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Vietnam Today

Standing its ground

Released at: 23:08, 05/12/2014

Standing its ground

Vietnam's policy towards China is one of cooperation but not compromise, the Prime Minister has stressed.

by Thong Dat

Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung last month highlighted Vietnam’s policy towards China in responding to questions from National Assembly (NA) delegates. In a strong signal to observers regarding the territorial dispute with China, PM Dung declared that Vietnam will continue to cooperate with China but will not compromise its sovereignty and national security interests. 

One for cooperation …

Of course, as a neighbor of China, Vietnam wishes to foster the two countries’ comprehensive cooperation in a healthy and stable manner. “We will continue to be neighbors, whatever the weather,” he said in response to a question about Vietnam’s policy towards China following the withdrawal of a massive Chinese oil rig in Vietnamese waters in July. “Therefore, we will always look forward to Vietnam and China’s sincere cooperation to preserve peace, stability and development for the mutual benefit of both countries.”

Like siblings or lovers, Vietnam and China cannot seem to help arguing and then making up. Following a year full of tension, highlighted by China’s deployment of the oil rig in May, there are now signs that the two sides are moving to reset their relations and pick up where they were prior to the oil rig incident. China and Vietnam have begun to repair bilateral relations by utilizing trusted party-to-party and military-to-military links. Bilateral relations took a major step forward with the three-day visit to China by a high level Vietnamese military delegation led by General Phung Quang Thanh, Minister of Defense. Minister Thanh was invited by his Chinese counterpart, General Chang Wanquan, and the delegation arrived in Beijing on October 16 and departed two days later. What is clear is that the atmosphere at the bilateral meetings was cordial and positive. Both sides used past diplomatic formulations in an effort to overcome relations strained by the oil rig incident. 

Furthermore, State President Truong Tan Sang, earlier last month, also met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing prior to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting. President Sang told his counterpart that priority should be given to developing ties between the two Parties and countries, including increasing mutual understanding and trust while respecting each other’s legitimate interests and implementing commitments reached in the past. He also suggested continuing to facilitate visits by senior leaders and exchanges between ministries and localities, with a focus on interactions between the two peoples to mark the 65th anniversary of Vietnam - China diplomatic ties next year.

Like other countries in East Asia, Vietnam has had to cope with the changing strategic and economic environment created by China’s rise. Political issues aside, China is economically important to Vietnam as the country is its largest trade partner. Besides, Chinese companies are heavily involved in all kinds of projects in Vietnam, especially in the field of energy and infrastructure. It is understandable that Vietnam will try to diversify its economic relations to make it less economically dependent upon China but the country’s leaders are also aware that this cannot be achieved overnight. This is why cooperation with China does more good than harm to Vietnam, considering that it is still seeking to boost relations with other countries. Vietnam’s consistent external policy is strictly followed not only in its relationship with China but also with other countries around the world.

… But not for compromise

While there are signs that Vietnam and China have tried to mend ties four months after the Chinese oil rig was deployed off the coast of Vietnam, tensions still exist between the two regarding China’s recent land reclamation and construction activities in Vietnam’s Truong Sa (Spratly) archipelago.

For much of the year China has been expanding its footprint in the archipelago by moving sand onto reefs and shoals and creating at least three new islands that could serve as bases for Chinese surveillance and as resupply stations for navy vessels. It also decided to build an illegal airport on Da Chu Thap Island (Fiery Cross Reef), which is part of the Truong Sa archipelago. The building of the airport is said to be a part of China’s plan to occupy the entire East Sea to boost oil exploitation to satisfy its thirst for energy, said Mr. Tran Cong Truc, former Chief of the Government’s Border Committee. “The move reflects China’s defiance towards the international community and its resistance to the international response to its illegal deployment of the oil rig in Vietnamese waters from May 1 to July 15,” he said.

From his perspective, Mr. Vo Anh Tuan, former Vietnamese Ambassador to the UN, believes that China has set out very concrete objectives to be achieved in the East Sea. “It has set up a roadmap to occupy the sea and is carrying out the plan step-by-step, regardless of the interest and aspirations of other countries in the area,” he observed.

Mr. Tuan, who is very concerned about the East Sea situation, predicted that following its land reclamation on Gac Ma, China will continue similar acts in other areas, causing disorder and unrest. He emphasized that the legitimate claims of Vietnam and other countries in Southeast Asia will continue to be violated by China in the future. “Once they set up an air base on Gac Ma, China will likely set up an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East Sea, similar to what it has done in the East China Sea,” he believes. 

In answering a question about Vietnam’s response to China’s construction activities on Da Chu Thap Island and Gac Ma Island, PM Dung recalled that China used force to occupy Gac Ma and other islands in the Truong Sa archipelago in 1988. “People all know that China used force to occupy Gac Ma and some other islands belonging to Vietnam’s Truong Sa archipelago in 1988,” he said, adding that China is now carrying out building activities on Truong Sa with the aim of turning Da Chu Thap Island into the largest in the archipelago by reclaiming an area of roughly 49 hectares with sand.

In 2002, Vietnam and other ASEAN countries signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea (DOC) with China, under which all parties must avoid complicating the situation in the East Sea. Yet China has violated the agreement through its building activities on contested regions of the Truong Sa archipelago. “Vietnam strongly objects to this act from China, as it violates Article 5 of the DOC to which China is a party,” stressed PM Dung, adding that he also used the recent 25th ASEAN Summit in Myanmar to raise objections.
For now, the strategy that Vietnam is adopting is clear. It will seek cooperation from China to settle their disagreements on sovereignty over seas and islands based on international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the agreement on the basic principles guiding the settlement of sea-related issues between the two countries. At the same time, the country will never compromise its sacred national sovereignty and interests.

“Since Vietnam adopted ‘doi moi’ in 1986 no year ranks as bad as 2014 for tensions arising from disputes in the East Sea between Vietnam and China. China’s placement of the oil rig Haiyang Shiyou-981 with an armada of up to 100 ships was unprecedented. Not only did it provoke a six-week confrontation at sea between their respective maritime enforcement agencies but China’s actions produced non-violent political protests as well as violence and the physical destruction of Chinese and other foreign-owned enterprises in several industrial zones. There were fatalities, and China evacuated several thousand of its workers and demanded compensation. Vietnam’s attempts to activate hotlines between responsible officials and its initial request to send a special envoy to Beijing were rebuffed. Vietnam also suffered some collateral economic damage through the fall in Chinese tourism and sporadic economic sanctions. The oil rig crisis of 2014 was the worst crisis in three decades because tensions in the East Sea could have led to armed clashes at sea.
Vietnam should continue to pursue the same strategy it has in the past. The first thing is to continue to build up its capacity to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity by modernizing its air, naval and maritime enforcement agencies. Second, it must remain unified at both the national and society-wide level. There must be a national consensus on the foreign policy strategy to be adopted. Third, it must continue to conduct bilateral diplomacy with all of its fellow ASEAN members to ensure that ASEAN does not backtrack. Vietnam must lobby for a stronger ASEAN role. Fourth, it must continue to build up its strategic and comprehensive partnerships with the major powers, Russia, Japan, India, and the US, as well as relations with the European Union. Fifth, and most importantly, Vietnam must continually engage China to work out a modus vivendi in the East Sea. Good relations with ASEAN and its members as well as the major powers will strengthen Vietnam’s hand in relations with China. Any improvement in China-Vietnam relations will also strengthen Vietnam’s hand in conducting foreign policy in general.”

Professor Carl Thayer
Australian Defence Force Academy

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