• Fri
  • Dec 26, 2014
  • Updated: 1:46am
CommentInsight & Opinion

Hanoi must meet the challenge of standing up to Beijing

Jonathan London suggests steps to take in view of Chinese aggression

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 July, 2014, 1:51pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 July, 2014, 1:50am

Two months have passed since Beijing intensified efforts to enforce its illegitimate claims over vast areas of maritime Southeast Asia. The placement of a giant oil rig in disputed waters, in violation of international norms, has been accompanied by coercive diplomacy and propaganda as well as threats and use of violence. Beijing's aggressiveness and obstinacy have impressed the world.

Until recently, the two Southeast Asian countries most threatened by Beijing's outsized sovereignty claims - the Philippines and Vietnam - have pursued divergent paths in their dealings with Beijing. Yet Hanoi is now likely to join Manila in challenging the legality of Beijing's claims and its actions.

For Vietnam, the challenges in standing up to Beijing are particularly formidable. As militarising China is Vietnam's neighbour and largest trading partner, Hanoi naturally desires to keep relations with Beijing on as even a keel as possible. Indeed, the riots in May were an aberration. And yet Beijing's behaviour has made business as usual impossible, thrusting Vietnamese into a grand debate about the country's direction and its strategic outlook.

After two months of internal fragmentation and mixed messages, Vietnam's leadership is now projecting unity, warning that while Vietnam will pursue peace, Vietnamese must prepare for the worst.

But what specific steps might Vietnam pursue? The US-based analyst Vu Quang Viet and I have suggested the following. First, Hanoi should seek a judgment from an arbitration tribunal under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, establishing that no natural features in dispute are entitled to exclusive economic zones or continental shelves. This would mean that even those islands in the Paracels and Spratlys under Beijing's de facto control would be entitled only to 12-nautical-mile territorial seas.

Second, while initiating its own case, Vietnam should join Manila's case against Beijing, which challenges the validity of the bogus dashed line that demarcates virtually the entire Southeast Asian sea as China's territory, and Beijing's claim that several features in the Spratlys are habitable.

Third, Hanoi should prioritise early resolution of all outstanding disputes with the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan, use the Association of Southeast Asian Nations where appropriate, and further develop strategic partnerships.

However important, steps along these lines will in and of themselves be insufficient to the task of securing Vietnam a prosperous and independent future. That is why growing numbers of Vietnamese are convinced that still bolder actions are required; that Vietnam must embrace fundamental institutional reforms. For only with such reforms, they argue, will Vietnam achieve the levels of economic performance, national unity and international support needed to meet the challenges of the times.

In the long term, the challenge for Vietnam and the entire region is to forge a regional security framework grounded in binding norms and based on principles of mutual respect, equality and cooperation. Certainly, we should hope Beijing would adopt a more constructive approach.

In a recent speech, President Xi Jinping noted that "the notion of dominating international affairs belongs to a different age". Might Xi consider his own sound advice?

Jonathan D. London is a professor in the Department of Asian and International Studies and core member of the Southeast Asia Research Centre at the City University of Hong Kong, and author of Politics in Contemporary Vietnam: Party, State, and Authority Relations

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This article is now closed to comments

