By Jonathan London
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.