Vietnam and the Philippines: Allies Against Leviathan

 The area disputed by the Philippines, Vietnam and China (Source: Google Maps)

HANOI – “They were really unprepared for that and were really embarrassed by it,” one of Vietnam’s top experts on Chinese diplomacy told me during my recent visit to Hanoi, referring to the Philippines’ bringing its case against China’s aggressive illegal actions in the West Philippine Sea to the United Nations Arbitral Tribunal.

This confirmed my assessment that the Aquino government’s action was a master move.  It put China on the defensive, said another Vietnamese analyst, and was one of the factors that prompted Beijing last year to agree to begin discussions with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on a Code of Conduct for the “East Sea,” the Vietnamese designation for the West Philippine Sea.

The downside of this for the Philippines was that its legal move made it the “number one target” of Beijing, replacing Vietnam. “They’re now isolating you, while relations between Vietnam and China are getting back to normal.” Despite the leaders of both countries exchanging visits, however, “we still feel the chill,” said a top China expert at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam. “In terms of China’s least favored countries in ASEAN, we’re number nine for the moment and you’re number 10.  In the long run, however, Vietnam is Beijing’s main strategic problem.”

Invited to Hanoi to give a series of lectures on foreign policy and economic issues by Madame Nguyen Thi Binh, the legendary head of the Provisional Revolutionary  Government’s (PRG) of South Vietnam’s delegation to the Paris talks that ended the Vietnam War, I took advantage of the opportunity to elicit Vietnamese views on the territorial disputes in the Philippine Sea.

Figuring out Beijing’s Motives

The Vietnamese are very well positioned to analyze the Chinese. Not only have they fought the Chinese off and on for over a thousand years, they also have remarkably similar ways of interpreting political developments. This is due to the fact that communist parties rule both countries, and these parties filter realities through a Leninist analytical paradigm that is the common ideological heritage of Marxist-Leninist parties. It is a shared method of analysis that is, however, hitched to different, indeed, conflicting national interests.

How do the Vietnamese interpret China’s “Nine-Dash Line” map that claims virtually the whole of the South China Sea as Chinese territory?  There are, interestingly, several schools of thought.  The first sees the Nine-Dash Line as delineating the maritime borders of China and not necessarily possession of the islands in the area. The second interprets it as saying only that the islands and other terrestrial formations in the area belong to China, leaving the status of the surrounding waters ambiguous. A third opinion is that the map asserts that both the islands and surrounding waters belong to China.

In terms of China’s least favored countries in ASEAN, we’re number nine for the moment and you’re number 10.

There is a fourth perspective, and though it is held by only a handful of experts, it is intriguing. This view holds that the Nine-Dash Line is an aggressive negotiating device.  

According to a diplomat and academic expert who has had first-hand experience with Chinese negotiating behavior, their style of resolving territorial issues has the following steps.  “First, the two parties agree on the principles guiding negotiations.  Second, both sides draw up their maps of reflecting their respective territorial claims, with China pushing its territorial claims as far as possible. Third, they compare the maps as to overlapping or disputed and undisputed areas.  Fourth, the parties negotiate to resolve the disputed areas.  Fifth, if there is agreement, draw up a new map. Finally, go to the United Nations to legalize the new map.”

Despite varying views on China’s intentions, however, the Vietnamese are one on two key points: 1) that Nine-Dash Line claim is illegal, and 2) that owing to the number of parties involved in the South China Sea dispute, with overlapping claims, only multilateral negotiations can set the basis for a lasting comprehensive solution.

Also, whatever may be their different readings of China’s motives for advancing its Nine-Dash Line claims, there seems to be a consensus among Vietnamese officials and experts that China’s strategic aim is to eventually assert its full control of the South China Sea. In other words, Beijing’s aim is to legally transform the area into a domestic waterway governed by Chinese domestic laws. Some of Beijing’s acts are explicit, such as the establishment of Sansha City as a domestic governing unit for the whole South China Sea and the recent passage of a fisheries law requiring non-Chinese vessels fishing in the area to obtain a license from the Chinese government. Some are ambiguous, such as Beijing’s views on the issue of freedom of navigation in the disputed area, and the reason for this is because ambiguity serves their purpose at a time that they do not yet have the capability to match their power to their ambition.  

“But there is no doubt that when they reach that point, of having the power to impose their ambition,” said one Vietnamese analyst, “they will subject the area to Chinese domestic law.”

Vietnam on the Philippines’ Legal Case against Beijing

As to the Philippines’ initiation of arbitral proceedings against China under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas, the Vietnamese government is said to be in full support of it at an informal level, but cannot “fully publicly support it,” according to one academic. What this meant was captured in the carefully crafted response to a reporter’s question about Vietnam’s position on the Philippine move by Nguyễn Duy Chiến, Deputy-Director of the National Border Committee under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: “It is Vietnam’s consistent position that all issues related to the East Sea should be solved by peaceful means, on the basis of international law, especially the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.”  

He continued, “In Vietnam’s opinion, all nations have the full right to choose peaceful means to solve disputes in conformity with the United Nations Charter and international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.”

During his visit to Washington, DC, in July last year, President Truong Tan Sang attacked the Chinese Nine-Dash Line claim as being “legally groundless.” He remained silent, however, on whether Vietnam would join the Philippines’ in filing a case at the UN against China, though he was quick to add that as a member of the UN, the Philippines “has all legal rights to carry on with any proceedings they would like.”

