Vietnam’s prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, concluded a six-day state visit to China last week that included meetings with President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang and top legislator Zhang Dejiang. Phuc also attended the China-ASEAN Expo and China-ASEAN Business and Investment Summit in Nanning and made a business-focused visit to Hong Kong. But the trip’s primary focus was deepening economic and people-to-people ties, which have been strained in recent years by spillover from China and Vietnam’s disputes in the South China Sea.
During Phuc’s meetings in Beijing, he and his Chinese counterparts seemed eager to de-emphasize those South China Sea tensions in order to pursue other areas of cooperation. According to the state-owned Xinhua news service, Xi assured Phuc that “China and Vietnam can manage their differences and promote maritime cooperation through friendly negotiations,” while Li said the two countries should “maintain maritime stability, manage and control disputes . . . and create conditions for the stable development of bilateral ties.” But despite the flowery words, the trip didn’t mark any real departure from Hanoi’s recent South China Sea policy.
China’s geopolitical weight and its importance to the Vietnamese economy mean that leaders in Hanoi understandably feel compelled to seek positive relations with their northern neighbor where possible. But those relations do not come at the expense of Vietnam’s territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea, to which Vietnamese leaders and the public remain staunchly committed. Instead, a pattern has emerged over the past five or six years in which bilateral relations suffer at regular intervals due to incidents in the South China Sea. These flashpoints include the violent treatment of Vietnamese fishermen during Beijing’s annual unilateral fishing ban, diplomatic outcries from Hanoi over Chinese construction or other activities in the Spratly Islands, or most spectacularly, the deployment of a Chinese deep-water oil-drilling rig in contested waters.
During these times of crisis, Vietnamese leaders unflinchingly assert their claims in public while looking for an opportunity to de-escalate in private. They seek to climb down from a conflict that could get out of hand with a more powerful China, but without ceding any ground on sovereignty or maritime rights. Then, during the quiet intervals between crises, leaders in both Hanoi and Beijing seek to repair relations by deflecting attention from the South China Sea with vague commitments to peaceful cooperation on maritime issues and emphasizing other, less contentious aspects of the relationship. These regular demonstrations of detente help de-escalate and save face, preventing bilateral relations from unraveling as they did between China and the Philippines between 2012 and 2016. But they do nothing to address the underlying disputes or head off the next crisis, and Vietnam’s leaders know it.
Ties with China do not come at the expense of Vietnam’s territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea.
Despite the diplomatic niceties from Xi and Li, as well as the rebuke to China from an international tribunal in The Hague this summer, Beijing is not changing anything about its South China Sea strategy. The “nine-dash line” with which it demarcates its claims to the vital waterway is as ambiguous and non-negotiable as ever. The buildup of military infrastructure on its artificial islands in the Spratly Islands continues apace; this year will likely see the first deployment of Chinese fighter jets there. And ever-greater numbers of Chinese coast guard, fishing and paramilitary vessels are operating throughout the South China Sea, aided by expanded docking facilities and new radar installations on the rocks and reefs it occupies. While Philippine officials seek bilateral negotiations that are almost certain to disappoint in the aftermath of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling, and ASEAN hangs its hopes on reaching a code of conduct that Beijing has never shown any desire to negotiate in good faith, China continues toward its goal of exercising de facto control over the water and airspace of the South China Sea.
Vietnam’s leaders are happy to play their part in diplomatic efforts to downgrade tensions in the short term. But they are also still focused on a long-term strategy of deterring Chinese aggression, building their capacity to contest Chinese dominance of disputed waters. In August, for example, Reuters reported that Vietnam was fortifying five of its bases in the Spratly Islands with new mobile rocket launchers. The only comment the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry offered was to call the report “inaccurate.”
Hanoi is also enhancing cooperation with likeminded states to balance against Beijing. Just before leaving for Beijing, Phuc welcomed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Hanoi, where the two announced the elevation of the bilateral relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership. They signed 12 agreements on bilateral cooperation, which included India extending a $500 million line of credit to Vietnam for the purchase of defense equipment.
Shared concerns over the South China Sea disputes and the intentions of a rising China have driven Vietnam and India into ever-closer security cooperation in recent years. Indian navy ships make regular visits to Vietnamese ports over the objections of China, which has unsuccessfully tried to order Indian vessels out of disputed waters. India has emerged as an alternative supplier of military platforms to Vietnam, which previously relied almost exclusively on Russia for arms purchases. It is an especially valuable role for New Delhi. Since Vietnam’s military is built largely on Russian technology, there are limited opportunities for the United States, European countries and others to provide it with major platforms. But India can and does, as evidenced by ongoing talks for Vietnam to purchase the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile, which India jointly developed with Russia.
A similar dynamic played out last November when Xi visited Hanoi for two days in an effort to patch up relations that were still frayed from the deployment of the Chinese drilling rig in disputed waters in 2014. Xi met with all of Vietnam’s top leaders—Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, then-President Truong Tan Sang and Phuc’s predecessor, Nguyen Tan Dung. Xi addressed the South China Sea disputes in those meetings, as well as during an address to Vietnam’s National Assembly, where he reportedly received a polite but cool reaction. But then, on the day Xi flew back to Beijing, Vietnam’s leaders welcomed Japan’s defense minister at the time, Gen Nakatani. It was a nod to the burgeoning security relationship between Vietnam and China’s regional rival, which has seen Hanoi procure coast guard vessels from Tokyo and the Vietnamese navy engage in joint exercises with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Forces.
This track record is why Phuc’s recent visit to China does not signal any change in Hanoi’s long-term strategy in the South China Sea, despite the trip appearing to have been successful in patching over differences in order to focus on economic diplomacy. Vietnamese leaders still see Beijing’s maritime claims as unacceptable and Chinese behavior in the contested waters as a threat to their national security. And so, while managing episodic crises and seeking to prevent immediate escalations, Hanoi continues to boost its military and coast guard capacity and strengthen new security partnerships with India, Japan and the U.S., among others. It is preparing for the more dangerous days to come as Beijing refuses to address the roots of the dispute.
Gregory Poling is the director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and a fellow with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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China Coast Guard — In this photo released by the 11th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters of Japan, a Chinese coastguard vessel sails near the disputed islands in the East China Sea on August 6, 2016. Japan said this ship was watching over more than 200 Chinese fishing boats fishing illegally in Japanese waters. AP