Vietnam’s top officials went on an unprecedented propaganda blitz this week.
In meetings and press conferences, Vietnam's top echelons simultaneously asserted the country's commitment to defend its sovereignty in the simmering East Sea, but analysts say Beijing is likely to balk at their resolve.
On Tuesday, Communist Party Chief Nguyen Phu Trong told a meeting of his constituents in Hanoi (Trong is also an elected lawmaker) that Vietnam doesn't want to wage war but the country must “brace for all possible scenarios” to defend its sovereignty over the Paracel (Hoang Sa) Islands, which China illegally took by force in 1974.
Trong once again lambasted China’s deployment of a giant US$1-billion oil rig into Vietnam’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone and continental shelf on May 2.
Communist Party Chief Nguyen Phu Trong told a meeting of his constituents in Hanoi July 1 that Vietnam doesn't want to wage war but the country must “brace for all possible scenarios” to defend its sovereignty over the Paracel (Hoang Sa) Islands. Photo: Thai Son
The rig remains roughly 30 kilometers from the Paracels, which sit inside what the rest of the world calls the South China Sea and China has continued to bulk up the fleet protecting it from Vietnamese police boats.
During an online interaction with the maritime police force currently confronting an armada of Chinese coast guard and military vessels around the rig (also on Tuesday), President Truong Tan Sang said Vietnam would not “kowtow” to its giant northern neighbor under any circumstances.
Later that day, Nguyen Van Nen, Minister and Chairman of the Government Office, said Vietnam would continue to consider legal action against China — citing previous comments made by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung.
'All necessary measures'
Vietnam has used strong words to condemn China’s maritime attacks and collisions with Vietnam's Fisheries Surveillance and Coast Guard ships. However, Tuesday represented the first time the country’s top leaders made such comments publicly on a same day.
The leaders included the term “all necessary measures” to describe Vietnam's options for expelling the Chinese.
It is not difficult to project how China will react, analysts say.
“When you talk about ‘all necessary measures’, people's first reaction is military measures. Given China's stronger naval forces, I don't think China would see Vietnamese military actions as a major threat,” Yun Sun, a China security policy expert with the Washington-based think tank Stimson Center, told Thanh Nien News.
“On legal measures, China will not accept the ruling by [an international tribunal] so Vietnamese legal action would be more a statement rather than changing anything on the ground,” she said.
In March, the Philippines submitted a case to an arbitration tribunal in The Hague, challenging China's claims in the East Sea. Vietnam is mulling whether it should join the Philippines or lodge a separate lawsuit.
“Vietnam might want to consider if it is fully confident that [tribunal] will completely support its claim. If it doesn't, it will be complicated,” Sun said.
The future will likely see a rising rash of run-ins between China and other claimants leading to tense and soured relations in the region. This will provide an ‘opportunity’ for the US to politically isolate China - - if it is so inclined. -- Mark Valencia, a Hawaii-based analyst
The devil in the details
Beijing routinely outlines the scope of its claims by referring to maps featuring a nine-dashed line--a demarcation that takes in about 90 percent of the 3.5 million square kilometer East Sea.
Chinese maps featuring the line have been emphatically rejected by international geographers. Moreover, the maps fly in the face of four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, which also have competing claims with China in the Spratly Islands.
In recent weeks, China dispatched three more oil rigs across the East Sea, while ramping up a number of land reclamation projects at a number of small islands in the Spratlys. In late June, Beijing unveiled a new official map portraying contested parts of the East Sea as integral parts of China’s territorial limits.
A slew of squabbles between China and ASEAN claimants in the disputed East Sea have prompted protracted negotiations on a formal code of conduct. In 2002 the parties involved issued the political declaration of conduct (DOC) and China finally agreed to guidelines for its implementation.
But analysts said both the DOC and its guidelines are weak and nonbinding and argue that fundamental and particular obstacles make it unlikely that ASEAN and China will agree on a robust, binding code of conduct.
Even agreement on a milquetoast version will be difficult, they say.
“Beijing will likely seek to maximize the extent to which it can demonstrate ‘effective control’ in other critical locations within the East Sea before it finally ratifies the terms of the code of conduct”, said Christopher Roberts, a maritime expert at the Australian Defense Force Academy.
Late last month, in Bali (Indonesia), the China-ASEAN Joint Working Group on the implementation of the DOC held its 11th meeting but “there was little progress,” said Mark Valencia, a Hawaii-based analyst.
“The gratuitous advice and warnings to China from the US and its allies Australia and Japan are particularly galling to it and certainly do not help advance negotiations on the code. In fact they may be having the opposite effect as China views this ‘outside interference” as a means to constrain its growing power and influence,” Valencia said.
Since the spat over the first oil rig row broke out, the US and its allies have been vocal in condemning China’s behavior at sea. But analysts have said US rhetoric about its strategic "pivot" towards the Asia-Pacific will not help defuse the tensions. On the contrary, it could aggravate the situation as Beijing sees America's desire to contain its growth in everything it says.
Given the status quo, analysts say the prospect of a code of conduct -- particularly a robust, binding one -- is rather dim.
“The future will likely see a rising rash of run-ins between China and other claimants leading to tense and soured relations in the region. This will provide an ‘opportunity’ for the US to politically isolate China -- if it is so inclined,” Valencia said.
“Clearly the devil lurks in the details.”
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