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Tuesday, 25 July 2017 15:41
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Safeguarding sovereignty over Vietnam’s sea and islands in the new contexts

(LLCT) - With an important geographical position, Vietnam plays an important role in balancing integrating forces in the region and the world, and consequently is facing the “courtship” of several powerful countries. In the context of strategic competition among powers, especially the increasing competition between China and the US, Vietnam strategic value and bargaining power with China’s potential rivals will increase accordingly. While strategic bargaining will allow Vietnam to develop and gain justification and protection from big powers (especially regarding the safeguarding of sovereignty and territory), it may also pose threats in the context of increasing competition among powers.

1. The international environment remains complicated

At the 12th National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam, the Party determined that throughout the next period, particularly between 2016 and 2020, the world situation will experience rapid, complicated and unpredictable change and development. A few outstanding issues predicted to emerge for the new international context are as follows:

First, the modern world has been viewed and evaluated through profound landmark movements. The society is in the midst of the fourth scientific and technological revolution, where “intelligence” and “automation” are taken to new levels, shifting current methods of material production. This has led to new methods of producing, organizing and managing, leading to the inception of a real knowledge economy. The new revolution is introducing production tools that replace not only manual labour but also human intellectual work. It is turning science and technology into direct production forces.

Second, the new revolution has rendered globalization and international integration as indispensable for modern production. The internationalization addressed by Marx and Engels a century and a half ago has developed into today’s systems of globalization and integration. International economics and politics have been replaced by global economics and politics, affecting internal and external relations.

A new economic era has appeared; international players are actively rethinking world issues and restructuring the components of modern society. Nations are becoming firmly fixed in global production networks and value chains. Most nations have adjusted their strategies, restructured their economies and renovated their economic institutions to integrate into the world economy.

Third, the modern world is considered an environment of nations. The 12th National Party Congress affirmed: “In the next five years, the world and regional situation will witness many complicated developments. This will directly impact on the country, generating both opportunities and challenges. But peace, national independence, democracy, cooperation and development will remain our top priorities”(1).

As affirming the peace, cooperation and development, it is necessary to emphasize threats to the world security, including traditional and non-traditional factors: the infringement of national sovereignty, disputes over territories and natural resources, religious and race conflicts, separation, civil war, political disturbances, terrorism, high-tech crimes, epidemics, security of water sources and the environment.

It would be hard to convince most modern media consumers that the world today is peaceful, however in terms of operating mechanisms, the current world is at peace and will continue to be at least until the mid-21st century. This precious time will provide space and opportunity for the development of all nations and political forces in the world, including Vietnam. Therefore, right in the title of their political report, the 12th National Congress emphasized the dual target of “firmly safeguarding the Fatherland; maintaining an environment of peace and stability”.

Fourth, the new world order is in the process of forming a state with many diverse and multi-dimensional global strategies. The state of the multi-polar world is clear, democratization within international relations will continue growing, but large countries will still dominate the field. Extreme nationalism, hegemony, and pragmatism are rising, and multilateral institutions are facing great challenges.

Fifth, researchers are viewing the contemporary world comprehensively, considering both economic, military, security and political aspects as well as scientific, technological, educational and cultural aspects. They are studying visible and invisible powers, and national internal and global external capabilities. Each field contains a different balance of power. Regarding military force, the United States has an absolute advantage. In economics, the multi-centred state has emerged most prominently. In the security field, the multi-polar complexity is an undeniable fact. There is an unprecedented asymmetry among global centers, at least in modern times. Developing countries are facing huge opportunities, difficulties and challenges on the path toward development.

Sixth, power relations among countries are continuing to change. These relations are characterized by multi-faceted cooperation, fierce competition and compromise. Ruling parties and governments from countries all over the world have adjusted and even constructed new foreign strategies in which national interests and benefits are considered a top priority. World powers are cooperating, compromising, competing and struggling among each other, as well as restraining each other. Forced alliances, competition and struggle among countries continues to be complicated. Global powers compete directly and through intervention in linking institutions and frameworks. Consequences of this intervention include the instability of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP); China’s active advocacy for the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (RCEP); the increasing involvement of the United States, China and other major powers in ASEAN+ mechanisms; and China’s upgrade of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Tatmadi and Uzbekistan) and strengthening of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) in order to counter the US.

