Vietnam, Destination for Beaches Holidays. Danang. Hai Sontra
Vietnam, Destination for Beaches Holidays. Danang. Hai Sontra
Daivid Brown
Daivid Brown

China, Vietnam drift in South China Sea
By David Brown
Asia Times Online

In the wake of a major maritime ruckus last spring, hopes of a deal between China and Vietnam are rising in the South China Sea.

Chinese patrol boats provoked incidents last May and June that rattled foreign ministries throughout Southeast Asia and as far away as New Delhi, Canberra, Tokyo and Washington. The provocations indicated to some that hardline peripheral elements were dictating Beijing’s policy on the contested waters.

Egged on by highly slanted accounts of Philippine and Vietnamese infringement of Beijing’s supposedly indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea, Chinese public opinion seemed eager to “teach a lesson” to both perceived as insubordinate neighbors.

Over the summer, a flurry of diplomatic activity by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) drew forth renewed promises by China that it would seek peaceful resolution of overlapping claims of maritime sovereignty.

A collective sigh of relief greeted Beijing’s agreement to new “Guidelines for the Implementation of the Declaration on Conduct” in the South China Sea. Most countries in the region evidently see little prospect of actually settling the long-simmering dispute; they just hope to avoid a shoot-out.

Cynics have speculated that having demonstrated its readiness to disrupt oil and gas exploration activities just off the coasts of Vietnam and the Philippines, China was reverting to the benign phase of a “talk and take” strategy only for the duration of the South China Sea typhoon season.

These territorial disputes aren’t just a squabble over remote and insignificant reefs and cays: The contested spots of land lie athwart the world’s busiest sea lanes, a significant fishery and, it’s generally believed, big untapped pools of oil and gas.

If not checked, China’s insistent promotion of a flimsy historical claim to “immutable sovereignty” over waters stretching as far south as Singapore has looked likely to lead to deadly clashes – not just with the likes of rival claimants Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia or Vietnam but also with the American navy.

At a recent conference in Hanoi, the invited American expert pointed to Washington’s sharply increased attention to developments in the South China Sea. China has bumbled, he said, and the US “can only benefit from upholding the principles of freedom of navigation and the peaceful settlement of disputes … providing ample reason for Southeast Asian countries to improve bilateral relations with the US”.

If ASEAN’s diplomacy is feckless and the US and regional allies are being drawn into the region’s quarrels, where then is the ray of hope? It comes from recent indications that Vietnam and China may be working out a bilateral deal, or at least towards a modus vivendi.

Eight months after trading threats, China and Vietnam are now huddled in negotiations over the northern section of the South China Sea, an expanse that no other nations claim. It’s a high stakes game for both countries’ Communist leaders.

At issue is sovereignty over the Paracel Islands and adjacent waters. The Paracels consist of islets, sandbanks and reefs to the south of China’s Hainan Island and east of Vietnam’s south-central coast. Fishermen from littoral countries have frequented the archipelago for many centuries, activity that forms the basis of historic claims to sovereignty by both Vietnam and China.

According to international law, Vietnam’s historic claim is stronger inasmuch as imperial Vietnam, then France (which colonized Vietnam in the 1800’s), and then the Republic of Vietnam (“South Vietnam”) exercised sovereignty without a break from the 16th century until 1974, when a South Vietnamese garrison was overrun by Chinese forces.

Since then, though Hanoi has clung to its claim, China has extended the islets’ fortifications and built port facilities and airstrips. Vietnamese boats have been harassed and sometimes held for ransom when they attempted to fish in nearby waters.

It is thus surprising that Beijing, secure in its de facto possession of the Paracels and with considerably more powerful air and naval forces, agreed in mid-October “to speed up the demarcation of territorial waters off the Tonkin Gulf and … actively discuss cooperation for the mutual development of these waters”.

Even more surprising is that (while ‘historical evidence’ would be considered), “based on a legal regime and principles defined by international law, including the UN Convention on Law of the Sea” (UNCLOS), Vietnam and China would “make efforts to seek basic and long term-solutions acceptable to both sides for sea-related disputes.”

Pending definitive agreement on a territorial settlement, both sides would “actively discuss co-operation for mutual development”. Taken at face value, this would seem to indicate that China has backed away from its claim of “immutable jurisdiction” over the entire area within its notorious nine-dash U-shaped line, a claim that takes in more than 80% of the South China Sea.

