Vietnam's South China Sea Challenge
The July 12 judgement of the tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration regarding Manila’s case against Beijing’s South China Sea claims has reshaped the geostrategic landscape in Southeast Asia. But surprisingly, Vietnam has only issued a brief statement on the verdict, with Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Le Hai Binh saying that “Vietnam welcomes the arbitration court issuing its final ruling.” He also reiterated Vietnam’s December 2014 statement to the tribunal, which had, among other things, recognized its jurisdiction in the case. And Binh said the ministry would issue a more detailed comment on the contents of the ruling at a later time.
Apart from the Philippines, Vietnam gains most from the court’s verdict, but it has not provided a detailed opinion on the ruling, even after more than a month. This has baffled many Vietnamese observers. Some have suggested that Vietnam should follow suit by bringing a case against China regarding the Paracel Islands. China has consistently refused any negotiations with Vietnam over the Paracels since it seized those of the islets occupied by Vietnamese forces in 1974. Given growing sentiment in Vietnam for an official assessment of the ruling, it behooves Hanoi to decide on an appropriate stance regarding the verdict, and soon.
The Vietnamese government does not want to increase tensions in the South China Sea, which could complicate Hanoi’s core objective in the Spratlys—safeguarding its jurisdiction and maritime rights.Hanoi advocates maintaining the status quo in the South China Sea even though it is obvious that Vietnam is increasingly worried about China’s massive island-building work and its installation of equipment that can serve both civilian and military purposes. Hanoi fears that any escalation with China might result in a change of the status quo unfavorable to Vietnam. In addition, Vietnam tries to minimize the scope of the dispute by implicitly acknowledging that the Spratlys do not possess more than 12-nautical-mile territorial waters (for instance, via its 2009 joint extended continental shelf submission with Malaysia).
Thus far Vietnam has followed a legally murky strategy and avoided taking a stance on the court’s decision. This was widely seen as the safest strategy for Vietnam prior to the July 12 award, since at that time Hanoi did not know whether the tribunal would rule in the Philippines’ favor the Philippines or how its decision might affect Vietnam’s interests in the South China Sea. Now with the ruling more than a month old, Vietnam’s continued silence has prompted two major hypotheses. The first is that the Vietnamese government needs extra time to fully assess the impact of the ruling on Vietnam. The formulation of an official position requires careful examination by various agencies before a final draft lands before the Politburo for endorsement. The second hypothesis is that the Vietnamese government is being pressured by China to not proclaim its position. Its silence is not benefiting Vietnam, but it has not been a disaster either.
But leaders in Hanoi do not have unlimited time to weigh the court’s ruling and their own calculations. A series of domestic incidents have recently raised questions about their legitimacy. Mass fish deaths caused by Taiwan-owned Formosa’s dumping of toxic waste into the sea were followed by the hacking of flight information display screens at two of Vietnam’s major airports. The hacking was allegedly carried out by a Chinese group named 1937.cn, leading the Vietnamese public to blame the government for being ill prepared to confront Chinese cyber threats. The government’s recent challenges in dealing with domestic problems have also raised concerns about its competence to deal with foreign policy problems.
Hence the Vietnamese government should not delay any longer in publicly stating its legal stance regarding the tribunal’s judgement. If the government does not quickly take advantage of the court’s ruling against China’s claims, it might miss a chance to garner public support while the opportunity is still ripe. Other countries with shared interests are also waiting for Vietnam’s reaction to the ruling. The tardier Vietnam’s response, the shorter Hanoi’s menu of options becomes. Therefore, Vietnam should move swiftly to formulate a position.
One option is for Hanoi to selectively endorse parts of the court’s decision. The tribunal’s rulings that the nine-dash line is invalid and that Chinese actions illegally harm the marine environment and aggravate the disputes clearly serve Vietnam’s interests. The decisions regarding the status of features are not as clearly beneficial to Vietnam because the court ruled that islets controlled by Vietnam are not entitled to an exclusive economic zone or continental shelf. The selection of key points to support could reflect a pragmatic choice of what decisions are really beneficial to Vietnam.
Vietnam could also actively cooperate with other ASEAN states and regional powers to come up with joint communiques on the court’s judgement. It could work with Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia to issue a joint statement emphasizing the invalid nature of the nine-dash line and China’s claim to historic rights, since these nations have convergent interests with Vietnam in this area. Vietnam could also enlist help from Australia, India, and Japan, beginning with joint communiques on protecting freedom of navigation and the marine environment in light of the ruling. These areas of cooperation could be seen as relatively safe for Vietnam.
The authors would like to thank Nguyen Hong Thao and Duong Danh Huy for their valuable comments and suggestions. The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own.