Part of the reason for the lack of more explicit support appears to be that a judgment on the case would clarify not only the Philippines and China’s claims but also Vietnam’s, and some implications of this might not be positive for Hanoi. But uppermost is a desire not to enrage China at a time that high-level exchanges are returning relations between the two countries to “normal” or something close to it.

Suranuch Thongsila Bello, Madame Nguyen Thi Binh and Walden Bello (Photo courtesy of Walden Bello)

Suranuch Thongsila Bello, Madame Nguyen Thi Binh and Walden Bello (Photo courtesy of Walden Bello)

Despite their hesitations in giving the Philippines’ legal case their full public endorsement, the decision of the Philippines to bring it to an international court is eliciting widespread admiration in official circles, with one retired ambassador calling it “heroic.”  

A key reason for the popularity of the move is obviously that it blindsided Beijing and upset China’s careful calculations. According to one expert on Chinese diplomacy, “the reason they’re upset is because they already have five battlefields—the political, diplomatic, mass media, security, military—and now you’ve added a sixth: the legal battlefield.”  

He continued, “The Chinese have a saying, ‘when the flag is in your hands, don’t yield it to others.’” Beijing, in other words, feels very much at sea on the legal front, where experts in international law will be calling the shots.

The U.S.: From Enemy to Ally

On the question of the United States’ increased military presence in the region, the Vietnamese welcome this to “balance” China. Once an enemy, Hanoi now has good security relations with the United States, whose Navy they have invited to use the former Soviet naval base at Cam Ranh Bay for its logistical and ship repair needs.

For the same reason, they approve of the US military build-up in the Philippines.  Their position on this matter has not changed since I met with foreign ministry officials during a visit to Hanoi in 2011, where I was told that being a long-time ally of the United States, it was the role of the Philippines to ask the United States to increase its military presence in the Western Pacific.  Hanoi’s thinking is classic Leninist balance-of-power logic:  China is the ascendant force, the US is a power in decline, so the weaker parties, including the Philippines, Vietnam, ASEAN, and Japan, must band together with the US to contain the rising imperial power.

Flaws in the Balance-of-Power Approach

In my various talks over three days, I articulated my disagreement with this logic on the following grounds:

  • the United States cannot be counted on to support the Philippines and Vietnam’s territorial claims;
  • inviting the United States to have a larger military presence is counterproductive if the aim is to resolve our territorial disputes with China since a larger US presence would transform the regional context into a superpower conflict, thus marginalizing the territorial question and its resolution;
  • the United States cannot be assumed to be motivated simply by balance of power considerations, but will advance its own strategic and economic interests as a quid pro quo for requests for assistance;
  • an even bigger military footprint of the US in the Philippines would convert our country into a frontline state like Afghanistan and Pakistan, with all the terrible consequences of such a status, including the subordination of our economic development to the strategic military priorities of a superpower;
  • it is too early to tell if the US decline is temporary or irreversible, and in this regard it is instructive to remember that the US snapped back strongly in the 1990’s, after many experts regarded as inevitable its being replaced by Japan as No. 1;
  • similarly, it is not a foregone conclusion that China will displace the United States, especially since its model of export-led development is in crisis and it is not at all sure it can make the transition to a domestic market-led growth path without massive internal upheaval; and finally,
  • a balance of power situation is unstable and prone to generate conflict, since although no one may want a war, the dynamics of conflict may run out of everyone’s control and lead to war.

On the last point, I asserted, “China’s aggressive territorial claims, the US’s ‘Pivot to Asia,’ and Japan’s opportunistic moves add up to a volatile brew. Many observers note that the Asia Pacific military-political situation is becoming like that of Europe at the end of the 19th century, with the emergence of a similar fluid configuration of balance of power politics. None of the key players in East Asia today may want war. But neither did any of the Great Powers on the eve of the First World War.  The problem is that in a situation of fierce rivalry among powers that hate one another, an incident may trigger an uncontrollable chain of events that may result in a regional war, or worse.”

Cam Ranh Bay instead of Subic Bay?

My Vietnamese audiences listened politely but were unconvinced. But they were game enough to laugh when I said, “Well, since you have offered them Cam Ranh Bay, the Americans may no longer have any need for Subic Bay.”

To conclude, I may have differences with the Vietnamese—and the Aquino administration, for that matter—on the role of the United States, but I think Vietnam is our most important ally in our territorial dispute with China in the West Philippine Sea.  

We need to continue deepening our bilateral ties with them and coordinate closely with them in ASEAN and other multilateral fora.  We should also deepen our bilateral security coordination, with the aim of laying the foundations for an ASEAN security force for the South China Sea. Finally, if we can get the Socialist Republic of Vietnam to formally join the Republic of the Philippines in its legal case against China at the United Nations, that would be a decisive move that would not only further weaken China’s already weak legal position; it would also be a significant psychological blow to Leviathan.


This article previously ran in

Walden Bello

Walden Bello

Walden Bello is a representative of Akbayan (Citizens’ Action Party) in the House of Representatives. He was the author of the House Resolution renaming the South China Sea the West Philippine Sea.