Written by Nguyen Thanh Trung.

Since early 2017, Vietnam’s foreign policy has experienced several adverse developments. One of the biggest drawbacks are the fraught relations between Vietnam and China. In June 2017, General Fan Changlong, Vice Chairman of the Chinese Central Military Commission, suddenly cut short his trip to Vietnam, cancelling his participation in bilateral border exchange activities with Vietnamese counterparts.  A month later, China allegedly threatened to attack Vietnam’s bases in the South China Sea if Vietnam did not stop drilling for oil and gas in waters known as Block 136-03 in Vietnam or Wan-an Bei 21 (WAB-21) in China, over 600 miles south of Hainan Island. Vietnam appeared to back down. This is also the area in which relations between the two countries flared up over oil and gas exploration in 1994. Simply put, China’s threat to respond with force presents Hanoi leaders with an old dilemma: to cooperate or to defect (struggle).

Despite its repeated attempts to concentrate on managing the bilateral ties and reducing tensions as much as possible, Hanoi must not lose sight of the fact that China is becoming more assertive in the South China Sea. In May 2014, the Sino-Vietnamese relationship reached a record low when China stationed a US$1 billion deep-water oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam, approximately 120 nautical miles east of Vietnam’s coast. It took several months for both sides to defuse the crisis. In 2016, the U.S. Department of Defence report said that China had reclaimed more than 3,200 acres of land on an island that it has been occupying in the South China Sea, against the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). In August 2017, China conducted military live fire exercises around the Paracel Islands, claimed both by China and Vietnam, drawing protests from Vietnamese nationalists. The pattern of China’s aggressive behaviour does not seem likely to subside in the future; it may accelerate as China’s relative power increases. Like it or not, these scenarios suggest, the more Hanoi gives in, the more Beijing pushes forward.

These developments require leaders in Hanoi to have a new approach to China, currying support from multilateral institutions, and boosting ties with China’s rivals who have shared interests in the South China Sea.

First, the Vietnamese government needs to deepen its cooperation with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). China has frequently pressured the regional summit to avoid mentioning China as a destabilising factor in their communiqués. In return for China’s investments and aid, several Southeast Asian nations have acquiesced. To counter China’s influential clout in the regional institution, Vietnam should take a proactive approach in bolstering ASEAN’s shared norms, values and interests. Recently, Vietnam had a small success in lobbying for the joint communiqué to include terms of “land reclamation” and “non-militarisation,” an apparent reference to China at the ASEAN Summit held in Manila in August 2017. This was an improvement compared to previous statements.

In order to assemble other nations’ support, Hanoi should feel a responsibility to help boost a unified ASEAN and take a position on critical regional issues. This approach would help Vietnam become a more capable member of the ASEAN community. It would benefit not only Vietnam but also the entire region.

Second, the improvement of Vietnam’s relationship with the US has become more than symbolic. China often reacts viscerally to any deepening military behaviour between these two former foes. However, against the backdrop of the South China Sea tension, in August 2017 Vietnamese Defence Minister Ngo Xuan Lich visited the US for the first time to discuss further cooperation in their defence ties. Freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and other regional security issues were their shared primary concerns. Lich and his American counterpart, US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis, agreed that a U.S. aircraft carrier would pay a visit to Vietnam next year. The carrier’s port call would be the first to Vietnam since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.

In another theatre, the Trump administration is presently occupied with North Korea’s nuclear issue. Hence, the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is being toned down in the American foreign policy agenda. However, the direction of the Vietnam-US relationship cannot be reversed or relegated to a lower level.

Third, Vietnam has seen some achievements in its military ties with other powers, namely Japan and India. Coast Guard forces from Japan and Vietnam held their first-ever joint drill in waters off central Vietnam in June 2017. This maritime exercise is just one part of closer cooperation pursued by the two countries in the past few years in an effort to upgrade Vietnam’s awareness of maritime domain and law enforcement capabilities. The bilateral strategic partnership does not end with exercises, and also includes the supply of naval hardware. Earlier, Japan provided Vietnam with six patrol boats to improve the latter’s nascent coast guard capabilities. Vietnam is also scheduled to buy another ten patrol boats from India – as part of a US$100 million line of credit – and refit other Vietnamese naval ships. Hanoi defence officials are enlisting help from India to train their pilots and sailors, as well as upgrading its weapon stockpile. On top of defence cooperation, India ignored China’s warning to reject Vietnam’s offer to explore oil and gas in Blocks 127 and 128 in the South China Sea, which Vietnam claims belong to them under the 1982 UNCLOS. It implies that if Vietnam knows who to befriend, its capabilities gap with China may be reduced.

Since the 2016 ruling on the South China Sea disputes from the Permanent Court of Arbitration has failed to work with China, what is Vietnam expected to do? The answer very much depends on how Vietnam perceives the interplay of threats and interests that lie ahead.

Nguyen Thanh Trung is currently serving as Dean in the Faculty of International Relations, University of Social Sciences and Humanities at Vietnam National University in Ho Chi Minh City. He can be contacted at trungnt@hcmussh.edu.vn. Image credit: CC by Wikipedia Commons.

 

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