Oil Rig Crisis in the South China Sea Prompts Vietnam to Consider Stronger Ties with the United States

By Nguyen Manh Hung

Secretary Kerry on the phone. Vietnam's exploration of strategic options may lead to closer U.S.-Vietnam ties. Source: U.S. Department of State's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Secretary Kerry on the phone. Vietnam’s exploration of strategic options may lead to closer U.S.-Vietnam ties. Source: U.S. Department of State’s flickr photostream, U.S. Government Work.

Vietnam’s deputy prime minister Pham Binh Minh, who also serves as foreign minister, made a widely-publicized telephone call to Secretary of State John Kerry on May 21, 2014, to discuss the crisis caused by China’s deployment of its HD 981 oil rig for exploratory work near the disputed Paracel Islands, in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone and continental shelf. It was the first ever direct telephone call from a Vietnamese foreign minister to his American counterpart, prompting an invitation from Kerry to Minh to visit Washington for “consultations on full range of bilateral and regional issues that are part of their comprehensive partnership.”

In Vietnam, there is hope that Minh’s visit could lead to an upgrading of bilateral relations from a “comprehensive partnership” to a “strategic partnership,” and strengthen Vietnam’s position in its conflict with China. But the question is, how can a strategic partnership between Vietnam and the United States help solve Vietnam’s security concerns?

A strategic partnership may be seen as a means to boost Vietnam’s international standing and protect its national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and an extension of Vietnam’s policy of diversification and multilateralization of its foreign relations to avoid being caught in a contest between the great powers. Vietnamese leaders want to form strategic partnership with all five permanent members of the UN Security Council. It has signed “strategic partnership” agreements with England and France, a “comprehensive strategic partnership” with China and Russia, but only succeeded in establishing a “comprehensive partnership” with the United States in July 2013.

Vietnam’s concept of “strategic partnership” is devoid of serious content. A strategic partnership certainly implies some kind of cooperation but the details are left vague. During an International Conference on Vietnamese Studies in Hanoi in November 2012 strategic partnership was defined to include four principles: non-aggression, non-alignment with one country against another, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, and mutual trust. In this sense, strategic partnership represents a series of negative, not positive, obligations.

The oil rig crisis exposed the weakness of strategic partnership as a means to promote mutual trust and protect national sovereignty and territorial integrity. In this case, Vietnam’s territorial integrity is violated by China, its closest comprehensive strategic partner. From the other three permanent members of the UN Security Council which are Vietnam’s strategic partners — France, the United Kingdom, and Russia — Vietnam received only lukewarm support. To add insult to injury, one of Russian largest news agencies, RIA-Novosti, published an article comparing Vietnam to the Ukraine and chided it for violence against Chinese workers in Vietnam. Ironically, the strongest support for Vietnam came from the United States, a comprehensive,, not strategic, partner of Vietnam.

It was with this feeling of betrayal and isolation that Foreign Minister Minh called Secretary Kerry. Vietnam is looking to the United States for help. If Vietnam wants to rely on the United States to counter its China threat, it must seek more than a strategic partnership vaguely defined or it must give strategic partnership more substantive content. It is time for Vietnamese leaders to face the fact that ideological affiliation and socialist brotherhood have failed to prevent China from encroaching on Vietnam’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. They must recognize that conflicting interests between China and the United States and the failure of ASEAN to serve as an effective buffer have made a contest for influence in Asia between China and the United States almost inevitable. In this context, small countries must make hard choices before missing the boat.

After the Cold War, Vietnamese leaders were split between a minor faction of reformers who want to open up to the West and a dominant conservative faction which desires a socialist alliance with China to save the regime. The need for modernization and changes in the global system as well as Chinese encroachment has led to a compromised policy of diversification and multilateralization of Vietnam’s relations and the search for strategic partnership with a variety of countries.

Chinese assertive behavior in the South China Sea and rising anti-China sentiment among the people and Communist Party members have weakened the legitimacy and position of the pro-China faction. The oil rig crisis forced a realization that a policy based on socialist affiliation and deference to China instead of seeking a counterbalance to Chinese encroachment has become untenable. In newspapers and over the internet, a chorus of voices in Vietnam has called for a Thoat Trung (escape from China’s orbit) policy.

When Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung declared categorically on May 22, that Vietnam will never exchange national sovereignty and territorial integrity for “any sort of illusionary peace based on [false] friendship and subordination,” he may have spoken for a leadership awakened to the failure of a deference-to-China policy, the pressure of public opinion, and the need to play the balance-of-power game. The forthcoming visit of Foreign Minister Minh to the United States must be understood in that context.

If Minh is sent to play this big and dangerous game, he deserves the full support of a Vietnamese leadership united firmly behind a clear goal and strategy to achieve it. Nothing less can save Vietnam from its present predicament.

Dr. Nguyen Manh Hung is Associate Professor of Government and International Relations at George Mason University and Non-Resident Senior Associate of CSIS.

4 comments for “Oil Rig Crisis in the South China Sea Prompts Vietnam to Consider Stronger Ties with the United States

  1. Nguoi TQ
    June 3, 2014 at 07:08

    I thought Mr. Hung is supposed to be writing this as an American, but instead his is reading very much like a Vietnamese nationalist. If so, then for fairness, CICS should invite a Chinese nationalist to counter his anti-China propaganda, since they both will be writing from a non-American point of view.

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