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Vietnam and China: contingent cooperation, not capitulation

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Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc at Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, 13 September, 2016. (Photo: Reuters/Lintao Zhang).

In Brief

On 12 January, Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong arrived in China for a lavish, well publicised four-day official visit.


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Nguyen’s trip symbolised the significant improvement in Sino–Vietnamese relations since their nadir during the HYSY-981 oil rig confrontations in mid-2014. Hanoi’s subsequent suppression of nationalist protests marking the 19 January anniversary of China’s eviction of South Vietnamese forces from the Paracel Islands in 1974 has since confirmed the relative health of ties between the two party-states.

But linking Nguyen’s trip into a narrative of Southeast Asian countries allegedly acquiescing to Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea would be misleading. Rather than a Vietnamese tilt towards China, the visit was a continuation of recurring features of the bilateral relationship, amid improving ties underpinned by the moderation of some of China’s policies.

Over the past few years, official visits by party and state leaders have been a regular feature of Sino–Vietnamese relations at all but the worst of times. Each trip has concluded with detailed bilateral statement, so a basic idea of the significance of the 2017 visit can be gleaned by comparing the joint communique it produced against earlier documents of this type.

One salient change was the ‘close and friendly’ atmosphere that the communique said prevailed through Nguyen’s meetings. By comparison, it has usually been ‘friendly and candid’ since 2007–2008, when China’s policy in the South China Sea became more assertive. This implies the general state of relations is now equivalent to that which prevailed in the early to mid-2000s when the description was often used.

Secretary Nguyen’s trip did not mark any major change or softening in Vietnam’s position on the South China Sea issue. It did, however, continue the revival of maritime crisis management and confidence-building initiatives — such as Coast Guard exchanges and a fisheries incident hotline — whose progress appears to have stalled after the HYSY-981 incident.

While the joint statements from leaders’ visits in 2011 and 2013 included a call for ‘calmness and restraint’, this language has been absent from more recent documents. This suggests the two party-states consider the present level of tension in the disputed area to be lower. It also implies a mutual recognition of each other’s policy status quo as basically rational.

A further sign of the reduced tensions on the water is that the most recent communiques have called for implementation of the 2003 Declaration of Conduct for the South China Sea, and pursuit of a Code of Conduct  before affirming the need for ‘control of maritime disputes’. Previous documents back to 2013 had placed this before the multilateral agreements — the 2011 statement did not even mention them.

Hanoi’s symbolic declarations of cooperation with China have often been accompanied by substantive cooperative initiatives with China’s rivals, and the 2017 meeting was no exception.

While the Vietnamese Communist Party’s General Secretary received red-carpet treatment in Beijing, then-US secretary of state John Kerry was in Hanoi, witnessing the 13 January signing of two heads of agreement between ExxonMobil and Vietnam’s state oil company PetroVietnam over a major undersea gasfield straddling the PRC’s nine-dash line. Beijing has previously issued warnings to Exxon over its participation in the project, which is now estimated to contain 5.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The latest plan will see the US multinational build an 88-kilometre undersea pipeline, carrying gas to the Vietnamese mainland by 2021.

The day after Nguyen concluded his China trip, Vietnam welcomed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Hanoi. Standing beside Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Abe announced Japan would provide six new patrol vessels on low-interest development loans to ‘strongly support Vietnam’s enhancing its maritime law enforcement capability’. These white-hulled capabilities have been central to China’s advances in the disputed areas in recent years, so it was an announcement with both symbolism and substance.

Similarly, when now-Premier Nguyen Xuan Phuc was in Beijing in September 2015, General Secretary Nguyen was in Tokyo securing secondhand maritime patrol boats, along with Japanese criticism of land reclamation in the South China Sea. This pattern has been apparent since at least 2011. During General Secretary Nguyen’s October 2011 trip to China, Chairman Truong Tan Sang was visiting India, strengthening military training exchanges, confirming Indian access to the Nha Trang port, and negotiating to purchase BrahMos cruise missiles. Indian and Vietnamese state oil companies also signed deals covering disputed areas of the South China Sea.

Vietnam’s highly conspicuous hedging appears designed to signal to Beijing that its cooperation does not imply acquiescence, but is rather contingent on China’s own conduct.

Indeed, Chinese policy in the South China Sea is probably the most important determinant of the state of bilateral ties. Since 2000 at least, the frequency and warmth of the leaders’ communiqués has tended to correlate – negatively – with the pace of China’s assertive advances in the disputed area. Consistent with this pattern, China has moderated its conduct in some important ways in recent months.

Some adjustments to Chinese policy have, for the time being at least, brought Beijing into partial compliance with the 2016 ruling of the UNCLOS-mandated arbitral tribunal. Despite its surface-level bluster rejecting the process, the PRC has, for example, eased its harassment of Philippine fishers at Scarborough Shoal, allowing them access to the fishing grounds within the atoll’s lagoon.

One of the key sources of Sino–Vietnamese maritime tensions since 2007 has been the PRC’s assertions — verbal and at times physical — of oil and gas rights across the area within the nine-dash line. This was another of the key elements of China’s policy that was deemed unlawful by the UNCLOS arbitral tribunal.

But shortly after the ruling, a new and detailed interpretation of the nine-dash line, published in the military’s official newspaper, appeared to decouple the line from claims to energy resources. That Beijing has so far refrained from publicly criticising the above-mentioned Exxon–PetroVietnam offshore gas project further suggests China may have pulled back from its pursuit of particular claims that have no basis in international law.

The removal of this major driver of Sino–Vietnamese tensions offers the most compelling, but also easily overlooked, explanation for the recent warming of bilateral ties.

Andrew Chubb is a PhD Candidate at the University of Western Australia. You can follow him on Twitter at @zhubochubo.

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