New reality for Vietnam-China relations

The deployment of China’s HD 981 oil drilling rig is undoubtedly the most serious incident in Sino- Vietnamese relations since the normalization of ties in 1991.

What was considered a positive relationship based on 16 “golden words” in Chinese translated into long-term, stable, future-oriented, comprehensive cooperation relations and four “goods” – good neighbors, good friends, good comrades and good partners – is being seriously challenged.

Until May and the arrival of the drillship, Vietnam boasted of its diplomatic accomplishments. Successful multilateral diplomacy had resulted in a strong reputation as an active member of regional and trans-regional forums. The expanded network of bilateral ties, including partnership systems (comprehensive, strategic and strategic cooperative) with 15 countries around the world gave Hanoi the false assurance of international support.

Given that the constraints on Vietnam’s defense strategy follow the principle of three non-alignments – no military alliances, no foreign bases on Vietnamese soil and no intervention from a third country – preventive diplomacy has taken the role of building a security net.

But as the oil rig crisis has proved, the cooperative strategic partnership, supposedly based on a long-term stable relationship with China and Russia, is merely a guarantee of peaceful existence. Not only it did not prevent China from an aggressive move towards Vietnam, but it failed to pressure Russia for support. Instead, in the wake of the Vietnam-China crisis, Moscow signed a lucrative gas contract with Beijing.

Such disregard for Vietnamese sovereignty means that Beijing attaches little value to the contest

Friends in need?

Not all of Vietnam’s diplomatic efforts have been in vain. Consistency in promoting non-confrontation, respect for international law and commitment to the peaceful resolution of disputes has given Hanoi a credible image as a responsible member of the international community. Such an attitude is supported by regional actors.

Asean time and time again has called for restraint in the name of regional stability. Vietnam has been an active promoter of Asean’s role in the region and centrality. However, Asean is caught between fealty to its non-interference principles and staying relevant in the region, so the furthest it went was to issue a separate statement, expressing “strong concern” over the events in the South China Sea.

There are a number of reasons why most Asean member states prefer to remain neutral – for example the economic rationale in the relationship with China, not so unlike the considerations of some in the Vietnamese Communist Party who have remained silent. But Asean has shown that it is capable of speaking with one stronger voice, in the wake of extra-ordinary events threatening regional peace, which keep Hanoi hopeful that the treaty organization would have some clout.

The crisis is no longer a bilateral issue between Vietnam and China as its implications affect the peace of the entire region. It is now two Asean member states that are suffering the same instability from China – Vietnam and the Philippines – with Indonesia also waking up to intrusions into its Natuna area, which is rich in minerals to be extracted.

Recalling the association’s origins – the common threat that brought the region together – and the need to sustain its centrality, it is in Asean’s best interest not to buckle.

However difficult the disturbance of the status quo in the South China Sea, crisis can be a catalyst for change. Both Tokyo and Washington are keen to develop defense cooperation talks with Hanoi.

For Japan, Vietnam is an important player in its intention to revise collective self-defense. Given that Japan has been consistently one of the top foreign investors and the biggest donor in Vietnam, the trust between the countries is strong. The US has recognized Vietnam’s strategic importance, particularly for its rebalancing strategy. Hanoi and Washington have been gradually tightening cooperation, as seen from high-level visits in 2013, which resulted in the

signing of a comprehensive partnership, although not a strategic one as initially expected.

One of the reasons that Hanoi has been cautious in getting too close with Washington was fear of agitating China. But given the current events, this fear also needs revision. Other sensitive issues involving the domestic politics of Vietnam as the obstacle for closer Washington-Hanoi cooperation will take longer to revise. Another possible ally comes from the Asean region - the Philippines welcomed Vietnam on its side at the the International Tribunal for Law of the Sea.

Prime Minister Abe’s keynote speech and US Defense Minister Chuck Hagel’s address at the 2014 Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore took the bilateral dispute between Hanoi and Beijing to a global level. While having such diplomatic support from two crucial actors in the region, Vietnam still seems to be undecided how to leverage that.

The speech of the Vietnamese Defense Minister was confusing in a way, as it requested that China remove the oil rig, but also emphasized the “good” relationship with the northern neighbor. This contradictory message signifies that internally the Vietnamese leadership has not reached consensus.

On the eve of the Shangri-la Dialogue, the Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung conveyed through international media a determination to bring the case to the law of the sea tribunal.. But the “readiness” announced has yet to receive public backing from the President and CPV Secretary General. Until then, Vietnam is facing growing societal discontent, threat of a leadership crisis and the possibility of waning international support.

It’s time to get over the disillusion with failed comradeship and come up with a new strategic outlook and an efficient and transparent crisis management strategy. Hesitation will deter international support. Given the bad experience in over-relying on one partner, Vietnam is should be extra-vigilant in going into any dependency.

Pursuing a legal solution may be the best possibility that Hanoi has. It would reconfirm Vietnamese commitment to the peaceful resolution of the disputes, affirm Vietnam as a responsible member of international community, avoid an internal leadership crisis and bring the long-term dispute to an end. From China’s side, a revision of the good neighbor policy is also yet to be announced. It is increasingly unlikely that it will be – except downward.