The Buzz

Shamefare: How Vietnam Could Push Back Against China in the South China Sea

For those who were hoping that China and the Philippines might be able to move towards negotiations after Manila’s victory in the Hague over Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea — well, it seems China is back to its usual bag of tricks.

After the Philippines reacted with what I would consider praiseworthy restraint–and in complete contrast to China’s countless venomous statements — Filipino leaders seemed to offer Beijing what they have been craving most: bilateral negotiations with an eye towards a settlement. Manila is even ready to dispatch former President Ramos to talks with China as a special envoy, a role the former president has now accepted. However, at least for the time, those talks seem dead in the water, as Beijing won’t allow the ruling to be considered part of any negotiation — a pity that China won’t accept reality.

So, it seems, at least for the time being, China and the Philippines are at an impasse. What happens next, especially when it comes to the reaction of other claimants such as Vietnam, is now of greater importance. What will Hanoi do now that the ruling has been handed down and Beijing seems unwilling to back down or at least negotiate?

To be clear, in many respects, Vietnam’s reaction is almost as important as the Philippines. Hanoi has large, overlapping Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) claims with China when it comes to the extent of Beijing’s now illegal nine-dash-line — claims that extend over almost the entire length of Vietnam’s coastline. Then there is also overlapping claims in the Paracel and Spratly Islands. Indeed, Hanoi has much to win or lose when it comes to reacting to the Hague’s ruling.

My own sense is that Vietnam will take a very cautious approach to the ruling.  Having interacted with Vietnamese diplomats and scholars for many years now, my  personal feeling would be they would want to read over every line, every part of the nearly 500-page document to get a sense of its impact — away from the headlines and daily press reports. Whatever they decide, you can be sure it will be well thought out, pragmatic, and in what they feel is in their national interest.

However, Hanoi can’t be happy with China’s continued belligerence. Carefully produced photos of Chinese bombers travelling over Scarborough Shoal clearly demonstrate Beijing will not be deterred easily — essentially doubling down on its strategy to dominate the area or force negotiations on its own terms.

Here is where asymmetric strategies could come into play. A strategy that I have coined in these pages called shamefare might just be the best approach for Vietnam. If China continues on with its aggressive rhetoric and does not enter into negotiations with the Philippines by Oct. 1 — this gives China until at least after the G-20 summit, being hosted in that nation’s capital, as Beijing just might be on its best behavior until the summit is concluded and could be holding back more aggressive actions–Hanoi should respond with a carefully crafted shamefare strategy.

How Vietnam would use Shamefare:

Shamefare itself is straightforward. As I have noted several months ago, it puts China on the defensive and shames Beijing in the media–especially social media — time and time again, for their now clearly illegal actions in the South China Sea. It might not be as sexy as building islands with military bases, but it does stand the chance, when combined with other methods, to make Beijing pay a heavy and near constant price for its actions, putting roadblocks in place that China would have to suffer massive reputational costs to remove.

How would such a strategy be employed? Simple. Hanoi would leak to the press that it is considering suing Beijing as well as also utilizing other non-kinetic measures if it does not work constructively towards compromise in the South China Sea. Assuming China stands pat, Vietnam would sue Beijing in international courts, what many have called lawfare, but in essence, would be the ultimate form of shamefare considering the media attention this would bring.