Hanoi Kowtow to Beijing: The South China Sea Dispute

Alexandre Chapnick Analysis, Asia, Conflict & Security, Economics

5 minute read

Sunday April 1st, following the conclusion of the 2018 Greater Mekong Sub-Region Submit, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi and his Vietnamese counterpart, Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, held a joint press briefing. Speaking to reporters, minister Pham announced that both nations should and would seek to manage disputes in the south china seas in an attempt to avoid escalation.

Foreign Minister Wang called for both nations to “… not carry out unilateral activities that would complicate the situation and [we] should strengthen maritime cooperation to build a healthy environment in order to reach an ultimate agreement resolving the sea dispute which will effectively boost the bilateral practical cooperation.”

Wang added that currently Chinese and Vietnamese relations were on a “very positive trend” and described both countries as “… good neighbours, good comrades, good friends and good partners.”

There is some measure of irony, in such a declaration of friendship, the need to respect international maritime laws as well as the need for mediation of disputes instead of escalations coming from Beijing. Vietnam has in the past repeatedly been the target of Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. Hanoi’s decision for a rapprochement with China is even more surprising given the recent provocations by Beijing.

Two weeks prior to the GMS summit, Hanoi halted the development of a major oil project in the Red Emperor block off the southern coast of Vietnam. This is the second time in three months that Beijing has successfully “pressured” Hanoi in halting such developments. The Red Emperor field is believed to hold significant reserves which are vital to revitalizing Vietnamese oil and gas production. The permanent cancellation of the $1 billion (USD) project would additionally incur Hanoi to pay cancelations fees to the Spanish exploration company Repsol which has already invested heavily into the project.

Chinese opposition to the Vietnamese in the development of the Red Emperor field is due to its proximity to the “nine-dash line” area claimed by the PRC. The territory which the PRC revendicates as their own represents ninety percent of the geographic area of the South China Sea and has brought the PRC in repeated conflict with its neighbours for possession of the various island chains in the South China Sea.

Three days prior to the Submit, in a clear show of force, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) conducted a series of military exercises in the South China Sea. According to satellite images these exercises involved a minimum of forty vessels. Comprised of a multitude of classes, including submarines, but most notably the PLAN’s only carrier the Lianoning, was present.  In recent years the PLAN has expended its assets and their capabilities in the South China Sea.  This latest exercise demonstrates the PLAN capability to conduct multi-fleet operations as well as inter fleet interoperability.

Prior to this joint briefing, one would not have expected Hanoi to be open to a rapprochement with Beijing.  Vietnam has historically staunchly opposed Chinese claims to the area, which are based on a loose collection of “historical precedents and ties.” This shift in Hanoi’s stance is indicative of the failure of Vietnam to amass political support and create a coalition of states which would jointly confront Chinese claims and actions.

The ASEAN countries would appear to be Vietnam’s best chances to gain strategic partners. The Philippines were once one of these countries from which Vietnam could expect support, but in recent years after the election of President Duterte, the authoritarian rule and subsequent condemnation from western powers has led him to seek Chinese support, sapping Vietnam of a powerful ally.

Additionally, the lack of unified vision in response of Chinese encroachment combined with futile diplomatic talks—such as the discussion on the eventual framework regarding a Code of Conduct (CoC) in the South China Sea. There is however no promises from China that once the framework has been settled on those discussions regarding the actual CoC would occur.

Furthermore, for the last few years, Beijing has stepped up its economic charm campaign attempting to undermine ASEAN cooperation. Given China’s preference for bilateral trade agreements, avoiding the bureaucratic hurdles of trade organisations and allowing them to achieve favourable trade terms has led to ASEAN countries to avoid “needlessly” antagonizing Beijing.

Beijing having already achieved positive results in bringing the Philippines to their side presents the possibility of a domino effect, where the growing power disparity between the PRC and the ASEAN countries leads to more of them folding to Chinese influence.

Outside of the ASEAN, The United States is the next state which Vietnam could look to for support. Under The Obama administration’s “Pivot to Asia”, Vietnam’s fears regarding Chinese intentions lead to unprecedented cooperation between the two nations and the lifting of an arms embargo to Vietnam. Additionally, the transfer of a high endurance cutter from the American Coast Guard to its Vietnamese counterpart occurred under the Trump presidency.

However, the Trump administration appears to consider the South China Sea dispute as a side show in Asia, focusing instead on North Korea. The American president commented on “the importance of unimpeded lawful commerce and the need to respect freedom of navigation and over flight and other lawful uses of the sea.” The shift in tone and support from the United States forces Vietnam to reconsider its options as it can no longer be certain of Washington’s commitment to the region.

The result of Vietnam’s failure to amass local and international support is a Chinese victory in the South China Sea.  Beijing was able to force one of its long-time adversaries in the region to kowtow and come to the negotiation table. Simultaneously, by bringing Hanoi into negotiations, Beijing can attempt to calm one front of conflicts and focus its efforts on the seemingly escalating trade war that is brewing with the United States.