Vietnam, China and the Oil Rig Crisis: Who Blinked?
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Vietnam, China and the Oil Rig Crisis: Who Blinked?

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China’s unexpected announcement on July 15 that it was withdrawing its mega oil drilling platform from Vietnamese waters early has resulted in a debate among academic specialists about the reasons why.

Zachary Abuza, a professor at Simmons College in Boston, argues that Vietnam buckled under Chinese pressure, while Alexander Vuving, a professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii, argues that Vietnam stood its ground and China blinked.

Abuza’s analysis appeared in the “Speaking Freely” section of the Asia Times on July 29. His analysis was original, provocative and highly speculative.

Abuza argued that China’s placement of the oil rig “presented the most divisive threat in years to Hanoi’s Communist Party leadership.” Not only were members of the Politburo deeply divided, but the majority chose to de-escalate the crisis by accommodating Chinese pressure. “Hanoi’s decision to back down has potential grave implications,” Abuza writes, “Vietnam has effectively appeased China, which will most likely lead to more aggression.” A policy of appeasement, Abuza concludes, “will pose a danger to the regime itself… [and] to the regime’s legitimacy.”

To support his argument Abuza provides some very detailed information about the normally opaque decision-making process by the Vietnamese leadership. Abuza’s argument may be summarized in four points:

First, in response to Chinese assertiveness in placing the HYSY 981 oil rig in Vietnamese waters in early May, Abuza avers that the Vietnam Communist Party’s Central Committee met in June and “unanimously resolved to condemn Chinese aggression and encroachment.”

Second, the visit to Hanoi of China’s State Councilor Yang Jiechi on June 18 proved pivotal. Prior to the visit Vietnam’s leaders hoped that Yang would make diplomatic concessions. According to Abuza, just the opposite occurred. Yang “was anything but conciliatory;”  he “berated his hosts for ‘hyping up’ the situation” and warned “bluntly that China would ‘take all necessary measures’ to protect the rig.”

Third, as a result of Councilor Yang’s visit a majority of the 16-member Politburo reversed the Central Committee’s June resolution. According to Abuza, a minority of six members favored “a multi-faceted strategy” of standing up to China, while the ten-member majority favored de-escalating the crisis in order to accommodate China.

The most speculative aspect of Abuza’s analysis is his classification of individual Politburo members into these two groups. According to Abuza, the minority group comprised six members: Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, Chairman of the National Assembly Nguyen Sinh Hung, Ho Chi Minh City Party Secretary and “pro-reformist” Le Thanh Hai, Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, and Deputy Chairs of the National Assembly Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan and Thong [sic] Thi Phong.

The ten-member majority comprised: Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong, party Secretariat members To Huy Rua and Le Hong Anh, head of the party’s Central Inspection Commission Ngo Van Du, head of the party’s Propaganda and Education Commission Dinh The Huynh, Hanoi City party chief Pham Quang Nghi, chair of the Vietnam Fatherland Front Nguyen Thien Nhan, Minister of National Defense Phung Quang Thanh, “probably” Minister for Public Security Tran Dai Quang, and “most likely” President Truong Tan Sang.

Fourth, as a consequence of this policy reversal, the Politburo shelved an earlier decision to take legal action against China, downplayed Vietnam’s insistence on a binding code of conduct in the South China Sea, and cancelled the “well publicized scheduled trip to Washington” by Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh.

The Politburo decided to sound out Washington on its “level of commitment to playing a role in a potential conflict with China in the South China Sea” by dispatching Hanoi party boss and Politburo member Pham Quang Nghi in Minh’s place.

Abuza concluded that the majority of the Politburo “is unwilling to stand up to China” and that “there is a hope in some quarters that by making concessions on the Paracel Islands, the Chinese will reciprocate in the Spratly Islands.”

Alexander Vuving offers a contrasting view in a commentary entitled, “Did China Blink in the South China Sea,” which was published on the The National Interest. Vuving wrote that the oil rig crisis was “a battle of wills… The party with more resolve may win even if it is the less powerful party. With their respective sovereignties at stake, the two states tested each other’s resolve to see who would blink first.”

