By: Jonathan London and Vu Quang Viet

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Hanoi this week comes at a time when Beijing’s efforts to change the status quo in the South China Sea through the construction of manmade islands has raised tensions across the region.

Only Beijing sees the “nine-dash line” it uses to advance its claim to 90 percent of the entire South China Sea as legitimate. Yet, if anything, tensions in the region appear to be on the rise. Be that as it may, the commencement of US patrols aimed at demonstrating the right of ships to travel anywhere in the South China Sea that international law permits, together with an arbitral tribunal’s finding that it has jurisdiction to rule on many of China’s claims, invites all parties, including Vietnam to reassess the broader conflict and attendant opportunities and risks.

The China-based scholar David Arase has recently observed that smaller states such as Vietnam and the Philippines can increase their leverage in the dispute through greater cooperation with each other, greater willingness to exercise legal means in concert to defend international norms, and recognition that selective cooperation and non-cooperation can influence regional politics. Within the context of a big power stalemate, Arase argues, smaller states can propose cooperative governance schemes that preserve their own rights and promote their interests while also generating benefits for big powers. In light of recent developments, including China’s conduct and Vietnam’s improving relations with the United States and other powers, Hanoi should consider taking a more proactive approach.

Cooperation Among Littoral States

Hanoi should specify its territorial claims while undertaking actions to ease remaining disputes with the Philippines (and Malaysia, if necessary), while reaching out to Indonesia. More concretely, Hanoi should consider renouncing its claims on all rocks within the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of the Philippines, Brunei, and Malaysia on two conditions:

  • That these states accept that all small islands under dispute are uninhabitable rocks unless ruled otherwise by international law, and as such are entitled to 12-nautical-mile territorial waters but not EEZs; and
  • That they agree with the principle of sharing resources that lie outside any country’s EEZ and the territorial waters of any of the rocks.

Doing so would narrow the scope of disputes in ways that can facilitate movement toward resolutions based upon principles of international law, while also demonstrating credible commitments to cooperation, sharing, and trust. Vietnamese committed to the notion that all of the Paracels and all of the Spratlys belong to Vietnam should embrace a more realistic, practical, and strategic mind set. If China can relax its current position and embrace these principles, it would be a breakthrough. If not, Vietnam and the other claimants still stand to gain.

Vietnam should also help form a multilateral contact group aimed at reducing and ultimately resolving regional tensions. It can invite Beijing to participate. While the group in question might include members of ASEAN, it should not be organized within ASEAN, whose members with little stake in the dispute. Instead the group should include Southeast Asian claimants together with the United States, Australia, Japan, India, the European Union, and other countries.