Toward a Way Out in China-Vietnam Tensions in the South China Sea

By Jonathan London

Vietnamese fishing boat moored at the edge of the South China Sea. China's efforts to control fisheries and offshore oil blocs has angered Vietnamese. Source: WarzauWynn's flickr photostream used under a creative commons license.

Vietnamese fishing boat moored at the edge of the South China Sea. China’s efforts to control fisheries and offshore oil blocks have angered Vietnamese. Source: DanielHoherd’s flickr photostream used under a creative commons license.

Beijing’s recent actions in the South China Sea toward Vietnam are disappointing and alarming. That China is an emerging power gives it no right to impose outsized sovereignty claims on its neighbors. Yet this is precisely what Beijing has been doing in the South China Sea.

Towing a $1 billion piece of drilling infrastructure to a remote location well within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone requires not only capital and technical know-how, but also a patent disregard for international norms. Just as Beijing’s sovereignty over the waters where its oil rig is positioned is not “indisputable” – as Beijing has asserted – the nine-dotted line it uses to claim sovereignty over 80 percent of the South China Sea has no legal basis.

Illegal encroachments of the sort we are now observing are nothing new. Beijing’s seizures of islands in the Paracels in 1974 and in the Spratleys in 1988, which resulted in the deaths of scores of Vietnamese, remain fresh in the Vietnamese psyche. These incidents, which followed a long history of tense relations between the two countries, preceded two decades in which Vietnamese fishermen have faced harassment and detention by Chinese authorities. It is it not difficult to understand why many Vietnamese view Beijing with suspicion and mistrust.

Across Vietnam, Beijing’s oil rig actions are viewed as a blatant violation of and direct challenge to Vietnam’s sovereignty. How should Hanoi respond?

In the Philippines, similarly aggressive behavior by Beijing has led Manila to re-embrace military cooperation with the United States. For its part, Hanoi has signaled that it will continue with efforts to resolve the dispute through diplomatic and other peaceful means, perhaps through secret negotiations such as those held in Chengdu in 1990. If diplomacy fails to yield results and Beijing remains aggressive, all bets are off.

While Vietnam has credible military assets, Hanoi has said they would be used only for self-defense. And yet the risk of an incident triggering self-defensive actions is now dangerously high. Vietnamese traditionally do not desire conflict, but their determination in the face of external threats is well-known.

Going forward, Hanoi’s effectiveness in managing relations with its covetous neighbor is likely to depend on its effectiveness in combining deterrence with soft power. Worldwide solidarity among the Vietnamese diaspora will be essential, but will require political breakthroughs in its own right. As will the deepening of Vietnam’s strategic alliances across the region and beyond. Undertaking long sought-after institutional reforms and improving human rights within Vietnam would be helpful in these regards. Still, where possible, negotiations with Beijing must continue.

Relations between China and Vietnam have been and will always be complex. The two nations’ histories and destinies are inextricably linked. Sooner or later Hanoi and Beijing will need to find a way out of the current tensions. Whether that future equilibrium will be achieved more or less sensibly remains to be seen.

In economic terms, relations between Vietnam and China have considerable potential. Relations between the countries should be comprehensive and mutually beneficial. One could imagine various arrangements under which joint development of resources could take place. But such arrangements would only be conceivable under a set of principles agreed to by all sides. The challenge now – for Hanoi and the region – is addressing a neighbor whose aggressive behavior threatens the entire community. In this context parties must prevail on Beijing to realize that good neighborliness is in its own self-interest.

Dr. Jonathan D. London is a professor in the Department of Asian and International Studies at the City University of Hong Kong and Core Member of the Southeast Asia Research Centre. His recent publications include Politics in Contemporary Vietnam (Palgrave MacMillan 2014). Follow him on twitter @jdlondon1.



3 comments for “Toward a Way Out in China-Vietnam Tensions in the South China Sea

  1. May 14, 2014 at 23:22

    A Danish friend, professor of political science, once said to me “I can sum up the historical basis for all Danish foreign policy decisions in a single sentence.” “What is it?” I asked. “Der Fritz ist immer da.” (Germany is always right there). Well, from the Vietnamese realpolitik standpoint, “China ist immer da.” While the latest PRC moves in the “East Sea” (from the Vietnamese perspective) are totally unacceptable and reminiscent of the kinds of things that finally led to war in Europe in the 1930s, the realities of geography dictate a different, very nuanced response on the part of Hanoi. However, since Vietnamese text-books have long inculcated in every Vietnamese school-child that their country only continues to exist because of heroic and successful struggles against much more powerful foreign aggressors, China chief amongst these for the past two thousand years, the SRVN government is to some extent forked between national honor and rightfully outraged public opinion on the one hand and the necessities of self-preservation on the other. Since the attitude of the rest of ASEAN seems to be “Chaqu’un pour soi et Dieu pour tous” [French & German quotes deserve equal treatment in the interests of fairness] or “I’m all right, Jack,” the leadership in Hanoi may secretly turn to outside powers (the US? India?) to redress the balance or, at the very least, to quietly interpose themselves and force a dialogue. The PRC will probably not go along – “It’s none of your business!” is Bei-Jing’s most likely retort. At that point, if folks like the Vietnamese and the Filipinos look to us, Washington will look pretty weak if we do nothing at all.
    Stephen O’Harrow, Director,
    Center for Southeast Asian Studies
    University of Hawaii

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