By Bich T. Tran and James Borton*
During this COVID-19 global crisis, when facts and fiction are easily blurred, Beijing is using cyber skills to disseminate fake news stories, expelling American journalists, and turning to invited academics to steer policymaking arguments and write narratives that are patently false.
In a recently published South China Morning Post article, ”Why the US-Vietnam Strategic Alliance in the South China Sea is Unlikely to Last,” Dr. Mark Valencia, a maritime policy analyst and a visiting senior scholar at China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies, appears lost at sea without a geopolitical compass. (SEE: Mark Valencia’s response here China Bashers Strike Out In The South China Sea – OpEd)
Valencia, along with the institute’s president, Dr. Wu Shicun, are frequent participants at South China Sea conferences, but continue to offer tenuous academic arguments for China’s sovereignty over the contested sea, in an overall effort to sustain Beijing’s propaganda campaign.
To be clear, the institute is attached to the Hainan provincial government, works under the guidance of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, and receives instructions from the State Oceanic Administration. China attempts on a daily basis to advance its goal of establishing and legitimizing its administrative control of the South China Sea through academics who function as semi-official actors in the drafting of papers and opinions that reflect Beijing’s core interests in the contested South China Sea.
Valencia in his article mixed up key concepts and misled on several points. First, from the title, calling the US-Vietnam relationship an alliance is misleading and self-contradicting. The author himself cited Vietnam’s long-standing principle of no military alliances, no siding with one country against another, and no foreign military bases.
Second, pairing Vietnam’s requirement of prior notice from foreign ships exercising innocent passage through its territorial waters with China’s intention to do so in the disputed waters in the South China Sea (SCS) is misinforming.
Vietnam has jurisdiction over its territorial waters as determined under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, while the artificial islands reclaimed by China in the South China Sea are not considered territorial waters as ruled by the 2016 arbitration tribunal instituted by the Philippines against China. The ruling further asserts that Beijing’s so-called “nine-dash line,” which claims most of the SCS, has no basis in international law. The US Navy, under its Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs), sails its vessels within 12 nautical miles of the artificial islands claimed or occupied by China in order to challenge its excessive maritime claims which remain inconsistent with international law.
Still writing about FONOPs, Valencia added, “the US does not recognize Vietnam’s claims to Spratly features that are not above water at high tide,” but US FONOPs have no bearing on sovereignty disputes over land features.
The third misleading point in Valencia’s agitprop is that he equated the second US aircraft carrier visit to Vietnam in March 2020 to the exercise of innocent passage saying that “for this port call, either Vietnam did not require such prior permission or the US did not give it – or both. The issue was swept under the rug.” A port call is different from an innocent passage. The former entails an intermediate stop for a ship on its scheduled journey for cargo operation or taking on supplies or fuel, while the latter emphasizes passing through the territorial waters of another state. The United States and Vietnam had worked together for months to realize the visit.
He further adds, “the US hopes that its access to Vietnam’s ports will replace its places in the Philippines.” This is confusing because the nature of the US-Vietnam and US-Philippines relationships are different. Vietnam does not seek to be a US ally, and therefore, can’t be compared to or replace the Philippines.
Moreover, Valencia’s flow of logic is that Vietnam and the United States came together to counter China without considering the differences in their political systems and ideologies, which in turn, would lead to a short-lived “alliance.” However, the two countries knew the differences well and have overcome those to work closely together.
Although a shared concern about China’s aggressive behavior in the SCS has facilitated the growth of US-Vietnam relations, it is the cooperation on war legacy issues that played an important role in the reestablishment of diplomatic relations and led to the development of a comprehensive partnership between the two nations. In addition, strengthening relations with the US is also part of Vietnam’s policy of “diversification and multilateralization” of relations with the major power.
Valencia’s main argument is that the differences between the United States and Vietnam make “building a firm and lasting strategic relationship unlikely.” Nevertheless, Vietnam’s 2019 white defense paper states that “depending on circumstances and specific conditions, Viet Nam will consider developing necessary, appropriate defense and military relations with other countries… regardless of differences in political regimes and levels of development.” Hanoi sees it as self-defense, unlike the offensive nature of “siding with one country against another” in its three-no principle.
Although “Vietnam and China continue to have strong party-to-party and economic relations,” it is clear to Vietnam that China doesn’t honor any agreements that the two countries have when it comes to the SCS. Therefore, Vietnam has tried to reduce its economic dependence on the Chinese economy by actively negotiating free trade agreements with other powers. The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement will significantly contribute to these efforts.
It’s true that Vietnam doesn’t want to choose sides, but a bullying giant neighbor is not desirable by any means.
*James Borton is an independent writer, and non-resident fellow at the Centre of Sea and Islands Studies at Vietnam National University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Hanoi.
*Bich T. Tran is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Antwerp and a former visiting fellow at the East-West Center in Washington, DC.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Geopoliticalmonitor.com or any institutions with which the authors are associated.