Immediately after China placed the oil rig in Vietnamese waters, Hanoi’s leaders sought to negotiate with Beijing. China responded with four preconditions: Vietnam must stop its harassment of the oil rig; Vietnam must drop its sovereignty claims over the Paracels; Vietnam must not pursue legal action against China; and Vietnam must not involve third parties, such as the United States.

According to Vuving, Vietnam’s collective leadership responded by dropping plans to proceed with legal action against China and by postponing the visit of Foreign Minister Minh to Washington. This set the stage for China to undertake “a reciprocal act of de-escalation.”

On July 15 China announced that it was withdrawing the HYSD 981 from Vietnamese waters and, in a separate statement, releasing 13 Vietnamese fishermen it had arrested earlier. Vuving concluded that “Beijing’s actions may look like a tacit bargain, but its real nature is something different.” Vuving noted  the symmetrical nature and the fragility of mutual concessions by both China and Vietnam.In other words each party could reverse its actions at any time.

In contrast to Abuza, Vuving considered the motivations of both China and Vietnam in his analysis. Vuving concluded that Hanoi’s deference to Beijing was only “a small portion of the recipe, if any portion at all.”

Vuving argued that up until the oil rig crisis China pursued “salami-slicing” tactics through which Beijing pursued “a delicate balance between assertiveness and restraint so that [its] actions are enough to change facts on the ground but not enough to create a good reason for others to turn decisively against ” it.

In contrast to Abuza who asserted that Vietnam’s leaders capitulated to China and “the United States… did not get involved in a meaningful way,” Vuving concluded the opposite. According to Vuving, China’s bullying led to an unprecedented change in Vietnamese perceptions of Beijing and “together with the threat of a de facto alliance with the United States, they indicate a huge change in Hanoi’s approach to Beijing.”

Further, Vuving noted “the general trend… has added more impetus for several states, including Japan, the Philippines, Australia, India and Vietnam, to adjust their military postures and foreign-policy alignments to more effectively counter Chinese aggressiveness.”

Vuving argued in his conclusion that in the past, many states, including Vietnam and the United States, created a “glass ceiling” and “adopted a policy of restraint for fear of provoking the giant dragon.” China “adroitly exploited this fear with its salami-slicing tactic[s].” As a result of the oil rig crisis, the glass ceiling has been broken and China has been exposed as “not much different from other actors” in its fear of escalation. In other words China blinked.

Abuza’s account of Vietnamese decision-making may be challenged on the grounds of plausibility and factual accuracy.

First, there is no public record that the Vietnam Communist Party Central Committee met in June. As one Hanoi-based observer noted in a private communication, “there have been no whispers in Hanoi on such a meeting… it is also hard to hide something as big as a CC meeting.” A senior government official confirmed in late July that no meeting of the party Central Committee had been held since the ninth plenum (May 8-14).

Further, as one Hanoi-based diplomat noted in private to The Diplomat, “if in fact the June CC meeting ‘unanimously resolved to condemn Chinese aggression and encroachment’, why did the Party not issue any resolution on this after the meeting. Would this not have served a domestic purpose in assuring the public of the Party’s handling of the situation.”

Second, Abuza’s account of Councilor Yang’s June 18 visit to Hanoi too narrowly focuses on public posturing by Yang. Up until Yang’s visit China rebuffed approximately thirty Vietnamese approaches to open talks about the oil rig crisis, yet Yang attended the long-scheduled annual meeting of the Joint Steering Committee for Bilateral Cooperation. This is a significant indicator of China’s willingness to engage Vietnam.

A close reading of official statements by Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs indicates that when Yang met party Secretary General Trong there was a general agreement to “continue discussing ways to ease tensions and solve sea-related issues.” After Yang’s visit, the Chinese media portrayed the outcome in far more positive terms than the western media quoted by Abuza. As noted by Vuving, Yang’s visit set the stage for a tacit bargain to deescalate the crisis.

