Great game in the South China Sea

16 Apr

April 16, 2012

Great game in the South China Sea
By The Hanoist

On April 5, Russian energy giant Gazprom plunged into the maritime dispute between Vietnam and China with the announcement it would help state-owned PetroVietnam develop a lucrative off-shore energy field. By taking a major stake in the 5.2 and 5.3 blocks located in the Nam Con Son basin, Gazprom brings both exploration know-how and Russian political clout to the deal.

The entire Nam Con Son Basin lies within Vietnam’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) under international law. The eastern portion of the shallow water basin where the two blocks are situated, however, is on the Chinese side of the U-shaped, nine-dash map Beijing uses as the basis for its claim over most of the South China Sea. [1]

Just five days after the Gazprom announcement, China’s Foreign Ministry stated its opposition to “the exploration and exploitation of ocean oil and gas resources in Chinese sea territories without our permission” and said it had “made representations and taken measures to stop these illegal activities.” Continue reading

Vietnam builds naval muscle

28 Mar

March 28, 2012

Vietnam builds naval muscle
By The Hanoist

Following a series of high-profile procurement deals, Vietnam’s growing naval program symbolizes its evolving military posture. Driven by persistent maritime disputes with China and facilitated by an expanding economy, Vietnam is actively modernizing its military through naval, air and electronic-fighting capability upgrades.Image

A decade ago, the Vietnamese navy was equipped with Soviet-era hardware based on technology from the 1960s along with an assortment of American-made vessels seized from South Vietnam at the end of the war. This outdated force was inadequate for patrolling the country’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone or maintaining its claims over the Spratly Islands, an expansive archipelago also claimed in whole or part by China, Taiwan and several other Southeast Asian nations.

Dedicating approximately 3% of gross domestic product per annum to defense spending, Vietnam has gone on an armaments spending spree in Russia, the Netherlands and Canada, among others. The military hardware from these big ticket contracts is now beginning to enter service and promises to boost significantly Vietnam’s naval and air power.
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A new breed of diplomat for Vietnam

21 Mar

March 21, 2012

A new breed of diplomat for Vietnam
By The Hanoist

When Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh speaks to international audiences, he usually does so without a translator. At 53 years old, Minh’s relative youth and proficiency in English set him apart from his predecessors.

But he is not unique among his present diplomatic colleagues. Hanoi’s current crop of senior diplomats, appointed following the 11th Congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party in January 2011, tend to be younger and more cosmopolitan than the dour communist officials who have historically been the face of the country.

This stylistic change reflects the coming of age of diplomats who studied in top American schools in the 1990s as Vietnam opened up. It also comes at a critical time in the country’s foreign relations. As the second-largest country (after Indonesia) in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Vietnam is increasingly seen as a key player in regional issues. Continue reading

Lines of division in Vietnam

20 Jan

January 20, 2011

Lines of division in Vietnam
By The Hanoist

Truong Tan Sang - Nguyen Phu Trong - Nguyen Tan Dung

The Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) has chosen to stay the course by selecting a Marxist ideologue as its new general secretary. Nguyen Phu Trong, a 67-year old former editor-in-chief of the Communist Review and current chairman of the communist-controlled National Assembly, was a compromise choice of the just-concluded 11th National Congress.

According to local observers, the two most powerful figures entering the conclave were Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and CPV standing secretary Truong Tan Sang. Dung has controlled the levers of government for the past five years and his policy of favoring large state-owned enterprises, which were placed under the remit of the prime minister’s office, gave him unprecedented control over the economy.

But he was also heavily criticized for backing a massive bauxite mining scheme in the Central Highlands region and mishandling Vinashin, the bankrupt state-owned shipping company with debts that reached 5% of gross domestic product (GDP). Sang has been in charge of the CPV on a day-to-day basis in a role akin to chief operating officer. He coordinated the party’s personnel, ideological and other key functions. Some Vietnam watchers believe Sang quietly nurtured the public criticisms against Dung. Continue reading

A revolt of sorts in Vietnam

1 Nov

November 1, 2010

A revolt of sorts in Vietnam
By The Hanoist

Vietnam’s environmental movement, which rose up last year in opposition to bauxite mining in the Central Highlands, is back. Spurred into action by a toxic spill in Hungary on October 4, more than 2,000 people including many leading citizens have signed a new petition calling on the state to halt its US$15.6 billion plans and so avoid the risk of a similar catastrophe in Vietnam.

In early 2008, the Vietnamese government announced a plan to extract bauxite and process the ore into alumina, an intermediary step in producing aluminum. Critics pointed out the potential devastation to the ecologically sensitive Central Highlands – home to many of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities and cash crops – and the risks of storing vast quantities of toxic sludge, a byproduct of processing alumina, upriver from the densely populated Mekong delta.

