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.