Fear and caution in Hanoi
26 Jul 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user Nam-ho Park

The Permanent Court of Arbitration’s Arbitral Tribunal ruling against China in the South China Sea is no boon for Hanoi, at least so far.

This has been an interesting year for those of us who watch Vietnam. There’s a new government following the 12th National Congress, when powerhouse Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung was ousted after he lost in his bid to become General Secretary. That begs the question as to whether economic reform will continue and, importantly, what form the USChina balancing act will now take?

Then in April came the Formosa fish kill scandal. Taiwanese firm Formosa’s steel plant in Ha Tinh province, south of Hanoi, poisoned the ocean with a massive pollution dump, leading to the death of some 100 tonnes of fish. Unusually, protests drew in even ordinary citizens and much of the fury was over government inaction. The matter was resolved only recently.

Now, after a shaky year there’s been what should be a bright spot for those in power in Hanoi: China’s defeat in The Hague after the Arbitral Tribunal ruled against it and its ‘nine-dash line’. For Vietnam, now the ‘nine-dash line’ is legally void it has an unimpeded 22-nautical-mile EEZ. But China respecting that is another matter; the last time it moved its oil rig deep into Vietnam’s EEZ, protests in Vietnam were so severe that factories (actually Taiwanese ones) were burned, three Chinese nationals killed, and relations between Hanoi and Beijing largely froze until November last year, when Xi Jinping squeezed in a visit and signed 12 bilateral agreements.

Not long after the ruling was announced, Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a tepid, boilerplate statement leaning heavily on legal arguments and the rule of law; newspapers largely stuck to this. There was no crowing, no antagonism, and no anti-China sentiment. At first blush this may seem unusual but Hanoi is at pains right now not to antagonise China, something Vietnam expert Carlyle Thayer confirmed to me last week.

After the ruling, China landed civilian aircraft on two reefs, a seemingly clear provocation to Vietnam, and beyond. As I wrote a few days later for the Huffington Post: ‘Vietnam, however, reacted far stronger to supposed violations of sovereignty… in defiance of the ruling—rather than to the ruling itself.’

Antagonising Beijing is a problem for two main reasons: Vietnam and China are trying to rebuild relations. But any show of force by Beijing must be met with anger and declamations by Hanoi, lest activists accuse the government of ‘not standing up’ to Beijing.

Anti-China demonstrators were arrested on Sunday near Hanoi’s central Hoan Kiem Lake. These Sunday morning demonstrations became common in 2011 when tensions in the area ramped up in earnest. The government allowed them for a while so as to supposedly ‘send a message’ to Beijing, but after a few weeks the small groups of marchers were inevitably arrested. Overseas democracy groups like Viet Tan (officially declared a terrorist organisation in Vietnam) or even the Vietnamese Community in Australia (VCA) like to needle Vietnam over its supposed appeasement of China. It’s a good way to begin criticism of wider issues, too.

This time the security forces were right off the mark. Agence France-Presse reported Sunday that ‘Plainclothes security forces were out in force… Throughout the morning, around 30 activists were swiftly bundled onto waiting buses and cars by security forces.’

The South China Sea sovereignty issues between Vietnam and China have driven an upgrade of Vietnam’s navy—it now has all six of the Russian Kilo-class subs it ordered in 2009. The received, and likely right, wisdom has it that the SCS stand-off is behind closer ties with the US, as seen in General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong’s 2015 Washington visit and President Obama’s visit to Hanoi in Maycoupled with the lifting of the weapons sale embargo (conditional, however, on Congressional approval for each purchase). Vietnam’s turning to the US was remarked on by Malcolm Turnbull’s first interview as PM with Leigh Sales.

Vietnam will apparently not pursue its own arbitration case, given that circumstances differ from the Philippines, and Vietnam and China both claim the entirety of the Spratly and Paracels (Hoang Sa and Truong Sa in what Vietnam firmly calls the East Sea).  

Vietnam is hoping that ASEAN, which it will chair soon, is the way forward. Vietnam likes this sort of regional grouping, and it is hoping to build strong consensus there. The problem, of course, is Cambodia and Hun Sen, who has stood in the way of a collective response to China since 2012 when he apparently blocked a joint communique on the issue during Cambodia’s tenure as ASEAN chair. That China has just given Cambodia (more typically once a client state of Vietnam) US$600 million may not help.