Vietnamese academics also questioned the economic cost-benefit due to the project’s large need for electricity, in short supply in the country, and the required construction of a 250 kilometer railway and dedicated port. The plan calls for the alumina, a relatively low-profit commodity, to be exported to a single market, China, leaving Vietnamese industry captive to a powerful buyer. Continue reading

Obama’s moral dilemma in Vietnam

30 Sep

September 30, 2010

Obama’s moral dilemma in Vietnam
By The Hanoist

As the United States deepens strategic ties with Vietnam in response to a rising China, a question now on many minds is how Washington will address Hanoi’s well-documented and continuing human rights abuses. The moral dilemma for the Barack Obama administration is how it can reconcile long-standing US support for democracy and human rights with its current realpolitik aims of winning friends and influencing states concerned by an overbearing Beijing.

These two often contradictory strands of American foreign policy were manifested in the media coverage surrounding Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s presentations at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum held in Hanoi in July. Her public remarks before Vietnamese government leaders on upholding human rights dominated the first day’s headline.

On the following day, however, Clinton turned her focus to security matters. Her declaration that the US had a national interest in maintaining an open South China Sea and supported a multilateral solution to the maritime disputes there between China and ASEAN countries became the biggest story out of the ministerial meeting and still reverberates several months later. Continue reading

Vietnam hedges its China risk

29 Jul

July 29, 2010

Vietnam hedges its China risk
By The Hanoist

As Vietnam and China celebrate an official “Year of Friendship” marking the 60th anniversary of diplomatic ties, Hanoi is quietly pursuing a balance of power plan against its neighbor to the north. The contours of the still evolving strategy consist of developing a common position vis-à-vis China within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), engaging the United States and forging security ties with other key regional powers.

How this approach unfolds, however, will depend as much on domestic Vietnamese politics as the interests of the individual countries involved. Hanoi has used its chairmanship of the 10-member ASEAN to put territorial disputes in the South China Sea on the grouping’s agenda. China and ASEAN signed a non-binding code of conduct in 2002 and since then Beijing has sought to resolve differences through bilateral negotiations, where one-on-one it often dominates the other side. Continue reading

Vietnam’s gravy train derailed

6 Jul

July 6, 2010

Vietnam’s gravy train derailed
By The Hanoist

Exposing a growing rift in Vietnam’s one-party regime, the communist-controlled National Assembly has rejected the government’s US$56 billion plan to develop a high speed north-south railway. The project, set to cost 60% of gross domestic product (GDP) and based on Japan’s cutting-edge Shinkansen technology, would have cut overland travel time from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (1,760 kilometers) from about two days to around six hours.

The government has recently initiated several mega-projects, but this one was surprisingly voted down by the assembly by a 178-157 vote on June 19. The unprecedented result does not mean that Vietnam’s legislature, traditionally a rubber stamp for Communist Party decisions, is evolving into an independent branch of government.

The National Assembly consists almost entirely of Communist Party members with just a few token independents. Convening for several weeks twice a year, its members tend to lack the expertise and attention to play an active political role. According to one well-placed source, the party’s 14-member politburo, the de facto highest power, declined to express a position on the railway project and passed the issue to the assembly instead. Continue reading

Vatican, Vietnam sacrifice a holy man

7 May

May 7, 2010

Vatican, Vietnam sacrifice a holy man
By The Hanoist

A major stumbling block to diplomatic relations between Vietnam and the Vatican has seemingly been removed with the resignation of a popular Vietnamese Catholic leader and government critic.

Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet was the archbishop of Hanoi for the past five years, overseeing parishes in the capital and in the northern third of the country. He quietly supported a wave of protest vigils calling for the return of government-confiscated church properties and greater religious freedom.

The Vietnamese government, which is often accused of violating religious freedom, hopes to silence human-rights critics, especially in the United States, by establishing full relations with the Holy See. Vietnam, with approximately six million Catholics, offers the Vatican the second-largest Catholic population in Southeast Asia after the Philippines. Continue reading

Vietnam’s guarded US embrace

24 Apr

April 24, 2010

Vietnam’s guarded US embrace
By The Hanoist

Fifteen years after normalizing diplomatic relations, military cooperation between the United States and Vietnam is evolving bit by bit.

Both sides would like to counter China‘s military buildup and historic desire to dominate the region – including the strategic South China Sea where a quarter of the world’s trade transits and where Vietnam, China and other countries contest two island chains believed to contain rich mineral deposits.

While US motives are relatively clear – to deepen contacts with the Vietnamese military and establish areas of cooperation – the Hanoi side is often tied up in knots on how and whether to partner strategically with Washington, its former war adversary. Continue reading