By Jonathan London
Last weekend’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore provided the clearest evidence yet that the East Asian social order is in the midst of momentous change. The status quo of uneasy stability which prevailed in the region for decades has now seemingly given way to an increasingly chaotic period that is deeply disconcerting, on a variety of levels.
The three speeches that drew the greatest attention at Shangri-La were those of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Wang Guanzhong, Chinese People’s Liberation Army Deputy Chief of General Staff. Abe and Hagel criticized Beijing for its apparent attempts to destabilize and change the regional status quo through coercive means, and promised to respond to these efforts. Wang accused Washington and Tokyo of trying to “instigate provocations against China,” neglecting to recognize that Beijing’s claims over 80 percent of the South China Sea and attempts to enforce those claims lie at the root of regional instability.
Amid the spectacle of loud disputes among leaders of China, the United States, and Japan, it is not surprising that Vietnam’s presentation at the conference received little international attention. This is particularly so because it politely claimed that Vietnam’s relationship with China was in most respects “tốt đẹp,” an expression which in Vietnamese means “all is well” or “all is not well but we will still say all is fine.”
These were the words used by Defense Minister General Phung Quang Thanh in a speech that has created a fierce debate within Vietnam and Vietnamese cyberspace in particular. While some have argued that the tenor the speech was appropriate, given the circumstances, others have howled in protest, claiming the general’s words did Vietnam a disservice by sending, in their view, all the wrong signals to Beijing, Washington, and Tokyo, not to mention the Vietnamese people.
That Thanh’s speech, which had to have been vetted by the Communist Party Politburo and therefore reflects a minimum consensus among Vietnam’s leaders, was a source of disappointment for many politically engaged Vietnamese. They believe it reflected precisely the kind of diffident, unequal approach to bilateral ties that they say Vietnam must overcome if it is to withstand threats to the country’s sovereignty. Use of specific language comparing current Sino-Vietnamese tensions to intra-family disputes is, according to this view, not befitting of relations among sovereign equals and leads some to wonder whether parts of Hanoi’s leadership remain wedded to old patterns of thinking.
One could put forward several additional hypotheses. For example, that the presentation for the Shangri-La meetings was prepared months in advance and was not given the last minute attention it deserved. Or that the speech purposefully uses old language, so as not to alarm Beijing, even though Hanoi’s thinking may have changed or had been in the process of changing. In this latter case, the speech reflects the polite and even deferential facade of state that is “behind-the-curtains” confronting exceedingly difficult decisions. While Vietnam may well be changing its strategic outlook, we need to recall that officials such as Thanh, and indeed most of the leadership of the Politburo, have spent their entire professional careers wedded to a world-view that is no longer tenable.
Whatever the case, there is no denying that the present is an exceedingly difficult period for Vietnam, its political leadership, and indeed the entire country’s population. This is uncharted territory. Many Vietnamese perceive a fork in the road, insisting that Hanoi must embrace basic reforms and respect human rights to win the international support it needs to check Beijing’s claims.
Recent statements by Vietnamese prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung have invited speculation if not confidence that a clear change in Vietnam’s strategic outlook is near. For reform-minded Vietnamese, Thanh’s presentation appeared to reflect a leadership which, having approached a fork in the road, seems still determined to go straight, causing worry among Vietnamese that such a path will only leave Vietnam vulnerable.
In the context of rapid regional changes, it is understandable, though unsatisfying for many Vietnamese, to see their country’s leadership seemingly reading from an outdated script. Going forward, Hanoi faces the decision of whether to seek international arbitration of its disputes with Beijing, a decision that Deputy Defense Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh recently told the South China Morning Post would hinge on China’s actions in the disputed maritime regions.
Clearly we are witnessing rapid changes in the Asian social order. Of all parties to the dispute, Hanoi arguably finds itself in the most difficult position of all. While the country must maintain minimally strong ties with Beijing, pathways to a resolution of the disputes can only be struck though a confident, prudent set of actions that send clear signals to the region and the world as to the nature and bases of Vietnam’s claims. One of the great ironies of the current dispute is that a strong, internally united, and independent Vietnam may be the last great hope for avoiding the further militarization and destabilization of the entire Southeast Asian maritime region.
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.