Jonathan Smith
Vietnam is not a peaceful country. Actually is pretty corrupt and human rights violations are massive. The Vietnamese because of their blackmailing activities vis a vis the other members of ASEAN have a sordid reputation. Also the North and South divide is increasing serious. Whether Vietnam will plunge into another civil war is something the kleptocrats in Hanoi worry more than anything else. If Vietnamese aggression against China backfires, the South could turn on the North and it will not be conflict between Vietnam and China that will be an international concern but the potential civil war between the North and South. In this respect, the biggest nightmare the kleptocrats in Hanoi have is whether the US will intervene in Vietnam again potentially resulting in the death of millions of Vietnamese and millions of boat people fleeing Vietnam again. Already manifestation of the North South divide can be seen by the recent massive anti-China riots organised by the South Vietnamese agents of the US to humiliate the Hanoi government. The next step for them is the long hoped overthrow of the Hanoi regime. If Vietnam doesn't want this scenario her only guarantee is good relations with China. Any relations with the US or Japan will find the Vietnamese being stabbed in the back.
I Gandhi
Professor Jonathan D. London says "Third, Hanoi should prioritise early resolution of all outstanding disputes with the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan, use the Association of Southeast Asian Nations where appropriate, and further develop strategic partnerships." However if Vietnam cannot resolve her dispute with China, how can Vietnam resolve it with the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan when in principle none will budge on the claims. This is especially true for Taiwan where they have the same position as China with regards to the South China Sea. Vietnam is disliked within ASEAN and any effort by Vietnam to involve ASEAN in the disputes will be rebuffed by most of the other members. In fact these members have constantly complained about Vietnam's blackmailing behaviour and if Vietnam pushes too aggressively, Vietnam will find herself isolated or even expelled from ASEAN.
53b3bac8-548c-4434-8ad4-4c4e0a320968
I have met Vietnameses, they are bad manner people, impolite and rude.
Mikado
Vietnam throws it's weight around in ASEAN as the Prussia of Asia. Almost all foreign ambassadors in Hanoi can tell you stories of blackmailing Vietnamese officials who demand "aid" or else. The smaller richer members of ASEAN have their share of this kind of experiences. So apart from the Philippines, within ASEAN Vietnam is look upon with suspicion and disgust.
Mikado
In the late 1970s after the fall of Saigon and the border war between Vietnam and China because of Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia, millions of Vietnamese fled Vietnam including all ethnic Chinese who were expelled from Vietnam. So Vietnam doesn't have any ethnic Chinese anymore since they were all expelled. Vietnam is a racist barbaric country.
whymak
This academic is out of sight and out of mind. The brief war in 1979 originated in Vietnam's attempt to grab territory from Cambodia. What Pham Van Dong officially conceded to be China's rights in present disputed territorial waters in the 1970s are now reneged by the Vietnamese.
Forget about Philippines, which was not a national entity until granted independence by the US. Without a written language -- none of its languages and dialects including Tagolog have written scripts -- for historical documentation, any territorial claim is potentially bogus.
That doesn't mean China should dictate terms of settlement to these nations. For China's self interest, the high cost in exploring natural resources under constant military threats backed by the US hegemon is a nonstarter. Compromise with blackmailers is superior to shooting wars.
This 流口水博士 professor should go back to his class to pontificate his political "science" drivel to his gullible students.
How About
Jonathan, I would be most interested to hear your views about this www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/pdfplus/10.1162/016228805775124534 and your views with regards the legitimacy of China claims on Xisha and other SCS islands, if the world including US and UN recognizes the One-China policy.
53beb1bf-2f90-4519-b5f4-52a90a3209cb
I've read a few post and articles by Mr London, or shall I say professor London. Two words: Not impressed! I find his fund of knowledge of the subject at hands limited, and his critical reasoning skills are wanting. First saying Vietnam needs fundamental institutional reforms is intellectually dishonest, treating the symptoms as opposed to the disease. Any sane, honest person would readily see that Vietnam needs fundamental political reforms, from which institution reforms can be formulated. Now onto Mr London's suggestions. It's not up to Vietnam to join or not to join Phillipines' case, is it? Remember: Vietnam practically humiliated the Foreign Minister of Phillipines when he first came to seek support a few years back when the dispute with China began. And what does "joining" mean? Filing an amicus brief? Of course, Phillipines would welcome any rhetorical, diplomatic support from anyone, but the idea that Phillipines would suddenly share everything in her case with Vietnam is fantasy land. Third, the idea of resolving territorial disputes within ASEAN is an even more fantastical idea, dreamed up by ignorant academics. ASEAN was not, has never been, and will never be a security alliance like NATO, where political and security disputes can be resolved. ASEAN's raison d' etre is an economic talk shop. Full stop. It has no mechanism, or nor politcal desires among members to do anything else. Its individual members are too busy to pursue their own coalitions of the willing.
5374782a-a290-43d7-9123-52b10a3209cb
Thanks whymak. Interesting take on Cambodia, i.e. that the Khmer Rouge had nothing to do with it. Pham Van Dong's diplomatic note was in 1954, when Hanoi had zero sovereignty. That issue aside, the nine-dashed line has no basis in law and attempts to enforce fly in the face of international norms. Not sure about your points regarding the Philippines. For the record, I am not a political 'scientist' and I always tell my students to question authority. Cheers.
5374782a-a290-43d7-9123-52b10a3209cb
ASEAN itself is not likely to be useful politically beyond a certain limited point. If you follow the news you might know that Vietnam's relations with the Philippines have deepened considerably in a short period. Is Vietnam disliked within ASEAN? Again, agree the ASEAN itself not likely to provide useful solutions or leverage, in part because of Beijing's own influence.

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