Manila’s sharp turn in regional policy under President Rodrigo Duterte heightened anticipation among observers that Vietnam would become Southeast Asia’s frontline state in territorial and maritime disputes with China. History has earned Vietnam the reputation of a fierce fighter, capable of standing up to major powers and winning asymmetric conflicts. Unlike the Philippines, Vietnam’s communist system and leadership continuity have given it a largely consistent strategy toward the South China Sea. Lack of change, however, also brings disadvantages. Vietnam’s strategy in the South China Sea is facing increased limitations in the wake of evolving security contexts.
Traditionally, Hanoi’s strategy in the South China Sea disputes has comprised four components:
- Internationalizing the disputes
- Addressing the disputes within a multilateral framework
- Developing a credible military deterrent to China
- Engaging directly with China
Internationalizing the Disputes
Vietnam’s purpose in internationalizing the disputes has been to raise the reputational costs for China when it abuses its power over Vietnam. In the past, Hanoi generally avoided publicizing the disputes, even after the maritime battle over Johnson Reef in the Spratlys in 1988. In fact, it is only in the past couple of years that the government allowed commemorations of the fallen soldiers in that confrontation. This strategy began to change in the 2000s, as Vietnam adopted a policy of internationalization and publicizing incidents at sea. At the same time, the South China Sea became more prominent due to a variety of factors, including increased Chinese assertiveness, the Philippines’ legal pursuit of arbitration, and heightened interest from the United States and other powers.
But even successful internationalization has its limits. It assumes reputational costs will be enough to deter China’s coercion. The pattern of Chinese behavior, however, shows that those costs have been insufficient. Internationalization’s limits were highlighted by the surprisingly underwhelming effect of the arbitral tribunal ruling in 2016. A legal victory for the Philippines, which launched the case against China’s claims, quickly turned into a diplomatic stalemate, not only for Manila but also the other interested parties in the South China Sea and the international community more broadly, as Beijing openly rejected the ruling. The shift in the Philippines’ policy under Duterte—who argued that the ruling was best left untouched—brought international and legal efforts to manage the disputes to a stand-still. Meanwhile, developments in the South China Sea have not stood still and China’s militarization of its outposts has continued unabated.
Despite the issue’s prominence, there seems to be a growing fatigue toward discussing the South China Sea in international forums. In recent years, discussions on the South China Sea in Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meetings have proven unproductive. At the regional level, leaders are weary of the topic. International attention, meanwhile, has been redirected to more imminent crises, such as North Korean nuclear issues, or the many unexpected developments that President Donald Trump supplies.
Some observers have argued that Vietnamese deterrence posture is becoming more formidable with the aim of inflicting sufficient damage in an open confrontation to cause psychological uncertainty in an adversary. However, despite its efforts and growing defense spending, the reality is that few countries in the world can compete with China, and Vietnam is not one of them. Apart from the sheer asymmetry of capability, the Vietnamese military has a number of limitations. It is just beginning to develop maritime capabilities, with particular focus on surveillance. Detailed analyses of Vietnamese air and sea power show that they are unlikely to be able to sustain an extended, large-scale or high-intensity conflict.
In 2014, Lyle Goldstein analyzed Vietnam’s defense acquisition and capability and concluded, “Vietnam’s most promising strategy versus China is the hope that it might have sufficient forces for deterrence, while simultaneously pursuing diplomacy to resolve disputes.” Goldstein captured it well: Vietnam is no match for China, but it hopes that a conciliatory approach will compensate for power asymmetry. But hope is not a strategy. And the Vietnamese, in their capitulation to recent cases of Chinese coercion, are increasingly proving that.
Engaging directly with Beijing and relying on Sino-Vietnamese fraternal solidarity has proven deceptively disappointing for Hanoi. In 2014, despite regular exchanges and dialogues at several levels, including Party-to-Party and between defense establishments, China took Vietnam by surprise when it sent the Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil rig into Hanoi’s claimed exclusive economic zone. Reports at the time said the emergency hotline designed for such eventualities went unanswered by Beijing.
Developments have exposed the limits of each component of Hanoi’s strategy toward the South China Sea. They expose Vietnam to consequential challenges on many levels, including to national sovereignty, the economy, and diplomatic reputation.
As Vietnam’s battles with China in 1974, 1979, and 1988 show, the disputes have resulted in infringements of territorial integrity. China’s rapid island-building projects and its militarization of those features, even after the arbitral tribunal ruling in 2016, mean that Beijing now has an even greater advantage. In early May 2018, China placed cruise missiles in the Spratlys, which the Vietnamese government publicly opposed. Again, Hanoi’s protests did not seem to have any effect. Similarly, China’s recent landing of nuclear-capable bombers in the Paracels shows that it has no intention of lowering the temperature in the South China Sea.
Vietnam’s economic prosperity is also at risk. In 2007, the Vietnamese government set out “Vietnam’s Maritime Strategy 2020.” It was a comprehensive strategy including economic, defense, and security objectives that included transforming Vietnam into a maritime economy. The plan was to increase the size of the maritime economy, including trade, fisheries, and oil and gas exploration, by more than half, to 60 percent of GDP by 2020. This plan is being systematically undermined by China. The recent cases of Chinese coercion resulting in Vietnam’s cessation of oil and gas exploration—twice involving cooperation with Spanish company Repsol—prove that this is a systematic trend which will have a detrimental effect on the Vietnamese economy.
Conceding to Beijing’s expansion is also likely to cause Vietnam reputational damage that might affect the credibility and extent of diplomatic support that it could gain from outside parties, including the United States. Vietnam’s decision to give in to recent Chinese pressure to halt oil and gas work, especially coming amid high-profile security cooperation with the United States that included a historic U.S. Navy aircraft carrier visit, suggest this is already happening. Considering these factors, Hanoi needs to update its defense strategy in the South China Sea, and quickly.