Photo by Matt Champlin.
Asia-Pacific / South China Sea

South China Sea Series: Vietnam

One of the most important regions of the world, the South China Sea is a site of conflict between six competing nations: China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei. Recent years witnessed a steady increase in tension, as China began its expansionist agenda, building military bases in many of the disputed islands. Numerous policy and regime changes among the other claimants have created an even more volatile political climate. An understanding of the SCS dispute can be made, however, through examination of the history of the nations involved, and the process through which their current identity is shaped.

Map of claims to the South China Sea – Public domain

First on our list is Vietnam, one of the more active claimants to their SCS territories. According to Vietnam, historical evidence grants them the rights to a section comprised of both the Spratly and Paracel Islands, the two large archipelagos in the middle of the SCS. Despite recent toning down of actions, the nation has always been most forthright in asserting this claim. It backed the Philippines’ case against China in the international tribunal, building a network of alliances and agreements, as well as reinforcing its remaining bases on the Spratly Islands, stopping just short of physically confronting China.

Understanding Vietnam’s strategy in the SCS goes beyond assumption of wealth and resources and requires analysis into the nation’s history. Vietnam traces its roots back to 2879 B.C., the advent of the mythical Hồng Bàng Dynasty, making it one of the oldest civilizations on Earth. After nearly 3000 years of independence, the nation was conquered and annexed into the powerful Han Dynasty, after which the Vietnamese staged numerous rebellions. Finally regaining independence in 938 A.D, the South East Asian nation underwent successive dynasties and fought more wars against foreign invaders, most notably repelling the Mongolian Empire at the height of its power three times.

Battle of Bạch Đằng (938). Licensed by Nguoichau (Wikimedia Commons) under the CC-BY-SA 4.0 license.

As a result of this arduous history, the Vietnamese are a nationalistic people, taking great pride in their nation’s fighting history. Vietnam has characterized itself as a small nation determined to maintain its independence and unity in the face of foreign aggression. This identity is most evident in the nation’s fierce resistance against French colonialism in the 19th to 20th centuries, in addition to the unpopularity of the American involvement during the civil war in the 1960s and 1970s. Ho Chi Minh, founder of the Communist Party, remains universally popular in Vietnam not for his communist doctrines, but mainly for his role as the catalyst in fighting colonial powers and creating the modern-day Vietnam nation.

When applied to the SCS situation, the identity above serves to explain Vietnam’s motive and actions during the conflict. Challenging the claim of a military power like China may seem like a illogical idea, yet it fits in with Vietnam’s important emphasis on its territorial integrity. Both the Spratlys and Paracel, series of barren rocks, are considered by the Vietnamese people as integral parts of their nation. Resource-filled or not, the islands carry a symbolic meaning to the populace, a viewpoint perpetuated by the government through the state media.

It is near ubiquitous for nations to vie for strength in terms of territory control. What is notable in the case of Vietnam, however, is a special emphasis on its historical claim, true to its proud identity above. The brief argument goes like this: Vietnam has had uncontested control of both the Spratlys and Paracel for three centuries, thus earning it the right to the territories. According to Vietnam, during the 18th century, the Nguyễn lords sent expeditions to the Spratlys, stating an uncontested stake to the archipelago. The Paracels were claimed a century prior, as shown in the 17th century Hồng Đức Atlas written by the historian Đỗ Bá. Vietnamese fishermen frequently visited the islands afterwards, and both the Spratlys and Paracels were eventually included as national territories in the 19th-century Complete Maps of Vietnam and Annals of Vietnam. Vietnam also states that their claim was recognized by the Western world from early on, displaying 17th century Dutch and Portuguese maps that dictate Vietnamese control over the Paracels. During the French colonial period, the Gouverneur-général de l’Indochine française ordered new maps of Indochina drawn, in which the two archipelagos are listed as Vietnamese provinces.