 2. Strategic requirements for Vietnam’s increased geo-strategic position

With an important geographical position, Vietnam plays an important role in balancing integrating forces in the region and the world, and consequently is facing the “courtship” of several powerful countries. In the context of strategic competition among powers, especially the increasing competition between China and the US, Vietnam strategic value and bargaining power with China’s potential rivals will increase accordingly. While strategic bargaining will allow Vietnam to develop and gain justification and protection from big powers (especially regarding the safeguarding of sovereignty and territory), it may also pose threats in the context of increasing competition among powers.

Vietnam’s history of foreign policy reveals that the best way to approach relations with other nations, especially large ones, is to uphold independence, self-reliance, diversification, multilateralization, peace and the flexible implementation of “dynamic equilibrium” among powers. If we tilt too much toward one big country, we will lose our influence with other powers. For example, if we invested all of our interest in the United States, we could damage our relationship with China, which would adversely affect our strategic interests. As a small nation bordering China, Vietnam cannot invest in confrontational foreign policy or try to publicly and directly restrain China’s strategies.

Therefore, the strategy to develop and safeguard the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, Vietnam should maintain a policy of dynamic equilibrium in the relationships with China, the US and other powers. We need to actively promote these relationships and align them to avoid tension. It is necessary to attach special importance to the role forming ASEAN into a unified, regional organization. Vietnam should simultaneously tighten the relationships with other regional powers such as Japan, India, Russia and the EU to create strategic balance, reduce pressure and avoid over-reliance on China and the US.

In some certain circumstances, however, during wars and conflict, for example, Vietnam will not be able to preserve this policy of dynamic equilibrium. Our geographically strategic position prohibits from staying neutral. This could have a huge impact on Vietnam’s future decisions and national interests.

The event of China installed the Haiyang Shiyou 981 drilling rig in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone and continental shelf between May 2 and July 15, 2014 (which came in the midst of a relatively good diplomatic relationship between the countries), showed that China’s policies toward Vietnam were transitioning. Vietnam’s strategy on safeguarding the country has entered a more difficult stage, one where the Vietnam - China relationship is less stable and less predictable.

If Vietnam does not prepare for the worst scenario possible concerning military conflict in the East Sea, it is likely that Vietnam’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity will be violated. We have an urgent need to improve Vietnam strategic stance in the new context of the region and the world.

Unfortunately, the country’s diplomatic struggle against China’s placement of the rig and their construction of artificial islands has yielded relatively limited results. To date, international and regional reactions have not been enough to force China to adjust its policies. They have even increased their intervention despite facing backlash from a number of countries. Vietnam cannot exert enough diplomatic pressure to make the price China pays outweigh the benefits. Now, according to many experts and scholars, it is time for Vietnam to give up its “Three NOs” defense policy and move towards allying with strong countries willing to restrain China’s strategy in the region.

Considering Vietnam’s internal political situation and the lessons learned from its diplomatic history, however, it is not currently feasible to shift its foreign policy. The only country with enough willpower and capacity to restrain China’s strategy in the East Sea is the US, but the differences between our regimes and value systems makes it impossible for us to form an actual alliance. Even if the United States Government under President Donald Trump could overcome internal political pressure and establish a coalition with Vietnam, this would likely resemble a “marriage of convenience”. It would be an alliance linked only by strategic interest in restricting China. This relationship would be unsustainable; the US would sacrifice Vietnam’s interests if they were offered a better deal from China. The US and China have previously compromised on these deals, exchanging their interests. Certain situations involving China have cost us, despite the Chinese Government’s policy of “leaning to one side” and supporting socialist societies.

