Vietnam’s deft diplomatic footwork on the South China Sea

Author: Hoang Oanh, RSIS

In early May 2014, China deployed the drilling platform Hai Yang Shi You 981 (HYSY 981) in disputed waters in the South China Sea, causing a wave of protest in Vietnam and criticism from regional countries.

In response to China’s behaviour in the South China Sea, Hanoi has been adopting a two-pronged policy of ‘hedging’: that is, pursuing engagement along with indirect balancing and trying to maintain balanced relations between powers without firmly plumping for either. Compared with other countries in the region, Vietnam has been a relative late adopter of this strategy. Its main approach to dealing with China had been engagement.

But China’s more hardline approach might push Vietnam toward a more active hedging strategy, and Vietnam’s diplomatic dynamism following the HYSY 981 incident seems to confirm this. In addition to soliciting support from ASEAN, Vietnam has been trying to enhance ties with important partners such as the US, the Philippines and Japan.

After the oil rig deployment incident, Vietnam’s foreign minister called his US counterpart to discuss the issue. Vietnam also announced its decision to participate in the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) after more than ten years of consideration since the initiative was launched in 2003. Vietnam had been reluctant to support the initiative, which it sees as outside the United Nations’ framework. Moreover, as Vietnam has always been sensitive to sovereignty issues, legal loopholes within the PSI raised concerns that the US and major parties would take advantage of and manipulate the PSI for their own purposes.

The announcement by Vietnam’s foreign minister that his country will join the PSI, combined with its commitment to enhance cooperation with the US in maritime security and the US promise of providing US$18 million of aid to the Vietnamese coast guard, signifies an increased level of mutual trust in Vietnam–US security cooperation.

Vietnam has also been getting closer to the Philippines. During the Vietnamese prime minister’s visit to the Philippines for the World Economic Forum, he and his counterpart announced the possibility of establishing a strategic partnership in the face of common maritime challenges. On this occasion, the prime minister also declared that Vietnam is considering all options in the face of China’s action, including legal measures. If Vietnam brings the issue to an international court, such as the Permanent Court of Arbitration, it will also help support Philippine’s arbitration case to challenge China’s ‘nine-dash-line’. An improved Vietnamese–Philippine relationship also helps Hanoi in enhancing its relations with the US.

The rift between China and Japan over the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the East China Sea has made Tokyo as interested as Hanoi in developing new Vietnam–Japan security ties. Bilateral relations were boosted in 2013 when the two nations decided to elevate their ties to an Extensive Strategic Partnership for Peace and Prosperity in Asia.

Recently, during a visit to Japan, Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam called for Japan to support Vietnam’s effort in solving the current tension with China. Japan agreed to enhance bilateral maritime security ties with Vietnam and Japan’s Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida is set to visit Vietnam in June or July this year to promote maritime cooperation, including Japan’s provision of patrol ships for Vietnam to better cope with China’s rising maritime assertiveness in the South China Sea. The two countries may also discuss increasing communications with the Philippines and other ASEAN members to keep Beijing’s territorial ambitions in check.

In a 2010 review of Vietnam foreign policy, a top-level Vietnamese diplomat remarked that although its ‘omnidirectional’ foreign policy had helped Vietnam to strengthen its external relations and even form strategic partnerships with many countries, most of these relationships had not matured.

But the situation may improve, as Vietnam’s recent diplomatic dynamism has demonstrated its readiness to exploit a convergence of strategic interests with other countries in the South China Sea to enhance its relationships with these countries and involve them in the South China Sea issue. Besides attracting support and assistance from the US, the Philippines and Japan, Vietnam has also been successful in attracting support from non-ASEAN countries, such as India and Australia, who have publicly voiced concern and urged for restraint on the HYSY 981 incident.

Vietnam is geographically close to China and is dwarfed by its neighbour economically and militarily. In an asymmetric relationship like this, the smaller state can often end up being oversensitive to the actions of the larger state. China’s restraint and commitment to international norms and rules are therefore critical. Unless China tones down its assertiveness in the South China Sea, Vietnam will continue to seek support from other countries while drifting away from its neighbour — a situation that may not be in China’s best interest.

Hoang Oanh is a PhD candidate at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.