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.
Within ASEAN only Vietnam has a contested land border with China on top of ongoing maritime disputes over the Paracels and Spratlys, two island chains in the South China Sea. The Philippines also claims ownership of the Spratlys, while Malaysia and Brunei have partial claims over the archipelago. Other ASEAN countries have been happy to let Vietnam bear the brunt of Chinese pressure, while they develop stronger trade and investment ties to Beijing.
So far, cooperation between Vietnam and Malaysia seems to be the most advanced. Last year, the two countries made a joint submission to the United Nations commission that administers the Convention on the Law of the Sea. The filing, which delineated Vietnam’s and Malaysia’s respective exclusive economic zones in the lower part of the South China Sea, was quickly rejected as “illegal” by China, which claims the entire maritime area from Taiwan to Singapore.
China’s aggressive behavior has made other ASEAN nations without a direct stake in the island disputes take notice. When US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) on June 23 that the US has a “national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea,” Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Brunei and Vietnam were among the dozen countries that expressed support for a “collaborative diplomatic process.”
By openly wading into the South China Sea dispute, the US has given ASEAN support to develop a more coherent regional response. Vietnam reportedly urged the US in private talks to take a stronger stand, and Hanoi would have the most to gain if ASEAN countries stuck together more consistently when dealing with China.
Hanoi’s poor human rights record makes it unlikely that the US and Vietnam will pursue an outright military alliance, but the two former adversaries now hold annual security talks and periodic military exchanges. In recent years, the US navy has made over a dozen visits to Vietnamese ports and on at least two occasions Vietnamese officers have been flown out to visit US carriers.
While the Communist Party leadership in Hanoi remains deeply ambivalent about getting too close to Washington, there is a growing realization that the US is essential to counterbalancing China’s rise.
On the other hand, Vietnamese leaders have no qualms about partnering with Russia, a former Cold War communist ally. A deepening security relationship with Moscow now provides an additional hedge against China and has helped to modernize Vietnam’s military, which is still largely reliant on Russian equipment dating from the 1970s.
Hanoi is now among Russia’s top arms clients, including recently signed contracts for six Kilo-class diesel submarines and 20 Sukhoi Su-30 multi-role fighters. Later this year, Vietnam will take possession of two Russian-made Gepard-class frigates, and discussions are underway for Russia to build and help operate a new submarine base in Vietnam, possibly in the strategic Cam Ranh bay.
India is another regional player finding common strategic cause with Vietnam. On July 27, the two countries agreed to strengthen their defense cooperation during a visit by Indian Army Chief General V K Singh. New Delhi is wary of Beijing’s efforts to extend its reach into the Indian Ocean. China and India also have a longstanding border dispute, which flared into war in 1962.
New Delhi and Hanoi share China-related strategic concerns and have enjoyed historically close ties forged from their common anti-colonial struggles. Both militaries also operate similar Russian equipment.
An ostensibly commercial deal could deepen India-Vietnam strategic ties. BP, which is raising capital to cover the cleanup costs of its oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, has put various of its global assets up for sale, including an investment in the Nam Con Son basin off the southern coast of Vietnam. According to press reports, Vietnam’s government has given approval to a consortium of state-owned Indian energy firms and Petro Vietnam to buy out BP’s stake.
Significantly, this large-scale natural gas project is located in an area of the Nam Con Son basin where BP announced in March 2009 that it would cease exploration in response to pressure from China. By turning to Indian firms less likely to be intimidated by Beijing, Vietnam is now strongly asserting energy rights in its 200-mile exclusive economic zone.
Meanwhile, Japan and Vietnam have just announced the establishment of a bilateral security dialogue involving foreign and defense ministry officials. The security talks represent a significant evolution in the bilateral relationship, which until now has concentrated on trade and aid. Japan currently holds such talks with the US, Australia and India.
It is not surprising that Vietnam is hedging against China’s strategic threat. The two countries have a long history of conflict, including China’s seizure of the Paracels from Vietnam in 1974. The two neighbors also fought a brief border war in 1979 and fought a short naval battle in the Spratlys in 1988. According to diplomatic sources, the two sides have also engaged in unreported military clashes at sea as recently as 2005 and perhaps again in 2008.
To be sure, Vietnam is not in a diplomatic or geographical position to lead an international coalition against China. Within the Communist Party leadership, especially among cadres responsible for public security and ideology, there are many who aim to emulate China’s model of liberal economics and closed politics. A pro-China faction has recently backed a crackdown on bloggers and activists who have protested against China’s encroachment on Vietnam-claimed territories.
For now, however, there appears to be a relative consensus within Vietnam’s leadership to balance China’s influence by cultivating relations with other regional powers, including the US, Russia and India. How that consensus evolves and strategic ties develop will depend largely on how the balance of power is struck among Communist Party factions at next year’s highly anticipated National Party Congress.
The Hanoist writes on Vietnam’s politics and people.