These situations have shaped Vietnam’s policy-making agencies, making them reluctant to trust alliances with big countries. For a small country located so closely to a large country like China, a sudden shift in strategic orientation could cause an extreme reaction from China, with Vietnam paying the price. However, in a situation like a war, a small country like Vietnam cannot rely solely on itself but must seek support from bigger powers. Therefore, Vietnam’s best option in the scenario with China is to maintain peace while gradually improving their relationships with the US, Russia, Japan and India in case China drives it into a wall and forces it to take radical steps.

3. Implications of necessary policies for Vietnam

From the above analysis, it is clear that the issues in solving the dispute in the East Sea are:

Regarding general knowledge

First, the experience of successfully resolving two of three territorial issues between Vietnam and China demonstrates that it is not impossible to come to a peaceful resolution for the current dispute over the East Sea. From now until 2020, China still needs to form a peaceful and stable environment to fulfil the first of the “Two Centennial Goals” set by the Chinese Communist Party at the 18th National Congress in 2012. Therefore, unless there is a major internal crisis or external incident violating China’s “core interests”, such as foreign invasion or Taiwan’s independence claim, it is very unlikely that China would use force to resolve territorial and sea disputes. Thus, there is still reason to believe that China hopes to resolve disputes peacefully.

Nonetheless, it is impossible to reverse China’s rising regional and global momentum. In the next five to ten years, China will likely become the number one Asia-Pacific power across all fields from economy to military, ranking only behind the US in overall strength, but exceeding the US in total economic volume. The overall balance of strength between China and Vietnam will increasingly expand, creating more disadvantages for Vietnam and weakening Vietnam’s bargaining power(2). This will cause difficulties for Vietnam in policy-making if we want to keep defending the strategic and legitimate interests in the East Sea.

Although the land and sea border dispute in the Gulf of Tonkin only relates to Vietnam and China, the dispute on the East Sea is relevant to five countries and six sides. In addition, the East Sea issue has moved beyond the dispute over sovereignty and natural resources between China and four ASEAN member states (including Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei), as well as Taiwan. It is now a focal point in the Sino - US strategic competition. As a result, there is far more complexity and unpredictability surrounding the East Sea than previous disputes over land borders and the Gulf of Tonkin. The US’s implementation of “rebalancing” policy in the region restrains China and prevents their military actions on the sea, but also complicated and internationalized the dispute. Therefore, it will be a difficult process to find an appropriate long-term solution because this relates to many variables beyond the two countries’ control. Regarding China and Vietnam’s bilateral disputes of the past, Beijing was the party making concessions. However China’s willingness to compromise has increasingly been lowered. Even in the case of accepting an accord with Vietnam, China certainly does not want to create “disadvantageous” precedents, which could be exploited by other disputing countries in the future.

The gradual decline of economic growth and the rise of complex conflicts within Chinese society have forced the fifth generation of leaders headed by Xi Jinping to face mounting pressure. This has led to China’s increased use of nationalism in order to maintain the legitimacy of its regime. Consequently, China has fallen into dilemma with no way of backing out and no space for compromise regarding the issue of the East Sea, at least when Xi Jinping is still in power(3).

Second, a disadvantage for Vietnam is that China has been increasingly inclined to underestimate their relationship with Vietnam regarding the East Sea dispute. The two nations’ common ideology no longer carries the weight that it used to, primarily now that China is becoming more pragmatic in its pursuit of national interests. Even in the midst of a healthy and growing relationship, China abruptly installed their drilling rig in a Vietnamese exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.

Third, the United States is the only power that could currently restrain China, but the Obama administration’s weakening momentum and the majority of American voters’ aversion to external intervention has made this a slow - if not sedentary - process. The PCA’s ruling on the Philippines’ July 12, 2016 lawsuit was a relatively comprehensive legal victory for the Philippines, but it was not enough to make China change their behaviour, and the US continues their hesitation to confront them. Donald Trump entered the US Presidency, without a clear definition of strategic interests, the US may reduce its security commitment to the Asia-Pacific region. This could create favourable conditions for China to exercise their claim over the “cow’s tongue line” (or Nine-Dash line) in the East Sea.