French Map of the South China Sea – Source: Tiengnoitudo

In the current debate, Vietnam has been quick to bring up this evidence, frequently citing maps and documents from the past centuries. These claims, while unrecognized by China, have been deemed relatively credible by multiple sources, including 3rd-party international historians, researchers, and cartographers. While not serving the same practical purpose as the naval power of China, the evidence helps to boost Vietnam’s soft power standing in the conflict. The country has easily taken advantage of this to vie for international support, portraying itself as a righteous nation defending its true historical territory. Thus, the historical argument fits into Vietnam’s identity.

It may be safe to assume Vietnam’s assertive stance would transpire in general aggression in action. However, most of its criticism thus far has been directed towards China. During the tensest stage of the SCS conflict, the Vietnamese state media focused on China’s actions. Harassment of Vietnamese fisherman by their Chinese counterparts was described in detail, and the whole country was riled up by reports of PLA naval boats disabling Vietnamese underwater cable lines. Nationalist, anti-China protests soon ensued across the nation, with many calling for boycott of Chinese goods and even damaging of Sino businesses. This animosity seems strange at first, for the two nations share the many similar cultural similarities, both part of the East Asia Cultural Sphere, due to their long interactions and proximity with one another. And there is also the distinction of being two of the few self-branded communist nations of today’s world, with the PRC having assisted the Vietnamese communist government multiple times during its founding and during two major conflicts against France and the US.

Despite these shared characteristics, Vietnam and China have had a long and complex history together. In fact, they are regarded as two very different nations, having had some of their most challenging conflicts against one another. From 257 BC to present day, Sino and Vietnamese dynasties and governments have waged an estimated total of 20 to 21 major direct wars against one another, in addition to numerous minor border conflicts and proxy wars. Of the wars, ten to 11 were caused by Chinese invasion of a Vietnamese nation, eight to nine were rebellions of Vietnamese against Chinese rule-occupation, and one was initiated by a Vietnamese invasion of China. The latest war took place only 40 years ago, as Chinese forces attempted to invade the northern provinces of Vietnam in retaliation for Vietnamese intervention against Pol Pot’s genocidal regime in Cambodia. There were, of course, cooperative periods between the two nations. For a considerable portion of Vietnamese dynastic history, it remained a tributary state, under the Chinese umbrella. Additionally, during French colonial times, many Tonkin rebels received help from the Qing Dynasty and other Chinese groups. Nevertheless, the Southeast Asian nation finds its history overshadowed by the large northern neighbor, and the sheer number of conflicts has ensured a mutual distrust between the two. Vietnam has consequently developed a near inferiority complex, constantly remaining on guard for China’s supposedly habitual imperialistic tendencies. Yet this mindset also puts Vietnamese government officially at a quandary, not wanting to gravely upset the neighboring giant, which is one of the most militarily powerful nations as well as Vietnam’s second biggest trade partner.

The ambivalence and wariness of Vietnam towards China is best displayed in the 20th-century prelude to the 21st-century SCS conflict. During the Vietnamese civil war, the Republic of Vietnam established de facto control of the Paracel Islands, one recognized by countries around the world, including the United States. The PRC vehemently opposed this viewpoint, and frequently sent fishermen and patrol boats around the area. Tension boiled over in January 19, 1974, as the South Vietnamese navy attempted to expel Chinese war ships, only to get beaten back, losing the archipelago in the process. The Battle of the Paracel Islands, as it was later named, served to confirm China’s hostile intention in the SCS dispute to most Vietnamese nowadays. Compromise is not an option for the populace, who constantly draws analogy between China’s current expansionism to the 1974 takeover of the Paracels, as well as to the 1979 border war and past Chinese invasions of Vietnam.

Map of Battle of the Paracel Islands (public domain)

The complexity of the situation is better shown, however, in the former Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s stance towards the issue. China’s argument against Vietnam lies in one single telegram, sent by then-North Vietnam PM Phạm Văn Đồng to then-PRC Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai, acknowledging China’s recent claim to a 12-nautical territorial water, a claim that conveniently included the Paracel and Spratly Islands. Vietnam has repeatedly renounced the Chinese argument, stating how Đồng’s message “did not included any mention of the two archipelagos” and how South Vietnam at the time held much of the islands, rendering the Chinese claim null. It is worth noting, however, that the 1958 telegram was sent after the conflict in Vietnam initiated. Finding itself fighting against an America-backed RVN, the DRVN had to rely on its Communist allies. And with China being North Vietnam’s second biggest patron, the latter found few options but to offer a tentative acknowledgement of China’s claim, leaving just enough room to leverage future arguments. After the civil war, Vietnam openly renewed its SCS claim, and, in the recent conflict, portrayed the South Vietnamese soldiers in the Battle of the Paracel Islands as national heroes.

