Eurasian Geopolitics and the South China Sea
Territorial disputes in the South China Sea have characterized much of the worldwide coverage of events in the South Pacific for several years. It has been the backdrop with which the West has become aware of a rising China and is often cited by politicians, security professionals, and the news media as evidence of a declining Western influence in the United States’ backyard. However, this issue should not be analysed as part of the emerging East-West bipolar world order, but the experience of other regional powers – in this case, Vietnam – should be considered as valuable examples to countering, adapting to, and learning from Chinese aggression.
Vietnamese policy in the South China Sea can be characterized by constant attempts to cope with its relatively small size through diplomatic relationships, failed attempts at military development, and utilization of non-state actors including international corporations and NGOs. Huong Le Thu at the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative argues that Vietnam’s policy has traditionally been characterized by four main elements: 1) Internationalizing the disputes, 2) Addressing the disputes within a multilateral framework, 3) Developing a credible military deterrent to China, and 4) Engaging directly with China.
All four of these points suggest that Vietnam is aware of its challenging size relative to China and is taking a fairly multidimensional approach to policy creation. On one hand, Vietnam recognized that there is a diplomatic game to be played not only with other states in the region, but also through international organizations. Indeed, it has made strides in this respect, namely making progress on becoming a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.
On the military front, Vietnam has been working to develop its capabilities, by, for example, participating in the first US-ASEAN maritime exercises in September of this year.
There has been some direct engagement with China, but there has been little progress in this respect. In any direct talks between nation states, there needs to be a mutual interest in discussion. In party-to-party talks between China and Vietnam, this simply has not been the case; China has repeatedly continued provocative actions during and after discussions and has frequently ignored frameworks designed for crisis communication between the two countries, as evidenced in 2014 by the Chinese decision to send the Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil rig into Vietnamese-claimed waters and subsequently ignoring Vietnamese calls on the emergency hotline.
Recently, however, Vietnam has stuck with its asymmetrical roots and embraced a new type of partner in its disputes with China and other states in the region. It has partnered with oil companies in an effort to develop a longer, firmer presence in the disputed regions. Earlier attempts at this were a relative failure, with Vietnam bowing to pressure from China and expelling two companies engaged in drilling operations. Now, Vietnam has renewed energy through a partnership with Russian-government owned Rosneft, which has much more teeth when it comes to resisting Chinese influence and introduces a new type of corporate actor to the region. Indeed, China sailed the Haiyang Dizhi 8 – an oil survey vessel – into Vietnamese-claimed waters ostensibly as a protest to partnerships with Rosneft. On October 24 of this year, the ship was recalled under the escort of two Chinese naval vessels only after drilling had been completed. In effect, Chinese policy had to reckon with the presence of a new player in the region, and the activity of the Haiyaing Dizhi 8 is evidence of Chinese concerns.
With some measure of Russian backing, Vietnam is more confident and capable to resist Chinese economic influence and pursue the sensible policy of utilizing drilling companies to extend influence in ways its still-limited maritime or diplomatic resources could not. Indeed, in a recent speech Vietnamese President and Communist Party Chief Nguyen Phu Trong implicitly addressed China when he stated that Vietnam would “never compromise” over its sovereignty in the South China Sea region.
In addition to partnering with non-ASEAN firms, Vietnam has also pursued diplomatic relationships with countries that share its anti-Chinese interests, but who do not have conflicting claims in the region. For example, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc hosted Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in Hanoi to discuss deepening ties between the two countries, especially on common security and economic concerns in Southeast Asia. This is a positive step because with this partnership, Vietnam avoids the complicating factor of territorial disputes in diplomatic discussions that it could have with other states such as the Philippines.
Vietnam’s deepening relationship with Australia is indicative of a greater diplomatic push to draw partners into the region, especially after the passage of Decree No.25 CT/TW which explicitly outlined plans for increased multilateral diplomacy.
Vietnam’s partnerships with foreign – especially Russian – oil firms and emphasis on multilateral diplomacy are both positive steps towards becoming more confident in resisting Chinese economic and military pressure and should continue if their effectiveness is to be fully realized.
Despite moving in a positive direction on the diplomatic front, Vietnam still has work to do. Namely, there simply needs to be greater cooperation between states confronting China in the region. While there are political and economic differences between Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan, a measure of unity has the potential to go a long way.
Vietnam has also shown that partnerships with foreign oil firms is an effective way to expand power such that expanding relationships with large Western oil companies would provide a multilateral economic initiative that could parallel their multilateral diplomatic approach. To be sure, Vietnam’s diplomatic push is a good step, but must be complimented by other, more tangible, initiatives. A greater number of and deeper partnerships with foreign oil firms is one way to do this. Another way is continue developing military and economic relationships with states such as Australia who carry some influence in the region but do not have any direct territorial claims to complicate discussions.
Clearly, Vietnam is not the only player in the South China Sea dispute, but its experience does provide some good lessons for countering the growing influence of China in the region and about non-traditional ways of asserting sovereignty in an increasingly bipolar world. Namely, its partnership with foreign oil firms shows that the utilization of non-state actors is a promising path for smaller states to assert their sovereignty in the midst of possible political, diplomatic, and economic retaliation from larger states. Furthermore, Vietnam has also shown the importance of creating and maintaining relationships with powers outside the immediate dispute and the value of a multilateral approach to an otherwise regional issue. However, these developments do have their limitations, namely that Vietnam still is quantitatively weaker than China and remains unable to seriously challenge China’s forceful advances. In a wider sense, resistance to Chinese aggression remains fragmented. In the end, the territorial dispute in the South China Sea will be posited as a model for future conflict over territorial claims in how both aggressor nations react to adaptations of defensive nations and how defensive nations compensate to a radically altered regional order.