Vietnam: Turning Point?

It's been more than a month since China’s deep water oil drilling rig Haiyang 981 dropped anchor in Vietnam's exclusive economic zone. Beijing's deployment of the US$1 billion rig and an armada of escort vessels shocked the Vietnamese regime, shattering illusions about its "comprehensive strategic partnership" with China.

Hanoi had hoped that a policy of conciliation would temper China's aggressive pursuit of hegemony in the South China Sea. Its deferential posture papered over a fragile intra-party consensus that Vietnam's dispute with China over maritime sovereignty was a rare cloud in the otherwise sunny sky of fraternal cooperation. Come what may, insisted party conservatives, the comrades to the north would not rock the foundations of a brother socialist regime.

But rock them they did.

For several weeks, Hanoi seemed literally stunned. When the central committee of the Vietnamese Communist Party ended a week-long meeting on May 8, it had nothing new to say. Although denunciations of Chinese aggression filled online media and to an unusual extent, the state-supervised media as well, Party leaders with only one exception were inarticulate, seemingly conflicted even on whether to allow citizens to protest.

The exception was Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung's appeal to an Asean summit on May 11. Dung stressed that despite grave provocation, Vietnam would not be drawn into a firefight. We "always spare no effort to maintain and strengthen our fine friendship with China," he added for the record, and urged Asean members to join in voicing opposition to the Chinese move. For Dung's pains, Asean foreign ministers endorsed a collective statement registering "serious concern" over "events that intensified tension in the region." China was not named.

May was two-thirds gone before Hanoi gave signs of deploying a coherent strategy. On May 21, Dung conferred with Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, a visit that signaled readiness to take concerted military and diplomatic responses with the Philippines despite Chinese warnings. In particular, Dung voiced support for Manila's complaint to the International Law of the Sea Tribunal and said Hanoi might lodge its own complaint.

High profile interviews Dung granted to Reuters, the AP and Bloomberg left no doubt that the Vietnamese government had found its voice. "We won't trade our sovereignty and legitimate interests 'for a false and dependent friendship' with China," papers reported Dung saying. "There is a vast gap between the words and deeds of China."

Then, at the World Economic Forum meeting in Austria, Dung warned that Chinese actions threaten disruption of huge flows of trade through the South China Sea, and "might even reverse the trend of global economic recovery."

Conspicuously unheard, as Dung and other government spokesmen sounded the alarm, were the prime minister's peers in the party hierarchy, State President Truong Tan Sang, General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, and the chairman of the national legislature, Nguyen Sinh Hung. All three are among a solid majority of the Party's 14-member Politburo that's said to support a policy of leaning toward China.

Perhaps deployment of the Haiyang has 981 silenced the so-called pro-China faction only for the moment. Based on present evidence, however, it seems as likely that sentiment within the secretive conclaves of the Vietnamese Communist Party has shifted, perhaps decisively, toward cooperation with the US and any other power willing to invest in blunting Beijing's drive to dominate the South China Sea.

The oil rig crisis exposed the naïvete of Vietnam's quest for "strategic partnerships" with all and sundry, Professor Nguyen Manh Hung wrote in a recent post on the Asia blog of the Washington think tank CSIS. It has "forced a realization that a policy based on socialist affiliation and deference to China ... has become untenable. In newspapers and over the Internet, a chorus of voices in Vietnam has called for a Thoát Trung (escape from China’s orbit) policy."

Carl Thayer, the dean of Vietnam analysts, says Hanoi is intent on organizing joint exercises and patrolling with US, Philippine and (coast guard only) Japanese vessels, pre-empting the space where China now flaunts its growing strength. "The objective," Thayer believes, "is to maintain a continuous naval and air presence to deter China from using intimidation and coercion against Vietnam."

In this context – brazen aggression by China that Asean is once again unable or unwilling to confront, and what seems to be unprecedented latitude for Dung to fashion a new approach – Washington must craft a response. The Vietnamese, in the person of deputy prime minister for foreign affairs, Pham Binh Minh, are expected to respond soon to an invitation from US Secretary of State John Kerry. It will be a visit that bears watching.

Ironically, Minh's father was dismissed as Foreign Minister in 1991 for resisting rapprochement with China and too vigorously urging renewal of diplomatic relations with the US. Minh will have a tough sell in Washington. A substantial constituency in the US still urges a Pacific strategy aimed at building a partnership with "a rising China."

Further, as midterm elections draw near, the Obama administration has become increasingly cautious about foreign adventures anywhere ‑ not Syria, Ukraine or Southeast Asia. The US Navy seems not at all eager to deploy more assets into the reef-cluttered South China Sea.

If Dung is in earnest, he can authorize his emissary to deploy some attractive inducements for closer ties. Binh could offer the right to use Vietnam's superb harbor at Cam Ranh Bay, a prize the Pentagon has so far sought vainly. Even more compelling could be Dung's commitment to pursue sweeping reforms in the area of free speech, freedom of association and freedom of religion. That's a bold idea that would be tremendously popular not only with critics of the regime in Vietnam, but also with a sizeable caucus in the US Congress ‑ chiefly representatives of constituencies with a substantial population of Vietnamese refugees.

It is also an idea that's been anathema to the conservative wing of the Vietnamese Party and state, which claims to see human rights issues as the leading edge of an East European or Arab Spring-like upheaval. The same comrades that support close association with China resist reforms that they fear will pave the way for a challenge to the Communist Party's monopoly of power.

Dung hasn't shown much interest in enabling dissidents to push their political agendas, either. His own idea of expanding human rights is progress toward a society and economy that offers enterprising individuals plenty of opportunity to get ahead. Still, the prime minister is a canny and flexible strategist who has in the last two years beaten back a serious challenge to his leadership and then steered the nation back to macroeconomic stability.

By deploying the Haiyang 981 off Vietnam's coast, Beijing may have unintentionally provided the means to break the political deadlock that has eroded the legitimacy of the nation's ruling party in the eyes of its citizens. If Dung calculates that the promise of phased political reform is the key to a deal with Obama and also a step that he can defend successfully in Party councils, it's the expedient sort of thing he might do.

David Brown is a former US diplomat with wide experience in Southeast Asia. He is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.