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Vietnam’s strategic interests in the South China Sea : Challenges and options

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According to the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Vietnam is strengthening its maritime militia. Though the figures appear to be exaggerated, Vietnam’s action is propelled by the escalating Chinese aggressive activities. 

In fact, Vietnam has very high stakes in the South China Sea (SCS), which is its life-line. Its geographical situation clearly brings out this dimension. Vietnam borders the Gulf of Tonkin, Gulf of Thailand, and Pacific Ocean, along with China, Laos, and Cambodia. The elongated roughly S shaped country has a north-to-south distance of 1,650 km and is about 50 km wide at the narrowest point. The country has a long coastline of 3,260 km, excluding islands, running from Mong Cai in the North to Ha Tien in the Southwest. Vietnam’s territorial waters in the SCS extend to the East and Southeast, including the continental shelf, islands and archipelagos. There is also a group of around 3,000 islets belonging to Viet Nam in the Tonkin Gulf. Besides it has islands in the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos. Importantly, about 80% of its population lives within 160 km from the SCS coast. Millions of its fishermen live from this body of water. Its 86% trade with the world outside passes through this sea.

Hence, the stake of sovereignty over territorial and contiguous waters as also over its EEZ is of existential nature. Security and control over resources are its two major interests in the SCS. The Chinese assertion of the ‘nine-dash-line’ threatens its sovereignty. Intrusions into its EEZs harms its normal economic activities. While Vietnam usually stands up against the Chinese undue demands, it often has to accommodate the Chinese coercive pressure. There were instances when China tried to put pressure on Vietnam to cancel its joint exploration activities with foreign countries. While immediately China does not need the subsurface resources, it wants to keep them under its control as a long-term strategy. In addition, controlling SCS is to serve as its advance posts for its dominance in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

China perceives Vietnam as an obstacle for acquiring its control over this strategic sea. Not only Vietnam is the strongest opponent of the Chinese nine-dash line claim in the region, Vietnam’s sustained economic growth has pushed it to emerge as an important player in the South East Asia, which China perceives is not in its interests. Its role in the ASEAN in keeping the countries united on the issue of the illegal Chinese claims, maintaining the pressure for the finalisation of the Code of Conduct (CoC), and in the ASEAN Outlook for Indo-Pacific (AOIP) annoys China. These bring strategic rivalry between the two nations, despite the two countries have ‘comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership’. Though Vietnam publicly does not oppose China, yet it asserts its claims in the SCS. It has approached the UNSC for the implementation of the Ruling of PCA of 2016.

The recent developments have brought significant changes in the security environment, which are favourable for Vietnam. Vietnam unified the ASEAN countries during its chairmanship to demand the end of the Chinese coercive activities. It became the Non-permanent Member of the UNSC, raising its stature. The first Quad meeting in March, not only assured strong support for ASEAN’s unity and centrality as well as AOIP in the Free, Open and Inclusive Indo-Pacific but also for facilitating collaboration “to meet challenges to the rules-based maritime order in the East and South China Seas.” Vietnam’s handling of the pandemic has been admired globally.

Alongside, the anti-China sentiments have risen in the pandemic period, mainly due to the perception that China concealed information about the virus in the beginning that resulted in the spread of the disease globally. Several manufacturing units in China began to look for other locations to shift their countries. Even before the pandemic period, they had started finding difficult to continue in China because of increasing restrictions and in difficulty in getting young and cheap labour. The Sino-US trade war added to the Chinese problems. The pandemic worked as a catalyst in this respect. Japan is offering financial assistance to the manufacturing unit desirous of shifting from China. Vietnam’s continuous economic growth even during the pandemic, has made it an attractive alternative location for manufacturing units.

At the same time, there are formidable challenges to deal with as well. As China continues to modernise its armed forces, its aggressive activities are escalating. It has also stepped up its propaganda campaign using different means to assert its claim in the nine-dash line region. The ‘Map War’ has potentials to change the perception among the target population, which may not only complicate the SCS disputes but could give the impression in the Chinese decision-making body that its claims are being accepted by a substantial segment of the global population prompting it to indulge in misadventure.

Overall, the situation is favourable to Vietnam, which has opened several options to protect its interests in the SCS. An analysis of the current situation underscores the urgent need to contain the Chinese coercive and aggressive activities. First, Vietnam needs to send a clear message to China that normal relations between the two countries cannot continue when China is deploying coercive activities. It should be made clear that sovereignty cannot be sacrificed due to ideological links. The Chinese propaganda also needs to countered effectively. Tourism should be encouraged to its islands. Focused seminars should be organised to project the unjustified Chinese claims.

Second, there is a need to carefully align its approach with the Quad Plus to face the challenges of the Chinese coercion and illegal nine dash-line claim in the SCS. The aims of AOIP and FOIP of Quad are similar. Both seek to establish the free, open, accessible, diverse, and thriving Indo-Pacific based on international law. This collaboration could act as a force multiplier.

Third, while it should continue to use all leverages on China to finalise the CoC, realism points out that it is unlikely to be achieved in near future. The SCS disputes are also not easy to be resolved. The other alternative is to push the Quad and others to have the UNCLOS accepted for the entire Indo-Pacific, which should be binding to all. Russia should be pulled into such efforts. Vietnam and India can align their moves in this direction.

Vietnam has so far played well with different poles; it should continue this approach with greater dexterity and confidence based on its past record.

Fourth, Vietnam needs to coordinate with all to get the 2016 Ruling of PCA implemented through the UN. Coordination with other Members of UNSC and disputants is needed for this.

Fifth, Vietnam should join Japan and others to have an alternative supply chain, which is not dominated by a single power. The actualisation of this would be greatly beneficial to Vietnam for boosting its external trade.

Sixth, Vietnam needs to sharply project its firm will to oppose the Chinese unjustified acts, which is essential to deter China. When Indonesia responded by deploying naval ships and flying fighter jets to the Chinese Coastguard and fishing boat incursions, China retreated.

Such an approach is needed. Occasionally Vietnam should also undertake patrolling of the disputed islands by its Coastguard and fishing militia, like China, to assert its claim on them.

Seventh, Vietnam needs to enhance its Comprehensive National Strength. While its economy is going to improve with appropriate measures and it is taking steps to develop its defence capabilities, there should be special focus on acquiring advance technology. In future technology is going to play an important role to safeguard one’s interests in the fast-changing global security environment. This is a challenging task that requires a long-term plan for creating training and research facilities and also cooperation with other countries. Vietnam’s diplomacy should be geared towards this objective.

By S D Pradhan – The Times of India – June 27, 2021

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