General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong was unanimously reelected during the 12th National Congress of Vietnam’s Communist Party, held January 21-28. Trong, who is less strident than other Vietnamese leaders in his criticism of Beijing’s behavior in the South China Sea, has been seen as leading the party’s more conservative, pro-Chinese faction. But many in Hanoi believe that Trong’s attitude toward Washington has evolved positively since his “truly historic” Oval Office meeting with President Barack Obama in July 2015. That meeting took place a year after the months-long standoff over China’s deployment of the Haiyang Shiyou 981 (HY-981) deep-water oil rig, called Hai Duong 981 in Vietnamese, in disputed waters near the Paracel Islands.

As Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh said at the National Congress, Vietnam will try to maintain a multipolar balance in its overall relations with the major powers, including China, the United States, Japan, India, Russia, and the European Union. Within this context, it is safe to say that Vietnam’s South China Sea policy will remain consistent in the next few years, especially with regards to several key positions.

First, Vietnam will continue to assert its “indisputable sovereignty” over the Paracel (Hoang Sa) and Spratly (Truong Sa) archipelagos, and its legal rights and interests in maritime zones established in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Official sources have continuously reiterated this position on the Paracels and Spratlys, maintaining that Vietnam has sufficient historical evidence and the legal foundation to proclaim its sovereignty over the two archipelagoes. Vietnam’s National Assembly in June 2012 promulgated the Law of the Sea of Vietnam, which cemented in domestic law the inclusion of the islands within the territory of Vietnam. As such, Vietnam has consistently rejected the legitimacy of China’s claim over the islands and their adjacent waters, as well as China’s claim of unspecified historic rights to the waters, seabed, and subsoil within the nine-dash line.

Second, Vietnam will continue to support full compliance with and implementation of all provisions and procedures of UNCLOS, including the settlement of disputes concerning the interpretation and application of the treaty by peaceful means. This policy can be seen in Vietnam’s reaction to the award on jurisdiction and admissibility that the tribunal hearing the Philippines’ arbitration case against China issued on October 31, 2015. Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Le Hai Binh emphasized that “Vietnam wishes the Tribunal will interpret and apply relevant provisions of the Convention in this case with a view to making an impartial and objective decision.”

Two weeks earlier, Vietnam’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations told the Sixth Committee of the General Assembly (dealing with “The rule of law at the national and international levels”),

[Vietnam is] deeply concerned about territorial and sovereignty disputes, especially unilateral attempts to change the rule, alter status quo in disputed areas in the South China Sea in defiance of international law, posing threats to peace, security and stability in the region. Vietnam calls upon all parties concerned to refrain from the threat or use of force and settle all disputes by peaceful means in accordance with international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. We emphasize the importance of full and effective implementation of the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, as well as early conclusion of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.

Third, Vietnam’s mild response to the USS Curtis Wilbur’s January 30 freedom of navigation operation within the 12-nautical-mile territorial sea of Triton Island in the Paracels, despite Hanoi’s official policy of requiring prior notification of transit within its territorial waters, indicated that Vietnam views such operations positively.

Following the operation, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Binh said “Once again, we reaffirm the indisputable sovereignty of Vietnam over the Hoang Sa as well as the Truong Sa Archipelagos. As a State Party to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) 1982, Vietnam respects the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea conducted in accordance with relevant rules of international law, in particular the UNCLOS (Article 17). We request all countries to make positive and practical contribution to maintaining peace and stability in the East Sea [South China Sea] and to respect international law.”

Last but not least, when it comes to the ongoing arbitration case initiated by the Philippines against China, it is possible that some of the decisions made by the tribunal will have a direct impact on Vietnam’s claims in the South China Sea. In order to protect its legal rights and interests in the sea, Vietnam has expressed its position to the tribunal regarding the case, requested the judges pay due attention to the legal rights and interests of Vietnam, and effectively reserved the right to intervene in the case should the need arise. However, it should be noted that the outcome of the arbitration may put pressure on the Vietnamese government to reconsider some of its policies on the South China Sea in order to preserve its national interests and sovereignty while still honoring its expressed support for international law.

About Do Viet Cuong

Do Viet Cuong is a PhD researcher in International Law at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID), and University of Geneva, Switzerland, where he focuses on the law of the sea, environmental law, energy law, and the South China Sea. He is also a research associate at the Center for International Studies (SCIS) at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.