As a small regional power, Vietnam frequently employs the common strategy of most nations of limited means: coalition building, as a means of containing China’s influence. In handling the current SCS dispute, Vietnam at first banked on the strength of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). The country was more than happy to free-ride on the Philippines’ efforts, offering legal and propaganda support. Nevertheless, the recent changing landscape, with the Philippines tilting increasingly towards China under Duterte, coupled with China’s building of military infrastructures on disputed islands, has forced Vietnam into more assertive actions. ASEAN was no longer a viable option to fall back on, as the nations, all economically dependent on China, differ greatly in their response to Chinese SCS aggression, aggravating the existing differences in the organization.

As a result of this change, Vietnam decided to broaden its network, taking to more powerful nations with a vested interest in containing China. A key player being courted by Vietnam is the United States, the same country that was at war with Vietnam roughly 40 years ago, who is now looking for a new foothold in the SCS after parting ways with the Duterte-led Philippines. Relations between the two have especially soared since 2016, with historic visits and dialogues from leaders and defense ministers in both countries. This is perhaps best displayed in the 2017 APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) Summit, hosted in Đà Nẵng, Vietnam, in which US President Donald Trump received a warm welcome by his Vietnamese counterpart Trần Đại Quang. The two released a joint statement at the end, concluding a natural gas trade deal and reaffirming the importance of freedom of navigation in accordance with international law. Vietnam is set to host a US aircraft carrier in Cam Ranh Bay, an important milestone signaling a new level of comfort between Hanoi and Washington. Should situations in the SCS turn sour, America would likely strike an arms deal with its former adversary, with the previous embargo having been lifted in 2016 by President Obama.

US President Donald Trump (right) with Vietnamese President Trần Đại Quang (left) at APEC Vietnam 2017(public domain)

Another key player for Vietnam to engage with in developing its new network is Japan. The East Asian nation is one of Vietnam’s closest allies, as well as its biggest donor and economic partner. Now, the two nations, both facing increased Chinese aggression at sea, have found new opportunities to expand their cooperation. Vietnam has received military assistance from Japan in multiple forms, most notably a 2015 shipment of new coast guard ships. More recently, the Defense Ministers from the two countries met in October of 2017 for an inaugural defense industry forum, discussing possibilities of exchanging military equipment and conducting future drills.

The third country in Vietnam’s new triangular cooperative system is India, yet another long-time rival of China. Vietnam has long enjoyed strong bilateral relations with India, being granted the status of “Most Favored Nation” in 1975. In lieu of the SCS crisis, India regards Vietnam as its strategic ally in the region and has provided the country with a 500 million dollar credit line for military equipment, as well as a number of patrol boats. Currently, all eyes are focused on Vietnamese President Trần Đại Quang’s trip to India, with the goals of expanding maritime defense and security cooperation. Additionally, India has already set up a satellite imagery center in South Vietnam, with the supposed goal of monitoring Chinese activities in the SCS.

It is safe to say that Vietnam has managed to make the best out of a bad situation. Recovering from the fallout of ASEAN, the country has endeared itself to a new network of powerful nations, all with the aim of containing China in the SCS. So long as Vietnam can continue to portray itself as an integral partner in maintaining stability in the region, it can bank on the support of the US, Japan, and India. Nevertheless, history has taught Vietnam to practice caution in dealing with China. At present it seems that the Southeast Asian nation has been able to do just that, concluding APEC 2017 with a joint statement with its northern neighbor reaffirming their “consensus” and “friendship.” Expect Vietnam to continue treading a thin line in the SCS dispute, curbing Chinese military expansion through foreign military ties while being careful not to aggravate the growing power into conflict.