South China Sea: Vietnam’s Possible Courses of Action — Vietnam has an historic opportunity

China’s actions in the South China Sea are increasingly militaristic. Due to Vietnam’s lack of strong treaty allies, the country is particularly vulnerable compared to its peers. In response to Vietnam’s deteriorating security situation, it is likely to choose one of three strategies: 1) continue the current strategy of hedging between the U.S., China and Russia; 2) ally with the U.S. against China; or 3) develop Vietnam’s military capabilities, including a potential nuclear deterrent.

One of Vietnam’s Kilo class submarines

China’s actions against Vietnam’s territory, Vietnam’s strategic response, and the outcome of the interaction, have global consequences. A win by China against Vietnam would intimidate other countries into granting concessions, and embolden China militarily. For this reason, Vietnam’s strategic decisions in the coming years should be of concern to everyone with an interest in international politics.

China’s threat against Vietnam is principally an attempt to take over Vietnam’s maritime exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) reserves to Vietnam. Vietnam will likely address the threat through a mix of accommodation and two types of deterrence. Due to the exclusion effects of these strategic options, however, the emphasis of Vietnam’s strategy will likely be only one of the three.

All three strategies incur costs, entail risk, and will likely cause fundamental changes in Vietnam’s politics and economy. Vietnam’s decision will profoundly affect the domestic and international outcome of events in the near future, including whether China strengthens its de facto presence in Vietnam’s maritime territory, the stability of Vietnam’s current leadership, and China’s strategy against other countries.

Vietnam’s current strategy, hedge between the U.S., China, and Russia, is the most complex, but least likely to lead to diplomatic, economic, or even military conflict. Vietnam is highly likely to follow this path. It includes the relatively inoffensive elements from all three strategies: seeking negotiations, development funding and trade with all potential allies, including the U.S. and China; only moderately increased defense cooperation with the U.S. and its allies; and new weapons purchases short of a nuclear deterrent.

Overemphasizing any single element of the three strategies that compose hedging will lead to unintended consequences and exclude the effectiveness of the other strategies. Too obvious hedging will alienate all major allies, and erode Vietnam’s image as a committed ally. Too close alliance with the U.S. against China will lead to retaliatory measures by China and perhaps Russia. Obtaining a nuclear deterrent would produce, at the very least, strongly negative diplomatic reactions from both the U.S. and China.

Hedging reduces the risk of war, but leaves Vietnam relatively weak and vulnerable to increasing Chinese influence. As China increases its absolute and relative economic and military strength in Asia, its influence over Vietnam will increase proportionately. This Vietnamese vulnerability will mean increasing political, diplomatic, and economic concessions to China over the next decade or two. If Vietnam chooses to hedge as its primary strategy, it should expect China to demand, and obtain, concessions such as a private recognition of Chinese sovereignty within the 9-dash line, joint development and revenue sharing of hydrocarbon and fishing resources, and possibly even discreet forms of taxing Vietnam’s maritime trade. Increasing Chinese influence in Vietnam and the resulting concessions will create discontent among Vietnam’s population, risking political stability and the tenure of the current Vietnamese leadership.

A second strategy would be for Vietnam’s leadership to largely eliminate China’s influence on Vietnam and ally closely with the U.S. and its allies, including Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Australia, and India. As part of this strategy, Vietnam could bring its own arbitration case against China through UNCLOS. This strategy of allying with the U.S. is most likely to maintain Vietnam’s independence and sovereignty over its hydrocarbon, fishing, and maritime shipping economies. But Vietnam’s newly close allies would, over time, have their own influence on Vietnam, including more active encouragement of democratization and freedom of speech reforms.

Democratic reform could lead, in time, to social movements that ask the current leadership to step down in favor of constitutional reform, and eventually a democratically-elected government. Detractors of this strategy will argue that it could lead to political chaos, civil war, and severe negative effects on Vietnam’s currently impressive level of economic growth.

A third strategy is to develop Vietnam’s military capabilities to the point where China is less likely to attack. Vietnam already purchased six Kilo-class submarines from Russia in the past few years. These are of the silent diesel-electric variety, and carry land-attack cruise missiles capable of reaching Chinese naval bases on Hainan or major coastal cities such as Shanghai. Vietnam might over time be able to purchase or indigenously develop nuclear warheads for these missiles.

Vientam Air Force Su-30MK2 jet

The militarization strategy is least likely to cause regime change, and so is a likely route. But it would take time, incite a greater arms race than already obtains in Asia, and if nuclear, certainly entail very large costs from international diplomatic protests and economic sanctions.

As a low-probability but high-cost risk, a new Vietnamese nuclear deterrent could inspire a Chinese preemptive strike on Vietnam’s nuclear facilities. Additionally, China could use strategies against Vietnam such as brinkmanship that purposefully increases the probability of a war, that even China does not want. Or, China could privately emphasize its own superiority in any total war with Vietnam through backchannels, while simultaneously provoking low-intensity military conflict to demonstrate resolve. This would likely intimidate Vietnam into making concessions, despite its new nuclear deterrent. Militarization could be expensive in terms of monetary and political capital, yet ineffective against a determined China willing to take risk.

Indeed, China has demonstrated a strong appetite for risk over the past few years. Due to China’s increasingly aggressive stance, Vietnam more than most other countries is unfortunately faced with a range of only unsavory strategic options. The best option for the leadership and citizens of Vietnam, in my opinion, is to ally closely with the U.S., Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Australia, and India, while significantly increasing Vietnam’s military capabilities.

Whatever Vietnam’s choice of strategy, the greatest patriotism is a statesmanship and stateswomanship that ignores personal consequence. Vietnam’s leadership now has that historic opportunity. If embraced, the Vietnamese people will surely return the kindness with a place in the paean to Vietnam’s national heroes.

Part of this opinion piece is an adaptation from a conference presentation on August 17, 2016 in Nha Trang City, Vietnam. The conference, sponsored by Pham Van Dong and Nha Trang Universities, was titled “Legal Status of Islands And Rocks In International Law And Practice In The South China Sea.”Travel expenses and an honorarium were provided by the conference sponsors for the August 17 presentation.

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Vietnamese fishermen swim for their lives after being rammed and sunk by a Chinese Coast Guard vessel, May, 2014. 

Vietnam fishing boat — A fishing boat from Quang Ngai province with six sailors on board was sunk by Chinese vessels on while fishing near the Paracel (Hoang Sa) Islands, on or about 10 July 2016. Than Nien photo


Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang delivers a speech at a Singapore lecture, organised by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore on Tuesday. (AFP photo)




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