HO CHI MINH CITY - Rising territorial tensions and the recent oil rig crisis have put Sino-Vietnamese ties on the rocks, driving Hanoi to ramp up strategic alliances with other regional powers, particularly the United States. But Vietnam is not poised to completely drop the gauntlet by jettisoning its deep-seated reliance on its giant northern neighbor that has both burgeoned and bedeviled bilateral ties.
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, was in Vietnam last week, marking the highest ranking military officer to visit Vietnam since 1971. During his four-day landmark tour, Dempsey met with Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and
high-ranking military leaders in Hanoi, visited the central city of Da Nang, a strategic deep water harbor facing the South China Sea previously used by American forces, and symbolically concluded his trip in Ho Chi Minh City, once the political and economic hub of the US-backed regime during the Vietnam War.
Dempsey was upbeat about the prospect of Washington lifting its 30-year ban against selling lethal weapons to Vietnam, a move both Vietnamese top echelons and influential US Senator John McCain have advocated.
"There's a growing sense among our elected officials by our administration, by non-governmental organizations, that Vietnam has made progress against the limitations that led to the lethal weapon ban," said Dempsey at a press conference. "I think the maritime domain is the place of our greatest common interest right now, common security interest. My recommendation, if the ban is lifted, will be that we start with that."
In early May, when China first towed a US$1 billion oil exploration rig into waters Vietnam considers part of its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf in the South China Sea, the move triggered tense skirmishes between Chinese and Vietnamese coast guard vessels.
In an unprecedented move on the disputes, China sent United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon a position paper detailing what it called Vietnam's "illegal disruption" of its "routine" offshore drilling operations in the contested Paracel Islands region.
When the confrontation sparked deadly anti-China riots in central and southern Vietnam, Hanoi's leaders "realized that they have to reduce their dependence on China. China's troop movements near the Sino-Vietnamese border and its [alleged] hidden hands in the anti-China riots inside Vietnam during the oil rig crisis have led to a change in Vietnamese leaders' perception of China's role vis-a-vis Vietnam," said Alexander Vuving, a security analyst at the Hawaii-based Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies.
Prime Minister Dung said that "bad elements" escalated the violence, while other anonymous officials have said China inflamed the on-the-ground situation to tarnish Vietnam's image.
At the height of the bilateral tensions, Vietnam's top Communist Party leaders, including premier Dung, spoke publicly on several occasions about plans to take legal action against China, a move that would internationalize the conflict. "We always want peace and friendship but this must ensure independence, self-reliance, sovereignty, territorial integrity, and maritime zones," Dung said in late May. "These are sacred and we will never trade them off for some kind of elusive, dependent peace and friendship."
Since China withdrew the oil rig in mid-July, Hanoi has maintained that it could opt to take international legal action against Beijing, similar to the claim the Philippines has filed against China through the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). At the same time, Hanoi has sought to bolster alliances with both the US and treaty ally Japan, a hedging strategy many analysts view as Vietnam's best option in countering China's assertiveness in the South China Sea.
"China is acting on the assumption that it has 'undeniable sovereignty' in the sea. If Vietnam wants to challenge this it must have the physical means to protect its claims," said Bill Hayton, author of the forthcoming book South China Sea: the struggle for power in Asia. "Nobody wants open conflict but Vietnam wants to acquire the capability to deter the kinds of non-military tactics that China has been using recently while also preparing for a hypothetical military confrontation in the future. To do this the country needs as many friends as possible."
Japan is proving to be a ready ally. Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said during a visit to Hanoi earlier this month that Tokyo would give six used naval vessels to Vietnam to boost its patrols and surveillance capacity in the South China Sea. The donation, totaling 500 million yen (US$4.86 million), will also include funds for training and equipment to improve Vietnam's coastguard and fisheries surveillance.
Tokyo has also said it would resume Official Development Aid (ODA) flows to Vietnam after a short-lived halt in the wake of a June investigation into bribery allegations at an ODA-funded project involving state-run Vietnam Railways.
While Japan makes strategic and economic overtures, anti-China sentiment is growing in Vietnam. In the latest sign, 61 Vietnamese Communist Party members, including notably a former ambassador to China, lodged an open letter to the party leadership urging them to, among other things, "escape" from their reliance on China. While concerned about China's rising maritime assertiveness, Hanoi must balance those concerns with political and economic imperatives.
"On the economic front, the Vietnamese leadership is clearly interested in diversifying its economic relationships to become less dependent on China," said Gregory Poling, a Southeast Asia expert at the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies. "But for at least the medium-term, China will remain the essential trade partner, particularly for inputs into Vietnam's manufacturing sector."
Total China-Vietnam trade was worth $50 billion in 2013, almost twice the $27 billion recorded in 2010. In 2013, Vietnam exported nearly $8 billion worth of garment and textile products to China, a crucial job-creating sector of the economy. China also imports approximately 40% of Vietnam's total annual rice and rubber shipments and accounts for 25% of its tourist arrivals, which have plummeted in the wake of the recent anti-China riots, according to a recent Reuters report.
According to sources familiar with the situation, there was a strong internal debate within the government and Communist Party leadership at the height of the oil rig dispute over whether to take a stronger line against China.
"The more cautious faction seems to have come out on top, and by removing the rig China has tamped down that debate. But it will come back the next time there is a standoff," said CSIS's Poling. "Whether or not Hanoi will pull the trigger and take a hard line in the short term is unclear, but the fact that the debate is even occurring shows just how far Vietnam's leadership has moved from their previously close ties with Beijing."
The degree of that diplomatic recalibration, however, is hard to gauge. While Vietnam has moved to boost defense ties with the US and Japan, this appears for now more cosmetic than substantive and does not yet represent a threat to the current balance of power that favors China vis-a-vis its smaller Southeast Asian neighbors.
Vietnam has closely followed, albeit with a decade lag, the Chinese model of open economic and closed political systems. That long-time ideological relationship, some suggest, is too steeped in history to change radically anytime soon. "China will likely continue to grumble about closer links with Washington and Tokyo but will not retaliate in any significant way," Poling suggests.
Other analysts argue that many Vietnamese leaders have profited personally from Chinese payoffs and projects, economic benefits they are likely loathe to relinquish. "The way Vietnam has become so dependent on China is hard to eliminate," said Vuving. "First, Vietnam's stay within the Chinese orbit will give regime conservatives a feeling of security as they face the threat of regime change. Second, rent-seekers who make up a large part of the ruling class in Vietnam benefit from the numerous forms of bribery offered by the Chinese."
Sources familiar with Dempsey's visit say his landmark trip aimed to convince Vietnam to join its Japan-South Korea-Philippines strategic alliance, a configuration designed to counterbalance China's rising power in the region. Chinese mouthpiece media have criticized the alliance as an attempt at "encirclement." Vietnam, however, has remained cautious about overtly joining hands with the US, Japan and Philippines.
During a visit to China for a strategic military dialogue in June, Vice Minister for Defense Lieutenant General Nguyen Chi Vinh told Chinese media that Vietnam would not "play off one country against another. Those who have a strategic vision and are politically savvy all understanding that doing so would only be self-destructive."
That expressed caution explains why Dempsey insisted that his visit was not primarily focused on countering China. "I came here to focus on the relationship between the United States and Vietnam. We do think that we should have a steady improvement in our relationship with the Vietnamese military," Dempsey said. "We're not trying to make anyone choose between China and the United States. Because China's your neighbor, you have incredible economic almost interdependencies with China."
Brian Leung, a pseudonym, is a China-based journalist.
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