Time for Vietnam to Reassess its South China Sea Strategy

Published on COGIT Asia, a blog of the Center for Strategic and International Studies on November 2, 2015

Vietnam People's navy BPS-500 class antisubmarine warfare corvette HQ-381. Source: Wikimedia, used under a creative commons license.

Vietnam People’s navy BPS-500 antisubmarine warfare corvette HQ-381. Source: Wikimedia, used under a creative commons license

Chinese president Xi Jinping’s visit to Hanoi this week comes at a time when Beijing’s efforts to change the status quo in the South China Sea through the construction of manmade islands has raised tensions across the region. Only Beijing sees the “nine-dash line” it uses to advance its claim to 90 percent of the entire South China Sea as legitimate. Yet, if anything, tensions in the region appear to be on the rise. Be that as it may, the commencement of U.S. patrols aimed at demonstrating the right of ships to travel anywhere in the South China Sea that international law permits, together with an arbitral tribunal’s finding that it has jurisdiction to rule on many of China’s claims, invites all parties, including Vietnam to reassess the broader conflict and attendant opportunities and risks.

The China-based scholar David Arase has recently observed that smaller states such as Vietnam and the Philippines can increase their leverage in the dispute through greater cooperation with each other, greater willingness to exercise legal means in concert to defend international norms, and recognition that selective cooperation and non-cooperation can influence regional politics. Within the context of a big power stalemate, he argues, smaller states can propose cooperative governance schemes that preserve their own rights and promote their interests while also generating benefits for big powers. In light of recent developments, including China’s conduct and Vietnam’s improving relations with the United States and other powers, Hanoi should consider taking a more proactive approach.

Hanoi should specify its territorial claims while undertaking actions to ease remaining disputes with the Philippines (and Malaysia, if necessary), while reaching out to Indonesia. More concretely, Hanoi should consider renouncing its claims on all rocks within the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of the Philippines, Brunei, and Malaysia on two conditions:

  1. These states accept that all small islands under dispute are uninhabitable rocks unless ruled otherwise by international law, and as such are entitled to 12-nautical-mile territorial waters but not EEZs; and
  1. They agree with the principle of sharing resources that lie outside any country’s EEZ and the territorial waters of any of the rocks.

Doing so will narrow the scope of disputes in ways that can facilitate movement toward resolutions based upon principles of international law, while also demonstrating credible commitments to cooperation, sharing, and trust. Vietnamese committed to the notion that all of the Paracels and all of the Spratlys belong to Vietnam should embrace a more realistic, practical, and strategic mind set. If China can relax its current position and embrace these principles, it would be a breakthrough. If not, Vietnam and the other claimants still stand to gain.

Vietnam should also help form a multilateral contact group aimed at reducing and ultimately resolving regional tensions. It can invite Beijing to participate. While the group in question might include members of ASEAN, it should not be organized within ASEAN, whose members with little stake in the dispute. Instead the group should include Southeast Asian claimants together with the United States, Australia, Japan, India, the European Union, and other countries. Formation of the group would be a means toward changing the status quo and altering the political opportunity structure of the wider tensions in ways that might be conducive to the long-term management and resolution of tensions. In the absence of cooperation from Beijing, the ASEAN group should consider joining other nations in the group in patrols.

With the momentum of the arbitration tribunal’s ruling, this group could act in a concerted manner in support of various modalities of arbitration and conflict resolution, taking collective legal actions and other peaceful steps on the basis of international law to protect freedom of navigation and curtail illegal activities based on excessive sovereignty claims. While there are certain risks in forming a bloc outside ASEAN, there is nothing to prevent Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei from adhering to and requesting that China conform to a common set of principles forged under the ASEAN-China working group, or initiating alternative dispute resolution and arbitration mechanisms.

Hanoi should address Beijing more directly and publicly. It has a great chance to do this week, when Xi Jing Ping himself visits Hanoi. Politically, this would be a difficult step forward for Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party, whose relations with Beijing have always taken place through back channels, threats, and innuendos. Yet modernizing Vietnam’s relations with China is long overdue and would have the benefit of communicating Hanoi’s intent to resolve the tensions with support from international partners and on the basis of international law.

Specifically, Hanoi should ask if Beijing’s nine-dash line claim refers only to a claim over the islands of the South China Sea, as President Xi implied during his September 25 visit to the White House. A clarification would help identify at least the areas under dispute through a proper interpretation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. While Beijing may not respond, taking this step will be helpful for Hanoi in making its case to relevant international bodies, if necessary. Xi’s recent statement that, “We have the right to uphold our own territorial sovereignty and lawful and legitimate maritime rights and interests,” omits that China’s claims are not founded on international law, which is precisely why Beijing has pursued enforcement of its claims with attempts to change the status quo through brute force and threats.

Beijing and Hanoi have government-to-government committees working on sea disputes as well as an agreement on fundamental principles to settle maritime disputes which specifies that Vietnam will only discuss matters with China bilaterally. Yet Vietnam rightly maintains that outside parties should be involved in multilateral disputes, as is the case with the current tensions. Barring some unforeseen grand bargain, Hanoi is unlikely to bow to Xi’s whims.

Given Vietnam’s history and the particulars of its current circumstances, Hanoi’s pledge never to form an alliance with one country to counteract another makes a certain sense. Vietnam has much to gain from good relations with China. But neither should Hanoi shy away from taking a more active role in shaping the region’s future. Vietnam’s own future is in the balance.

Dr. Jonathan D. London is a professor at the City University of Hong Kong. His recent publications include Politics in Contemporary Vietnam: Party, State, and Authority Relations (Palgrave Macmillan 2014).

Mr. Vu Quang Viet is a U.S,-based analyst. He was formerly Chief of National Accounts Statistics at the UN and served a member of the Advisory Group on Economic and Administrative Reform to Vo Van Kiet, the former prime minister of Vietnam.