Hà Giang (NV): Vietnamese all over the world are following the China oil rig crisis very closely, and everyone has a different reading on the situation. Some worry that China is finally taking over Vietnam completely. Others hope that this crisis will bring about a leadership change and finally allow Vietnam to be independent from China. Many others think that this noise will eventually die down, China will withdraw the oil rig in August, and everything will be back to the status quo. What do you think is the most likely outcome of this crisis?
Professor Jonathan London: I think the mostly likely outcome is that there will not be an outcome for some time. But we will a face continuation of tensions, and it is hard to predict the future. A lot has happened already, and the most fascinating thing about the present situation is that it has produced many unexpected outcomes. The question whether or not Beijing was wise in doing what it has been doing does not change the fact that what they have done has started a chain reaction that has gone off in very many surprising directions, and in a sense it’s out of control. It’s a fascinating state of affairs, and I think barring under-the-table diplomatic breakthroughs, the possibilities for momentous changes in Vietnam are within possibility.
NV: Are you saying that if we fast forward to August 15, even with no major changes, Vietnam will have set on a new course of direction much different from three months ago?
Professor London: Yes, I do believe that. I believe that a set of processes of unknown outcome have started in Vietnam in earnest, and the tone of political discussions in Vietnam today is truly unprecedented. One can imagine that after some surprise breakthroughs on the diplomatic front, things could die down rather quickly and we could return to the status quo, but I don’t think everything will be quite the same. I also think that if the tensions do not decline, that the possibility of major changes [regarding] Vietnam’s strategic outlook and its policies is almost certain.
NV: I understand you have you talked to many of your friends in Hanoi. What is the mood there right now?
Professor London: I have to say that the mood in Hanoi has changed really dramatically in a few days, and a lot of that has to do with Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dzung’s speech, which was greeted genuinely warmly, and in a supportive way, with Vietnam’s population. It is positive in the way that Vietnam may be forced to think about alternatives to the path the country has been on, and the picture that is very clear now is that Vietnam needs friends.
Vietnam has no close friends and allies, and the country obviously needs to have good relations with China. Hopefully it will continue to. That is absolutely essential, even in the middle of all of the talk about the tensions and threats and possibility of some sort of military conflicts. Over the long term, the country has to find a way to live side by side with China. As the prime minister indicated, the relationship has to based on mutual respect and not bullying. And the only way for that to be conceivable is for the country to stand on firmer ground, and to form better and deeper relations with many countries. In short, the country would need to be more open, to change in ways that Vietnam’s leaders had so far resisted. There is a sense that the political dynamics within Vietnam are evolving in a very rapid and interesting way.
NV: In respect to the need for Vietnam to form a deeper relationship with the U.S., in a conference in Malaysia, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dzung reiterated Vietnam’s “three no policies,” one of which is no participation in military alliances with any country. Do you see that as a conflicting policy?
Professor London: No, I think that’s wise. China is a rising power and a potential hegemonic power, and the U.S. is the only creditable countering force, so if Vietnam were to develop a military alliance, we would expect that China would view that as being hostile, and one would expect some sort of reaction from Beijing. The region, which has grown from decades and decades in the absence of war, is not ready for the path to militarization, and so what you need is some sort of buffer between, for example China and the U.S., or China and other regional powers. And I think that Vietnam can still have friends, can still have allies, and can still have creditable diplomatic responses to instances in which China is acting outside of international norms. I understand the argument and criticism that Vietnam is being soft, but I think that’s the wrong argument. I think it’s important to think about the longer term and to by any means necessary try to handle this in a way that does not simply lead to a new era of the militarization of the Southeast Asian Sea. Now, if things deteriorate and there are military conflicts, then perhaps that will change, but I think right now it’s appropriate what Vietnam is doing.
NV: If Vietnam does form military alliances with any country, and if China sees that as a weakness and decides to invade, for whatever reason, who is going to come to Vietnam’s aid?
Professor London: Military alliance is one thing, military cooperation is another. As eager as Washington had said that they are expanding ties, at this point, ties remain superficial, and I think that there are ways to develop security relationships and perhaps to use that term instead of military alliance. There are ways to develop security relationships that could achieve considerable effect given the challenge. The challenge is enormous and is extremely complex. It’s difficult for me to envision the U.S. being able to shove off or dislodge China at the moment. What we are dealing with is a sensitive state of affairs. The prime minster himself said that Vietnam [has been] in enough war. I think the world would agree with that and so, while the situation may change, I think for the time being we need to think about things a step at a time. There are ways and means to aggressively develop a security relationship without announcing, for example, a military alliance.
NV: Mr. James Hardy, the Asia-Pacific editor at Jane’s Defence Weekly, said he believes that “U.S.-Vietnam ties have been steadily improving in recent years to the point that a lifting of the arms embargo is now conceivable.” Do you agree with his assessment?
Professor London: There have been consistent limitations on U.S. and Vietnam relations. It has to do with Vietnam’s human-rights situation, and any steps into that direction [relations] will still face a barrier. So there are lots of things Vietnam needs to do immediately if it truly has the desire to have friends and alliances. To command international respect, Vietnam needs to address the restraints on ties with the U.S. and other democratic countries. That’s why there’s the sense of possibility here in Vietnam. Because if the country is to set out on its own on a truly independent course, one that is not one of subordination [to China], it absolutely must address these institutional issues, including, but not limited to, rights issues that so far have hampered the development of alliances. Whether or not Vietnam is permitted to acquire military technologies and self-defense technologies, we will see if lifting of the arms embargo ban might be something we observed, it really depends.
NV: China has already said that it will disregard whatever the international court ruling is. Do you think Vietnam will achieve much in taking China to court?
Professor London: There is a good reason to do it. If Beijing doesn’t change its policies, what other choice does Vietnam have? They have a decent legal case, there are arguments to be made, and I think Vietnam will benefit ― especially if it undertakes other kinds of measures, such as forming deeper relationships with other countries. It will gain in the court of world opinion if it can demonstrate fairly to the world that its sovereignty is being unjustly violated. Whether or not Beijing accepts or refuses the judgment, it perhaps still is a worthwhile course because it’s one of the ways Vietnam can strengthen the legitimacy of its claims. Vietnam also has to be prepared to accept the judgment of the court itself if the decision goes against Vietnam’s claims, so Hanoi has to keep an open mind. It is essential that these disputes have a fair hearing. The resolution of this conflict should involve international arbitration or legal proceedings. This is one piece of a jigsaw puzzle that needs to be put together.
NV: You have written that the current South China Sea crisis demands Vietnam’s leadership breakthrough, and the end of the current leadership stalemate. Do you think that such a breakthrough in Vietnam is possible?
Professor London: Perhaps. I think there has been a shift of balance in power, and that one important element in the stalemate, namely relations with China, has transformed. That’s fundamentally different. It’s a different kind of variable than it was in the past. I also think that whatever Nguyen Tan Dzung’s future role is in Vietnam’s politics is uncertain, but at the moment, he is clearly emerged as the country’s most prominent statesperson, whereas some of the other leaders have been largely silent about the current conflicts with China. Vietnam has everything to gain from using this unfortunate situation as an opportunity to achieve breakthrough reforms that all Vietnamese and many other countries in the world have been waiting for and encourage. What is required is political courage.
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