Vietnam Needs Bold Responses to its China Dilemma

By Jonathan London —

Vietnamese newspaper man in Hai Phong. Source: David McKelvey's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Newspaper man in Hai Phong, Vietnam. Source: David McKelvey’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

For Vietnam, periods of Chinese expansionism have always posed existential threats. And yet the nature and scope of the present threat is novel in the experience of Vietnam. In this context, a certain lucidity has taken root across Vietnam, as the country’s leaders and people have awoken to the reality that China is today governed by a state bent on territorial expansion, a state that has shown open disregard for international norms, and a state that views Vietnam’s sovereign rights far too lightly.

For Vietnam’s leadership, Beijing’s conduct means relations between the two countries have plunged into a state of deep and perpetual crisis. Nervous smiles and polite deference will no longer do. While all Vietnamese recognize the importance and desirability of good relations with China, Beijing’s attempts to annex vast swathes of territorial and international waters are unacceptable. Even Vietnamese raised on romantic notions of ideological solidarity with Beijing are firm in this view.

With President Xi Jinping displaying totalitarian tendencies at home and brazen tactics overseas, and with the Chinese economy hemorrhaging hundreds of billions in capital, Vietnam and the entire world are wondering, what is going on in China, what are Xi’s intentions, and what can be done to restore a sense of security and order to a region that Beijing’s own actions have plunged into a costly and needless arms race. The question Vietnam and other regional powers face is no longer whether to develop a robust response but how to do so while averting a disastrous outcome.

Addressing Collective Threats Collectively

No country has as much experience coping with China as Vietnam. Yet Hanoi cannot possibly stand up to Beijing alone. While Hanoi’s desire to avoid the appearance of alliance against Beijing is understandable, it is nonetheless natural and entirely legitimate for Vietnam to seek closer alignment with the United States, Japan, India, South Korea, and other nations that respect international norms, which is exactly what Hanoi is doing at present. At last Hanoi seems to recognize that without international support and collective action, Vietnam’s ability to defend its rights will be fundamentally constrained.

And, yet, true support for Hanoi from the governments and peoples of those countries will only come when Vietnam itself is seen as worthy of support in the face of Beijing’s actions. For this reason there is a need for Hanoi to recalibrate its short, medium, and long-term conduct in the international area and in the domestic sphere.

What changes are needed in Vietnam’s approach? Many within Vietnam are calling for a more transparent, proactive, and more confident brand of diplomacy. They argue that current conditions require swifter and more pointed responses to what is in reality a crisis situation. They call for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs not only to play a more prominent role but also to develop a more effective approach in communicating Hanoi’s views on an international stage and with domestic audiences.

The most appropriate option in its relations with Beijing would be for Hanoi to demonstrate through carefully chosen words and deeds that it intends to cooperate fully with Australia, India, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and the United States to ensure that the Southeast Asian maritime region remains international waters as it has always been.

If it chooses this path, Hanoi’s diplomacy and communications must be sharper and timelier. Its most senior leaders must allow more junior and cosmopolitan leaders the opportunity to serve their country and represent Vietnam on the international stage.

Hanoi should continue to treat the South China Sea dispute as an international problem. It should allow foreign countries to make frequent visits to its military air and sea bases for the assertion of international right of navigation and flight over the South China Sea.

While Hanoi should try to avoid as much as possible actions that Beijing may view as taken against China, it should not shy away from doing what is within Vietnam’s sovereign rights. For example, bringing China to the International Court of Justice and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea should not be seen as an antagonistic action, but an action taken because Beijing has left Hanoi no other choice.

A Courageous Path at Home

No less important and arguably most essential, Vietnam’s leadership must demonstrate a willingness and courage to trust the sentiments of its own population. Those unfamiliar with Vietnam may be interested to know that a growing share of the country’s population and ruling Communist Party see domestic reforms as a precondition to a more proactive and effective foreign policy.

What is the connection? In simple terms, Vietnamese recognize that the best defense of Vietnam’s sovereignty is precisely to join the community of democratically-legitimated and internationally respected states. Such a view recognizes that only a Vietnam that embraces international norms at home can count on tangible support in the international arena.

While the most recent developments in Vietnam’s domestic politics do not give reason for optimism, the boundless determination of pro-reform elements within and outside Vietnam’s state apparatus should not be underestimated or neglected. A more democratic Vietnam would not only enhance the effectiveness of the country’s politics and institutions, it would boost Vietnam’s autonomy vis-à-vis Beijing, win the country unprecedented international support, and unite the country’s people in a spirit of solidarity, common purpose, and self determination.

Dr. Jonathan D. London is a professor at the City University of Hong Kong. His recent publications include Politics in Contemporary Vietnam: Party, State, and Authority Relations (Palgrave Macmillan 2014).

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