Third, Abuza does not provide sources for his assertion that the Politburo met after Yang’s visit and overturned a Central Committee resolution condemning China for aggression. The Central Committee is the highest party executive authority between national party congresses. As evidenced in domestic politics in 2013, the Central Committee has on several occasions overturned a decision by the Politburo.

It is known that the Politburo met on several occasions during the oil rig crisis both before and after Yang’s visit. In a visit to Vietnam in late July, the author was told by Vietnamese and diplomatic sources that the Politburo voted 9 to 5 “to approve a proposal to go ahead with international arbitration.”

Hanoi-based diplomats who follow these events closely suggest that the decisive Politburo meeting took place in early July. This was prior to China’s announcement that it was withdrawing HY SY 981.

It is impossible to know with certainty the breakdown of how individual members of the Politburo voted at the early July meeting. A canvass of informed Vietnamese and foreign observers in Hanoi suggests the following:

The majority reportedly comprised: Nguyen Tan Dung, Truong Tan Sang, Nguyen Sinh Hung, Le Thanh Hai, Le Hong Anh, Tong Thi Phong, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Nguyen Thien Nhan and likely Phung Quang Thanh.

The five-member minority reportedly included Nguyen Phu Trong, To Huy Rua, Pham Quang Nghi, Ngo Van Du and Dinh The Huynh.

Reports that two Politburo members abstained are incorrect. In early July two members of the Politburo were overseas and unable to attend the meeting. Public Security Minister Tran Dai Quang visited Germany from July 3-4, while National Assembly Deputy Chair Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan visited Argentina and Chile from June 30-July 5.

Fourth, Abuza errs in asserting that Foreign Minister Minh’s trip to the United States was cancelled and Politburo member Pham Quang Nghi was sent instead. Minh’s trip was postponed until September. Presently the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington and the State Department are in discussions on the timing of Minh’s visit.

Pham Quang Nghi’s visit reportedly was to burnish his foreign affairs expertise and to provide a sounding of the current state of relations with the United States in advance of Minh’s visit.

It appears unlikely that the Politburo shelved a decision to take legal action against China or Vietnam downplayed its insistence on a binding code of conduct in the South China Sea. On July 26 the University of Law in Ho Chi Minh convened a high-powered international conference on the “Legal issues regarding the incident of China’s placement of oil rig Haiyang Shiyou 981 in Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf.” Vietnamese participants noted privately that the recommendations of this conference would be forwarded to high-level leaders in advance of a meeting of the Central Committee scheduled for sometime in August.

Vietnam remains fully committed to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its support for a binding code of conduct (COC) in the South China Sea. Last year China executed an about face and agreed to meet with ASEAN officials to discuss a COC within the framework of discussions on implementing the Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. It is unlikely that Vietnam downplayed its support for the COC to curry favor with China. Both sides are committed to the diplomatic process. Whether or not Vietnam actually believes the COC will be negotiated is another matter. As a senior Vietnamese official told The Diplomat, “the journey is more important than the destination.”

The impending annual meetings of ASEAN Foreign Ministers, the ASEAN Regional Forum and associated meetings between ASEAN and its dialogue partners will all discuss the oil rig crisis and where to go from here. It is clear that China will come under intense diplomatic pressure to freeze its provocative behavior in the South China Sea.

The oil rig crisis has demonstrated that Vietnam is capable of standing up to China and showing resolve. Vietnam is unlikely to foreclose any options including taking legal action against China. It is in Vietnam’s interest to hold this option in reserve.

Vietnam’s cautious leaders are as unlikely to buckle under pressure from China as they are to lurch into an alignment with the United States. Vietnam and China have much diplomatic work to do to repair their damaged bilateral relations and restore strategic trust. Vietnam is also likely to deepen its comprehensive partnership with the United States.

There is more likely to be continuity in Vietnamese foreign policy than change. Vietnam will continue to apply the injunction of Central Committee Resolution No. 8 to struggle and cooperate with the major powers to further  its national interests and to pursue a multilateral approach in its external relations.

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