VIETNAM-CHINA DISPUTES IN THE SOUTH CHINA SEA
The disputes in the South China Sea have proved to be a serious flashpoint in Vietnam-China relations. However, the issue is not new but has a long and contentious history. The most serious and recent instance of Chinese aggression was the July 2019 intrusion of a Chinese vessel, the Haiyang Dizhi 8, into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). This act of encroachment by China occurred two more times in the next two months.
Nevertheless, what is most confounding is the modest responses of Vietnam towards Chinese behavior in the South China Sea in recent years. The Vietnamese government seems to lack the will to engage in concrete actions against China’s behaviors. For instance, the 2014 Chinese installation of an oil rig, a serious escalation by China, was only met with moderate diplomatic moves in the form of a public statement condemning China’s actions and expressing disagreement with the Chinese chargé d’affaires. The prime minister, however, stated a desire to contain the situation in order to not affect the economy. However, the most prominent instance of Vietnam’s weak reactions to China could be seen in their responses to the intrusion of Chinese vessels into Vietnam’s EEZ. The serious nature of such an act, even then, did not compel the Vietnamese government to do more than condemn these actions. In fact, the government took four days to issue a tepid statement, without identifying China as the aggressor, after a Chinese vessel had entered Vietnam’s waters on July 11th.
There are two factors that help explain why the Vietnamese government has been so cautious. The first factor involves the clear imbalance in power between Vietnam and China. Thus, Vietnam could not do anything more than respond to China in a modest manner. In addition, the underlying ideological ties that exist between the two communist parties also greatly influence the courses of action that Vietnam has chosen.
AN IMBALANCE IN POWER
Vietnam lacks the power to mount a forceful response to China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea. In regards to military power, Vietnam is decisively overwhelmed by Chinese advantages in budget, manpower, and weaponry. In 2019, China’s defense budget grew to a staggering $177.49 billion putting it only second to that of the United States. Meanwhile, Vietnam could only muster $5.5 billion. China definitely outnumbers Vietnam’s active military personnel, with 2,035,000 members while Vietnam only has 482,000. China’s military strength is also amplified by an increasingly modernized military with state-of-the-art naval assets. China’s 2015 military reform further boosted the efficiency of its armed forces.
Furthermore, China is an indispensable driver of Vietnam’s economic prosperity. This is demonstrated in early 2019, where China was the largest source of Vietnam’s imports and Vietnam’s second-largest export market in the world. In the first quarter of 2019 alone, China was also the largest source of foreign direct investment in Vietnam with $723.2 million.
Even though the US-Vietnam relations have seen tightening military cooperation with the visit of the U.S.S. Carl Vinson, the lifting of the arms embargo, and the transferring of patrol vessels, it would be risky for Vietnam to rely on the tentative military cooperation with the United States in its struggle with China, without taking into account the vast disadvantages in national strengths and the relative indifference of neighboring countries. Consequently, Vietnam has to engage in hedging because it can not fully lean towards China without jeopardizing the country’s sovereignty. A total break with China, however, is also unfeasible, given the deep economic ties between the two countries and the overwhelming military power of China.
IDEOLOGY AS AN IMPORTANT FACTOR
Though the balance of power could help explain Vietnam’s responses, relying solely on this explanation fails to take into account that the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) fought against the United States, a much stronger opponent. However, China is not the United States, it is a country that shares the same ideology and political system with Vietnam.
Indeed, the ideological ties between both communist parties could help explain Vietnamese responses. Since 2005, the parties have initiated annual party-to-party seminars to deal with ideological matters. The 2019 seminar, with the participation of Politburo members, even reaffirmed the inter-party compromises regarding the South China Sea disputes. This cooperation also expands into the military sphere, with high-profile visits and political agenda building. Such deep and profound party-to-party ties that also expand into the military sphere could help explain why Vietnam has been so reserved when China tries to assert its claims, even when some infringe upon Vietnam’s sovereignty.
Indeed, the ideological ties between both communist parties could help explain Vietnamese responses.
At the same time, ideology could also contribute to the reluctance of Vietnamese leaders to embrace the United States as an ally. The CVP fears that by being closer to the United States, Vietnam would have to give concessions in terms of democracy and human rights. Although President Trump may not stress the issues of human rights or democracy in his recent interactions with Vietnam, the CVP may see President Trump as more of an exception than the rule. In the end, the reluctance to be closer to the United States, due to differences in ideology, prevents Vietnam from achieving a more favorable balance of power against China.
WHERE SHOULD THE PARTY GO FROM HERE?
The CVP is in a quandary regarding its next move. Acceding too much to China’s demands in the South China Sea could make the Party lose its legitimacy in the eyes of the Vietnamese people. The massive protest in 2018 against a special economic zone bill that would have facilitated more Chinese influence is a grim warning for the CVP about becoming too subservient to China. On the other hand, embracing the United States could mean the erosion of the CVP’s rule, a result that no current Vietnamese leaders could countenance. Therefore, the most logical course of action for the CVP is to assuage China as much as possible without appearing weak. However, in the long run, as China’s behaviors escalate, this option would prove untenable. At that point, the CVP needs to inch closer to the United States with a series of modest political concessions, such as releasing political prisoners and introducing free elections on the lowest level, an approach that China has taken. In the end, the CVP would still have to make difficult choices between the CVP’s survival and the interests of the Vietnamese people. As China is growing increasingly assertive and the United States is progressively more inward-looking, the CVP’s space to maneuver is shrinking. A choice must be made soon.
Takeshi Masao is an M.A. Candidate at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, majoring in Asian Affairs. He has a deep interest in Vietnamese politics and diplomacy and has working experience in Vietnam.