Vietnam edges closer to old US foe as maritime dispute with China heats up

Territorial dispute with China is pushing Hanoi further into partnership with Washington, but analysts say that strategy has risks of its own

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 May, 2014, 11:33pm
UPDATED : Friday, 30 May, 2014, 7:42pm

The territorial row with Beijing in the South China Sea is nudging Vietnam closer to the US and its regional allies, Japan and the Philippines, analysts say.

But Hanoi has limited options as it attempts to focus international pressure on China without sabotaging the relationship with its giant neighbour, an important ideological and economic partner.

For years, Hanoi has been edging closer to Washington and others in the international community in order to counter Beijing's increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea.

And with China's deployment of a state-owned oil rig on Vietnam's doorstep on May 1 - an act seen by Vietnam as serious violation of its sovereignty - analysts said Hanoi would be under pressure to review its relationship with Washington.

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said this week that the country attached great importance to its relationship with the US, and called on Washington to continue supporting extensive cooperation between the two countries.

Vietnam Net, a government news portal, said Dung made the remarks during a meeting in Hanoi with US Senator Benjamin Cardin, chairman of the Senate's East Asian and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee.

Li Mingjiang, a professor at the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said that in the short term, Vietnam and the US were likely to step up military cooperation. But in the long run, issues such as human rights in Vietnam would inhibit a deeper partnership.

"The only thing Vietnam can do now is to get closer to the US rhetorically, so as to exert more pressure on China," Li said.

In a new tactic, Vietnam is seeking proxy US support via two of Washington's regional allies.

Last week, the Vietnamese prime minister said after a meeting in Manila with Philippine President Benigno Aquino that the two countries were determined to oppose Chinese infringement on their territorial waters.

Vietnam is also finalising an agreement to receive more patrol boats from Japan. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, meanwhile, lent his support to Hanoi in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.

"Vietnam is trying to leverage the [US] allies, by creating an ambiguous situation where China cannot single out Vietnam, and if it does take actions, it runs the risks of having to confront an American ally," said Professor Carl Thayer, a Vietnam specialist at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra.

Japan and the Philippines have also been locked in territorial disputes with China. Beijing has seen Washington's renewed efforts to engage with Asia as emboldening Tokyo and Manila in their disputes with China.

Some Japanese scholars, however, are sceptical about how much assistance Tokyo could offer Hanoi.

"Japan can provide some patrol boats, they can write cheques, there may be some low-level military assistance and training for the Vietnamese coast guard forces, but any decision on offering substantial assistance is in the hands of America," said Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at the Japanese campus of Temple University.

In response to Abe's comments, the Chinese foreign ministry said in a statement on Tuesday night that Abe was taking advantage of a crisis.

During his visit to Manila, Dung said for the first time that Vietnam could follow the Philippines' lead by contesting China's territorial claims through international arbitration.

But Dr Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the S.Rajaratnam School, said the potential political and economic backlash from China could be holding Vietnam back from pursuing the legal option.

According to Thayer, "Vietnam is not getting anywhere legally, but it's a weapon of the weak. It will help publicise the case internationally".