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Vietnam-China Conflict In The South China Sea: Unrealistic And Dangerous Suggestions For Vietnam – Analysis

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A recent article in the Diplomat by Rand’s Derek Grossman “Reviewing Vietnam’s ‘Struggle’ Options in the South China Sea” is alarming. https://thediplomat.com/2020/05/reviewing-vietnams-struggle-options-in-the-south-china-sea/

It is replete with trite, unrealistic and dangerous suggestions for Vietnam to “struggle” against China. 

To implement some of his suggestions would mean that Vietnam would be cutting off its nose to spite its face. For example, Grossman suggests that Vietnam suspend its joint patrols with China in the Gulf of Tonkin.  The joint patrols are part of an agreement that greatly reduced incidents between the two by dividing the Gulf and also setting up a joint fishing zone. The agreement resulted from long term negotiations and compromise on sensitive issues by both and constrains Chinese fishermen from overwhelming Vietnamese fishers in number and catch in Vietnam’s claimed waters. Why would Vietnam scuttle an arrangement that seems to be advantageous to it? Grossman also suggests that Vietnam cease participation in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.  But again –assuming Vietnam is as clever and capable as it has always been in its dealings with big powers – this would only be to its disadvantage – both economically and politically.

Grossman also joins the chorus of predominantly US voices pushing Vietnam to follow the Philippines example and file a complaint against China through the dispute settlement mechanism of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNVCLOS).  But this would likely not turn out well for Vietnam either legally or politically.

If Vietnam takes the issue to arbitration, it must first persuade the arbitration panel that it has jurisdiction.  A Chinese claim to part of its claimed continental shelf based on the disputed Paracels could complicate an arbitration panel’s acceptance of jurisdiction.  According to UNCLOS Article 298, exemptions from jurisdiction include sovereignty disputes, boundary delimitation, and military and law enforcement activities.  China might argue that this dispute does indeed involve one or more of these exemptions.

Another obstacle that Vietnam has to overcome before proceeding to arbitration is “admissibility”.  There exists a China-Vietnam bilateral agreement that stipulates that “for sea-related disputes between Viet Nam and China, the two sides shall settle them through friendly negotiations and consultations.” Whether this would apply and prevent the panel from proceeding depends on the status of this “agreement”.  If it is considered formal and binding, it will carry more weight with the panel than the Declaration on Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea that the previous panel in the Philippines dismissed as only a “political statement’ not preventing “admissibility”.

But the decision for Vietnam’s leaders to pursue arbitration against China is more political than legal. They have to weigh the advantages and disadvantages.

If its complaint passes the procedural hurdles and is finally victorious, the practical disadvantages far outweigh the theoretical advantages.

First, even if it does ‘win’, the ruling cannot be enforced — as we have seen with the Philippines-China arbitration judgment in favor of the Philippines.  China has refused to recognize it.  

Second, and perhaps most important, by ‘internationalizing’ the dispute, Vietnam will have alienated and angered China, a permanent giant neighbor with whom it must live into the indefinite future.  It will likely suffer economically, politically, and possibly militarily. 

Grossman also suggests that Hanoi “no longer censor media reporting on China’s assertiveness to further stoke already high anti-Chinese sentiment in the country.”  This is his most naïve and dangerous suggestion.  Whipping up anti-China sentiment could easily back fire by unleashing a movement and emotions that could spiral out of control as they nearly did before. https://www.industryweek.com/the-economy/article/21962849/one-dead-100-hurt-in-antichina-riot-at-vietnam-steel-plant

Grossman even goes as far as to suggest Vietnam “escalate the potential for armed conflict to get China to back down during the next crisis.”  This also would be very dangerous for all of Southeast Asia.  Indeed as he admits, “this would potentially risk broader conflict.”

His final suggestion is that Vietnam strengthen security co-operation with the U.S.  Any significant advance in such military co-operation would mean that Vietnam’s leadership would have to decide if it really wants to confront China on the international political stage over this issue. Does its leadership really want to side with the U.S. – a declining power –against China – its permanent neighbor and inexorably rising regional and world – power? 

Grossman’s views are biased against China, unrealistic, and worse – dangerous for all concerned—particularly Vietnam. 


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Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia, is an internationally known maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. He is the author or editor of some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles. He is currently an Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

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