Legal experts say that the Paracels aren’t substantial enough to generate much of an “exclusive economic zone”, no matter who controls them. Thus a division of the bilaterally contested area according to UNCLOS rules would be roughly along the midline between China’s Hainan Island and Vietnam’s central coast. It would divide the sea area in roughly equal portions.

If China is seriously interested in cutting a bilateral deal, it might also concede to Vietnam’s control of reefs and islets at the western end of the Paracel archipelago, the section to the west of the midline.


Bilateral preference

Would China actually agree to such a demarcation? There are at least four good reasons why it might.

First, there’s a precedent. In 2000, after seven years of haggling, China and Vietnam managed to agree on demarcation of their sea border in the Tonkin Gulf – the finger of the South China Sea that lies between Vietnam’s northern provinces and Hainan’s west coast. In addition, they instituted joint patrols and resources (fisheries) management. As a consequence, a tenth dash was erased from the “U-shaped line map” that China uses to illustrate its claim to the southern waters.

Second, China has insisted that territorial claims must be addressed bilaterally. In other words, it says it will not negotiate the overlapping claims in the southern part of the South China Sea with all or a collective subset of ASEAN countries. Cutting a fair deal bilaterally with Vietnam in a part of the sea where only two countries’ claims are at stake would enhance Beijing’s credibility considerably.

Third, sustaining a civil relationship with Vietnam’s leaders is important to China. The regime in Hanoi is the world’s only other regime committed to building “market socialism” under the exclusive leadership of a communist party. Under the aegis of a bilateral Steering Committee for Vietnam-China cooperation, there is a huge two-way traffic in visits aiming to build friendly links between ministries, adjacent provinces, functional organizations, the armed forces and, of course, party institutions.

Fourth, it would support the theory that the provocations last spring were the work of lower level actors, eg China’s coast guard and its oil companies, whose understanding of China’s broader aims in the region was lacking. To the extent that ASEAN members believe that’s true, they’ll go back to believing also in Beijing’s “peaceful rise” scenario and lose interest in casting America, Japan and Australia as actors in the unfolding South China Sea drama.

For the politburo in Hanoi, the stakes are extremely high. Since time immemorial, managing an unequal relationship with its enormous neighbor to the north has been a core concern of Vietnam’s rulers. That has meant convincing China that Vietnam will fight if its territorial integrity is at stake, while also knowing when to show deference and to negotiate.

There are many in Vietnam, including ‘liberals’ within the ruling party itself, who are ready to pounce on present leaders if they seem soft vis-a-vis China. And, the politburo certainly must worry that Chinese ultra-patriots, in particular jingoes in China’s navy, are spoiling for a fight.

Thus Vietnam’s strategy has been to yield nothing until Beijing tabled a proposal pragmatic enough for it to consider. In the meantime Hanoi has been building up its defenses, incrementally putting matters important to China on hold, ostentatiously cultivating closer ties with the US, India, Japan and Australia, and allowing the public to express patriotic sentiments in the vicinity of the Chinese Embassy.

Now, however, it seems that the elements of a perhaps acceptable deal are on the table, and the full prestige of both politburos has been engaged. During Vietnamese Communist Party leader Nguyen Phu Trong’s high-profile trip to Beijing in October, and again during Chinese heir-apparent Yi Jinping’s visit to Hanoi in December, it was stressed that negotiators had been instructed to implement “the common perception of the two countries’ leaders”.

As China has acquired the military capability to support its sweeping claims in the South China Sea, a shooting war has seemed increasingly possible, either by accident or design. Until now, Beijing has seemed uninterested in working toward a deal that would clear the way for littoral states to invest their energies in joint exploitation of fisheries and energy resources.

As the US disengages from Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington’s disposition to intervene in the conflict is increasingly evident. But there are now hopes that Vietnam and China are moving towards resolving at least part of the problem.

David Brown is a retired American diplomat who writes on contemporary Vietnam. He may be reached at

Vietnam Ocean. Son Tra, Danang, Vietnam. Hai Sontra
Vietnam Ocean. Son Tra, Danang, Vietnam. Hai Sontra


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