Steps forward and advice for Mr. Xi

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post, 9 July 2014 under the headline Hanoi must meet the challenge of standing up to Beijing

Two months have passed since Beijing intensified efforts to enforce its illegitimate claims over vast areas of maritime Southeast Asia. The placement of a giant oil rig in disputed waters, in violation of international norms, has been accompanied by coercive diplomacy and propaganda as well as threats and use of violence. Beijing’s aggressiveness and obstinacy have impressed the world.

Until recently, the two Southeast Asian countries most threatened by Beijing’s outsized sovereignty claims – the Philippines and Vietnam – have pursued divergent paths in their dealings with Beijing. Yet Hanoi is now likely to join Manila in challenging the legality of Beijing’s claims and its actions.

For Vietnam, the challenges in standing up to Beijing are particularly formidable. As militarising China is Vietnam’s neighbour and largest trading partner, Hanoi naturally desires to keep relations with Beijing on as even a keel as possible. Indeed, the riots in May were an aberration. And yet Beijing’s behaviour has made business as usual impossible, thrusting Vietnamese into a grand debate about the country’s direction and its strategic outlook.

After two months of internal fragmentation and mixed messages, Vietnam’s leadership is now projecting unity, warning that while Vietnam will pursue peace, Vietnamese must prepare for the worst.

But what specific steps might Vietnam pursue? The US-based analyst Vu Quang Viet and I have suggested the following. First, Hanoi should seek a judgment from an arbitration tribunal under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, establishing 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 and Spratlys under Beijing’s de facto control would be entitled only to 12-nautical-mile territorial seas.

Second, while initiating its own case, Vietnam should join Manila’s case against Beijing, which challenges the validity of the bogus 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 prioritise early resolution of all outstanding disputes with the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan, use the Association of Southeast Asian Nations where appropriate, and further develop strategic partnerships.

However important, steps along these lines will in and of themselves be insufficient to the task of securing Vietnam a prosperous and independent future. That is why growing numbers of Vietnamese are convinced that still bolder actions are required; that Vietnam must embrace fundamental institutional reforms. For only with such reforms, they argue, will Vietnam achieve the levels of economic performance, national unity and international support needed to meet the challenges of the times.

In the long term, the challenge for Vietnam and the entire region is to forge a regional security framework grounded in binding norms and based on principles of mutual respect, equality and cooperation. Certainly, we should hope Beijing would adopt a more constructive approach.

In a recent speech, President Xi Jinping noted that “the notion of dominating international affairs belongs to a different age”. Might Xi consider his own sound advice?

Jonathan D. London is a professor in the Department of Asian and International Studies and core member of the Southeast Asia Research Centre at the City University of Hong Kong, and author of Politics in Contemporary Vietnam: Party, State, and Authority Relations