Vietnam does not stand alone but must act to strengthen itself in its struggle to protect its sovereign territory in the East Sea.
Few would argue that China placing a deep-sea drilling rig, the Haiyang Shiyou-981, in Vietnam’s territorial waters south of the Paracel Islands on May 1 was in response US President Barack Obama’s visit to four Asian countries - Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines - in late April. Many believe China began preparations for deploying the illegal oil rig deployment, some 117 nautical miles from Vietnam’s continental shelf, long ago. “It is clear that China pre-planned the placement of the Haiyang Shiyou-981 before it made the announcement that it would commence operations from May 2 to August 15,” said Professor Carl Thayer, a well-known analyst on Vietnam from Australia. “China prepared logistics ships and escorts for the rig and also had other ships on standby should the rig and its escort encounter difficulties.”
On a State level, Vietnam’s response was modest and courteous, calling for the oil rig to be removed and sending only the Coast Guard and ships from the Fisheries Surveillance Force (FSF). China then mobilised a large force of over 100 ships, including naval vessels, to protect the oil rig. After vision of Chinese ships attempting to ram Vietnam’s weaker Coast Guard ships was screened around the world, the Chinese ambassador to the US made the remarkable claim that “Vietnamese military forces harassed and attacked Chinese forces.” Vietnam is clearly the victim of its giant neighbour’s wrath. “Vietnam did nothing to provoke China nor has China defended its actions on the basis of some Vietnamese provocation,” said Professor Thayer. “The best speculation is that China chose this incident carefully to challenge President Obama’s policy of rebalancing in Asia.”
Vietnam’s international friends offered diplomatic support after the incident. The US was the most active in speaking out about China’s provocations in the East Sea, as it understands Chinese ambitions in one of the world’s most important sea lanes, through which almost one-third of global goods are transported each year. “China’s decision to introduce an oil rig accompanied by a number of vessels in disputed waters was provocative and raised tensions,” said Ms Jen Psaki, spokesperson from the US Department of State on May 7. “This unilateral action appears to be part of a broader pattern of Chinese behaviour to advance its claims over disputed territory in a manner that undermines peace and stability in the region.”
But some analysts said that the recent crisis between China and Vietnam in the East Sea indicates that Vietnam appears to lack “trusted friends” who may provide stronger support not only with words but also action, and that an alliance could be something Vietnam may consider. But, with a consistent policy of multilateralism, the country will not take this recommendation into account. “Vietnam will never ally with another country to fight against a third country,” insisted Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung while he was in Manila last month for the World Economic Forum (WEF) East Asia, where he met and spoke with Filipino President Benigno S. Aquino III. “This is Vietnam’s consistent diplomatic position.” Mr Mike Kulma, Executive Director of Global Leadership Initiatives at the New York-based Asia Society, believes this is the correct mindset. “I think countries should always look to strengthen relationships with other countries,” he told VET last month. “But I don’t think this context is reasons in and of itself for doing so.”
Regardless, Vietnam may wish to consider finding “trusted friends” after all that has happened, some analysts say. When asked what he would advise the Vietnamese Government do to avoid similar cases with China in the future, Mr Kulma said that it should “continue to pursue avenues to negotiate and build the relationship in other areas.” For his part, Professor Thayer believes that the current crisis could have been easily averted. Vietnam and China have managed to demarcate their land borders and the Gulf of Tonkin. If China applied international law it would have had to announce that its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) drawn from Woody Island (or Hainan Island) overlapped with Vietnam’s EEZ. “This would have created a legal dispute,” said Professor Thayer.
Under international law, China and Vietnam should enter into provisional arrangements in the disputed zone and refrain from altering the status quo or threatening or using force. According to Professor Thayer, this should have been an easy matter to resolve, with China and Vietnam agreeing to a median line between their overlapping claims or coming to some other arrangement. “They could also seek third party intervention,” he said. “Once this current crisis abates, and assuming that China and Vietnam enter into high-level discussions, the two sides could discuss overlapping EEZs.”
Bilateral economic concerns and the way forward
While the political and diplomatic crisis between the two countries seems unlikely to end soon, some analysts say the two sides should consider what it all means in terms of bilateral economic, trade and investment ties. Two-way trade stood at over $41 billion in 2012, with Vietnam seeing its trade deficit with China rising from $1.2 billion in 2003 to around $23.7 billion in 2013. Meanwhile, Chinese investment into Vietnam has accounted for 3 per cent of total foreign direct investment in the country. According to a report released by the Ministry of Industry and Trade (MoIT) in April, some 15 out of every 20 power projects in Vietnam have been conducted by Chinese contractors in Engineering-Procurement-Construction (EPC).
Vietnam and China aimed to raise two-way trade to as much as $60 billion by 2015 following the visit by the Chinese Premier to Vietnam last October. The question of how much Vietnam may suffer if China deploys economic sanctions or cuts bilateral economic links concerns some analysts. For Mr Kulma however, such moves are unrealistic. “I don’t anticipate strict economic sanctions that would hurt or damage the Vietnamese economy,” he said.
Looking ahead, Professor Thayer recommended that Vietnam continue to pursue diplomatic channels in its disagreement against China, through ASEAN. “If it does not do so it will be isolated,” he warned. “But Vietnam must understand that ASEAN will only support a peaceful resolution to the current crisis. ASEAN will not side with Vietnam against China.”
As for the future, Vietnam should pursue two strategies, according to Professor Thayer. The first is “self-help”. It should modernise its armed forces and coast guard to defend its national sovereignty. Secondly, it needs to build up good security relations with ASEAN and its dialogue partners - the US, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, India and Russia. Vietnam should also continue to promote cooperation among ASEAN navies. “This strategy is not aimed at confronting China but to build up regional capacity in order to strengthen the ASEAN Political-Security Community in 2015 as part of the ASEAN Community,” he said.
“Vietnam always seeks peace and friendship, and has exercised the utmost restraint, made every gesture of goodwill and exhausted all dialogue channels to communicate with Chinese authorities at different levels to express its protest and demand that China immediately withdraw the oil drilling rig and its escort vessels from Vietnamese waters and observe international law, including UNCLOS 1982. China has failed to respond to Vietnam’s legitimate demands. On the contrary, it has been slandering and blaming Vietnam while continuing to use force, escalating its increasingly dangerous and serious acts of intimidation and violation. We remain determined to defend our sovereignty by peaceful means in conformity with international law.”
“One problem is that China places itself outside international law. It claims the present disputed areas lies within China’s “territorial waters.” There is no island close enough, not even Triton island, within 12 nautical miles of the disputed area. More importantly, China does not justify its actions on the basis of EEZs because this would diminish the area claimed by China’s nine-dash line. So China unilaterally defines legal concepts like “territorial waters” to suit its interests.”
“The fact that the Chinese moved ahead in placing their oil rig immediately after President Barack Obama’s visit to four Asian countries in late April underlines Beijing’s commitment to test the resolve of Vietnam, its Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) neighbors, and Washington.”