Among the claimants and littoral states of the South China Sea (SCS), the Philippines and Vietnam have been the most vocal in expressing their alarm and concern over growing Chinese assertiveness in this strategic and resource-rich regional commons. Because of their power asymmetry vis-à-vis China, which has the most extensive claims to the SCS, Manila and Hanoi have been supporters of the U.S. pivot to Asia, to balance against Beijing’s growing maritime power projection, while also using diplomatic outreach to cultivate as many supporters as possible. The Philippines has been bolstering its defense and maritime law enforcement with the help of the U.S. and Japan. Vietnam is meanwhile relying on its traditional partners – India and Russia – as additional cushions against possible excesses of China’s rise to power in the region. Both countries are also seeking support from ASEAN.
The SCS dispute took a notable turn when Philippines went to UN arbitration to challenge China’s nine-dashed line. The claimants had to that point sought to manage the dispute through regional mechanisms and bilateral talks. Not surprisingly, then, Manila’s move has irked Beijing, which has been insistent on not internationalizing the dispute. While it may be premature to assess Manila’s strategy at this stage, it is interesting to examine the factors that led to parallels, as well as variances, in the strategies taken by Manila and Hanoi via-à-vis China’s increasing assertiveness in the SCS.
Vietnam’s strategies are shaped by its history, economy and geographical proximity with China. Vietnam’s economy is highly reliant on its trade and investments with China and this dependency limits Vietnam’s actions. Yet of all the disputants, it is Vietnam that has lost the most ground to China in the SCS – the Paracels in 1974 and part of the Spratlys (Johnson South Reef and Fiery Cross Reef) in 1988. Hence, Hanoi has many axes to grind against China in the SCS. Both countries have also contested offshore blocks each has awarded to foreign energy players and have traded accusations of arrests and harassment of their fishermen. However, alongside these clashes are positive milestones such as the demarcation of their common land boundary, establishment of a joint fishing zone in Tonkin Gulf and more recently the creation of a fishery hotline that could greatly aid in mitigating “incidents” at sea arising from overlapping fishing grounds. As two socialist countries with a history of competition and cooperation (they were Cold War and Vietnam War allies), many channels, official and semi-official, including Party-to-Party talks, have served as platforms to ensure that tensions are kept at manageable levels and not allowed to affect other aspects of bilateral relations, notably trade and investment. In fact, just recently, the two countries signed 12 agreements to enhance bilateral cooperation in the areas of trade, infrastructure, energy and maritime affairs, and set up a working group to look into joint exploration in SCS.
This status quo would seem to be an achievement of Chinese diplomacy, mitigating conflict with Vietnam at a time when Beijing is embroiled in another dispute with the Philippines, likewise over the SCS. When it comes to Vietnam, China would seem to have employed the right strategy at the right time. Bilateral relations therefore appear unhindered despite the territorial and maritime disputes, giving Vietnam little motivation to do what the Philippines has done, and challenge Beijing’s claims before an international body.
Of course, Vietnam has continued to raise the SCS in ASEAN forums. It is also trying to improve relations with the U.S., and is consulting with the Philippines on mutual concerns. Although Vietnam has shown some support for Manila’s move to arbitrate, this backing is unlikely to graduate to a united Hanoi-Manila front versus Beijing. Again, Hanoi is constrained in its options for dealing with Beijing, and cannot afford a bold stand, save for fiery rhetoric. It will continue to express its dissatisfaction with China through the likes of the ASEAN Regional Forum, which serves as an international outlet given the participation of extra regional powers. Meanwhile, like other ASEAN countries, and especially those with SCS claims, Vietnam will watch closely the outcome of Manila’s arbitration bid and may reshape its strategies accordingly. Given Manila’s legal challenge, it can be argued that the Chinese leadership may be more willing to compromise with Hanoi just to isolate Manila and prevent the creation of a united front against Beijing’s sweeping SCS claims.