In conclusion, Vietnam is facing mounting unfavourable factors in the dispute with China over the East Sea. Vietnam is hindered by its smaller size and the environment’s strategic advantages. It will be difficult for Vietnam to solve the dispute on their own.

Recommended policies

Vietnam’s current foreign policy of independence, self-reliance, non-alliance and the “Three NOs” defense policy(4) will require us to rely mainly on their own resources in solving the dispute with China.

First, Vietnam must clearly adhere to a goal of “resolutely and persistently struggling to defend the independence, sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of the Fatherland” combined with the national motto of “cooperating and struggling together”. It is necessary to balance both sides, avoiding absolutism and extremism. Vietnam must “Use the unchangeable to cope with the changeable”, staying consistent to strategic principle but remaining flexible in tactics.

Second, Vietnam must unify its people and build an internal consensus on considering the East Sea issue as a long-term issue that cannot be handled hastily or irrationally. Leadership must clarify that the issue of the East Sea may remain unsettled for many decades, and even throughout the 21st century. Consequently, Vietnam should be persistent in avoiding conflict, and should make the most of opportunities to maintain a peaceful environment, manage dispute, handle crises, and prevent escalation.

We should also be sensitive in detecting and seizing even the smallest opportunities to seek a peaceful method to settle the dispute with China. It is necessary to take advantage of the period in which China advocates for the peaceful settlement of disputes with neighbouring countries. They are still currently opting for a “peaceful rise” to power.

Third, Vietnam should take advantage of the relationship with China, especially the Party channel. Although the two parties’ ideology no longer aligns as it did before, China must still maintain its relationship with Vietnam, a country with the same socio-political regime. The Party channel is the only channel that Vietnam currently shares with China, and gives us an advantage compared to other disputing countries such as the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. Therefore, it is necessary to maintain and promote this channel in controlling the dispute and handling the crisis. The official visit of Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong to China (from January 12th - 16th, 2017) is the latest specific manifestion of the Party’s high-level diplomacy role. The actual results of the visit have helped deepen the bilateral relations and prompted concrete discussions on settling conflict.

Finally, as a mid-size country with limited resources, Vietnam must effectively implement multilateral diplomacy. Public opinion, multilateralism and international law are becoming increasingly important in 21st century international relations. Continuing to pursue the “internationalization” of the East Sea issue will contribute to slowing down China’s pace and territorial claim, gaining more external support for Vietnam’s legitimate interests. This “internationalization” cannot replace bilateral and multilateral negotiation, but it will help Vietnam avoid worst-case scenarios. Throughout this process, using ASEAN-led mechanisms will play a very important role. Despite China’s threat to weaken and even split ASEAN, the group remains Vietnam’s most important forum for gathering forces and allies. Therefore, it is in Vietnam’s strategic interest to actively promote leading roles in ASEAN with key countries like Indonesia and Singapore. This could prevent Vietnam from having to deal with the East Sea dispute all by itself.


(1) CPV: The 12th National Party Congress Documents, the Office of Central Party Committee, Hanoi, 2016, p.18.

(2) China is about 28 times larger than Vietnam in area, 14 times bigger in population, more than 50 times bigger in GDP scale, and more than 30 times bigger in defense budget. This gap is expected to widen in coming years.

(3) Different from previous generations of high-ranking leaders, Xi Jinping is the first Party General Secretary/President of China who has repeatedly affirmed in public that islands in the East Sea are inherent parts of China, showing that China will not use its sovereignty interests for exchange.

(4) The policy of “Three NOs” is mentioned in the Vietnam White Paper on Defense 2009. These include: no military alliances; no foreign military bases in Vietnam; and no relationship with any country to resist another.

Assoc. Prof., Dr. Nguyen Viet Thao

Vice President of Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics

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