Ways forward for Viet Nam in the Southeast Asian Sea

Viet Nam is a late-industrializing country of 90 million people brimming with potential. Long one of East Asia’s poorest economies, Vietnam over the last two decades has benefited from rapid economic growth, sharp declines in poverty, and rapid, sustained increases in its external trade. Despite a recent dip in economic performance and ongoing concerns about its institutional deficits, Vietnam’s prospects retain considerable promise.

Nor is the country isolated as it was in the past. As recently as twenty years ago, Viet Nam’s diplomatic ties were severely underdeveloped; whereas today, the country has ties with over one hundred countries and has taken increasingly prominent roles in regional and international organizations. With the country’s particular mix of comparative advantages, not least its location at the intersection of large scale East Asian trade routes, a brighter, more prosperous future for Viet Nam would appear within reach.

There is, however, considerable uncertainty about the country’s future. On the domestic front, there are no shortages of pressing challenges. Most of these relate to governance and leadership challenges and the need for greater transparency and accountability in its government. Social inequalities are also on the rise, and with them perceptions of inequity. Somewhat optimistically though not naively, I do believe many these domestic challenges can and must be resolved soon, though admittedly the speed and scope of any changes will depend mainly on the political courage and imagination of the country’s present and future leaders and the vigorous growth of Viet Nam’s emerging civil society.

What is profoundly less clear is how Viet Nam, together with East Asia and the world, will deal with key regional challenges and, in particular the increasingly expansionary and even imperialistic behavior of Beijing that has once again ignited regional tensions.

No country in the world is as experienced as Viet Nam is in coping with China. Indeed, for Vietnamese, maintaining stable and minimally friendly relations with Beijing poses formidable and unremitting challenges. Managing these ties is difficult in the best of times. On the one hand there is the need to deal with an aggressive neighbor in sensitive but self-respecting, without unduly compromising national sovereignty and interests. On the other, there is a need to manage national impulses. For Viet Nam, strength and unflinching bravery in the face of external threats occupies a sacred place in the national imagination. Without such a disposition and resolve there would simply be no Vietnam.

Let us be clear, Viet Nam needs and stands to benefit from a stable and peaceful relationship with its northern neighbor. But what is Hanoi to do when demands from across the border grow untenable? When Beijing’s disposition and conduct contravene international law and infringe on sovereignty and states’ rights in such a brazen way?
This is precisely the uncomfortable position that Viet Nam’s leadership faces today; a position which, whatever its precise origins, must now be confronted and addressed.

In the last two weeks Chinese authorities (on Hainan and in Beijing) have announced their intent to enforce invalid sovereignty claims over virtually the entirety of the Southeast Asian Sea. The areas covered by these bogus claims include disputed islands and rock features, parts of neighboring countries’ 200 nautical miles exclusive economic zone, and international waters. The announcement that all non-Chinese fishing vessels would need to seek Chinese authorities’ permission to operate in international waters is inherently illegitimate. And if enforced, analysts point out, would amount to state-sanctioned piracy. Beijing’s implicit rejection of disputes over islands and features is highly regrettable as well as illegal.

Beijing’s illegitimate claim

In the best of possible worlds, Beijing would step back from its outsized claims and work toward a multi-lateral agreement in a spirit of friendship, cooperation, and regional prosperity. Yet at present it appears unlikely that any one state could persuade Beijing to be more reasonable and law-abiding in its approach. A concerted effort is needed, despite Beijing’s insistence that only bilateral negotiations will do. In this instance, bilateral negotiations will not do. The very community is at stake.

Finally we come back to Hanoi. What are Vietnam’s leaders to do, confronted as they were with unreasonable claims from without and mounting demands from their population to speak out? In the past, Viet Nam has been left to deal with its aggressive neighbor alone, through secret negotiations and arm-twisting. Yet one gets the sense that the age of secrecy and intimidation has past. Given the institutional similarities and communist heritage of the two states, there has been a tendency for Hanoi (in particular) to imagine that the two countries’ share a common ideological basis. And yet in the external relations between these two countries it seems ideology does not count for much.

At last year’s Shangri-La forum in Singapore, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung spoke eloquently to regional leaders about the need for an era of ‘strategic trust,’ To skeptics and those outside East Asia, the notion of ‘strategic trust’ might seem hopelessly vague, empty rhetoric tantamount to a nothing more than a call for ‘good neighborliness.’ If anything, the term ‘strategic trust’ reflects the Vietnamese’ and indeed the world’s perceived need to be sensitive and face-saving but non-apologetic amid escalating regional tensions. To wit, such a posture can be contrasted with Beijing’s emerging doctrine of “strategic uncertainty,” to quote the words of Kurt Campbell, the United States’ Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

In respects, it would appear regional leaders would not be themselves be capable of responding to the current crisis. At some point, ordinary citizens must speak out in the interests of responsible foreign policies based on the principles of sustainability and community. This is precisely the point made in a petition to the United Nations now circulating among Vietnamese and people around the world, calling on the world body to promote a just solution to Viet Nam and China’s maritime disputes, and which has garnered 10,000 signatures within days.

The tensions unfolding in the Southeast Asia Sea are the result of Beijing’s clear and profoundly worrying tendency toward primitive accumulation. If this is what Beijing means by peaceful rise we all have reason to worry. Assertions of sovereignty over international waters cannot be treated strictly as a bilateral concern. Nor can patent disregard for international law in the approach to regional disputes. It is necessary for Beijing to recognize that its behavior adversely interests of all countries in the Asia-pacific region. And that behind its smaller neighbors stands a community of nations.

Could Beijing be compelled to face a multilateral forum if East Asian countries join forces to take China to the international court – as a sort of community class action? One possibility, suggested by perceptive observers and supporters of Viet Nam’s case is that they trade in their almost indefensible or ‘non-policy’ that claims “undisputable sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel islands,” and that “all foreign activities in these areas without Vietnamese acceptance are illegal and invalid” for a clearer policy that can generate broad support from other claimants in Southeast Asia, and from non-claimant countries in Southeast Asia and beyond, perhaps laying the foundation for a common policy for SEA countries and the region.* Another step is to bring the whole case to the Arbitration Tribunal of UNCLOS, from which Beijing has threatened to quit.

Viet Nam is a coastal nation that has born the full brunt of imperial power and competition. If we have learned anything from the 20th Century one would hope it would include the need to avoid imperial behavior. Hanoi’s acquisition of six Kilo Class submarines from Russia and its intent to arm Viet Nam’s long coast with Russian military technology is understandable. But it is certainly not the bright future Vietnamese young people and their elders long for.  What can be done?

Some have suggested Hanoi should make it clear to Beijing that it would not go into military alliance with other countries detrimental to Beijing’s legitimate interests, but that it would be willing to support and join alliances to protect its own legitimate interests, including the peaceful use of international maritime territory in in the Southeast Asia Sea. Such a stance asserts fundamental illegitimacy of Beijing’s claims while also signaling due appropriate sensitivity.

The road ahead is unclear. But if anything thing is clear it is that Viet Nam cannot afford to deal with Beijing alone as it has in the past. To do so effectively, Viet Nam must put forward its case in the courts of international law and make its case known in sphere of global public opinion; allow people’s diplomacy to take its course. Modest but real signs of progress in such areas as human rights would certainly help in this regard. Hanoi can  welcome patriotic sentiment and national unity while providing judicious counsel of the need to avoid the sorts of fascistic nationalism seen in other countries. Viet Nam is not China and its interests will be served poorly by wistful, introverted inaction. Hanoi’s future relations to Beijing should resemble those Seoul’s rather than those of Pyongyang.