing.’ Before anything else, we are all human beings. The present conflict needs to be addressed on the basis of mutual respect. Obviously, the chaos witnessed in a small number of foreign invested areas is extremely regrettable. A more responsible approach needs to be taken by all Vietnamese. The state also should communicate more effectively what is occurring. Perhaps some will find it controversial that I believe expressions of patriotism need not be organized or managed from the top down. While many in Vietnam are uncertain or even hostile to the notion of civil society, Vietnamese patriotism will be strongest when it is a “big tent,” habitable to the needs and aspirations of all Vietnamese, regardless of status, rank, or place of residence. The value of Vietnamese patriotism in Vietnam and globally will be greatest if patriotic passions are to the service of peace and to demonstrating to the world why Vietnam is worthy of its support.

Interview with VietWeek, a new English weekly

1. In the context of the Chinese mainstream media getting aggressively brunt in defending the Chinese sovereignty claims, what do you make of the fact that a popular publication like SCMP has also joined the fray?

Over the last several years the SCMP has published an increasing number of editorials written by mainland officials and establishment intellectuals, which is mildly annoying. It becomes extremely annoying when they publish articles that look like they belong in People’s Daily or China Daily. That said, the SCMP does a reasonably good job of separating news reporting from editorial and opinion, and in this respect is independent in a way stateowned press in China or Vietnam is not. It is also important to state that readers are free to write in with critical comments and those comments will be printed. Moreover, there is nothing to stop someone like me from writing an article for SCMP. I have written a number of articles about the maritime disputes in the last few years. This morning I shared my surprise with the editor about the article in question and indicated he would soon receive a piece from me for his consideration. What becomes worrisome is when the presence of a few opinion pieces from the mainland turn into a flood; then one begins to get uneasy. That said, I encourage readers to see that these one-sided pieces written by mainland officials are usually subject to lively criticisms from readers.

2. What is the repercussion of this? What is SCMP supposed to do in this matter? What do you make of such mistake?

Well, it’s up to readers to write in and complain, through letters to the editor and complaints. By the way, there was an OUTSTANDING op-ed piece by Philip Bowring published today in the SCMP that I urge everyone to read.

3. The Straits Times on May 15 also ran a photo about the riots in Vietnam with wrong caption. The photo featured 500 Vietnamese workers hospitalized due to food poisoning but The Straits Times captioned it as 500 Chinese workers hospitalized in the wake of the riot. See attached.

It’s really an egregious error. People should write in and let them now. Moreover, someone should establish a website devoted to correcting errors or clear reporting. For example, reports of 21 deaths are still circulating, though as far as I know have not yet been confirmed. So a website offering information in a non-propogandistic way might be useful.

Generally, I think it is essential for Vietnam to handle all information regarding what is occurring around the dispute in the most professional manner, perhaps even seeking help from international PR firms, if necessary. A great deal of how people perceive the dispute with China will depend on the information that is available to them and how that information is presented. For example, the PM’s SMS, which encouraged people to express their patriotism in accordance to the law was reported in the mainland press as ‘fanning the flames of nationalism,’ while conveniently failing to note Beijing’s indispensable role starting the fire.

4. What should be the role of the international press in covering the oil rig row? Should Vietnam allow or even invite the international press to the waters where the cat-and-mouse game between Chinese and Vietnamese vessels is going on?

I would rather invite the international press to observe a Vietnam politburo meeting.

More soon, JL