Ways Forward for Vietnam in the Southeast Asian Sea

Ways Forward for Vietnam in the Southeast Asian Sea

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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 development prospects retain considerable promise.

In this context, questions among the Vietnamese about how to deal with an increasingly expansionary Beijing have gained increasing attention.

No country in the world is as experienced as Vietnam is in coping with China. Indeed, for Vietnamese, maintaining stable and minimally friendly relations with Beijing poses formidable and unremitting challenges. During waves of Chinese expansion, these challenges are doubly difficult. On one hand there is the need to deal with an aggressive neighbor in sensitive but self-respecting ways, without unduly compromising national sovereignty and interests. On the other, there is a need to manage national impulses. For Vietnam, fortitude in the face of external threats occupies a sacred place in the national imagination. It is part of being Vietnamese.

Certainly, Vietnam 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 Vietnam’s leadership faces today; a position which, whatever its precise origins, must now be confronted and addressed.

Just this month Chinese authorities (on Hainan and in Beijing) 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.

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. It is also hoped that voices in Beijing calling for less aggressive foreign policy grow louder. 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.

What are Vietnam’s leaders to do, confronted as they are with unreasonable claims from without and mounting demands from their population to speak out? Over the last decades, Vietnam has been left to deal with its aggressive neighbor alone, mostly through secret negotiations in which Beijing has had its way. Can the Viet Nam of today step out of this self-defeating pattern of engagement?

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 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. Such a posture can be contrasted with Beijing’s emerging doctrine of “strategic uncertainty,” so characterized by Kurt Campbell, the US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

Given power asymmetries it is indeed difficult for leaders in countries such as Viet Nam to speak out about the current crisis. Which begs the question of whether at some point, ordinary citizens must speak out in the interest of responsible foreign policies based in the region and demand an Asian security order 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 Vietnam and China’s maritime disputes. The petition garnered 10,000 signatures within days.

Assertions of sovereignty over international waters cannot, as Beijing would have it, 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 affects the interests of all countries in the Asia-pacific region and indeed its own interests.

Behind China’s smaller neighbors stands a potential community of nations, albeit one that has yet to coalesce. Perceptive observers and supporters of Vietnam’s case have suggested that Hanoi trade in its almost indefensible ‘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 this would lay the foundation for a common policy for SEA countries and the region.

Others have suggested Hanoi should make it clear to Beijing that it would not go into military alliance with countries detrimental to Beijing’s legitimate interests (i.e. not those that claim ownership over the entire Southeast Asia Sea), 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.

Another possible step is to bring the whole case to the Arbitration Tribunal of UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea), from which Beijing has threatened to quit. While many Vietnamese are calling for such as step, recent indications from Hanoi suggest it is set to continue its pattern of ‘quiet diplomacy.’

Whatever path Hanoi takes, it is clear that Vietnam cannot afford to deal with Beijing alone as it has in the past. To do so effectively, Vietnam must put forward its case in the courts of international law and make its case known in the 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.

Still, under the present circumstances, Hanoi’s acquisition of six Kilo Class submarines from Russia and its intent to arm Vietnam’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.

Jonathan London is professor in the Department of Asian and International Studies at the City University of Hong Kong.