Andrew Corr, Contributor
AUG 29, 2016 @ 05:18 PM
China’s actions in the South China Sea are increasingly militaristic. Due to Vietnam’s lack of strong treaty allies, the country is particularly vulnerable compared to its peers. In response to Vietnam’s deteriorating security situation, it is likely to choose one of three strategies: 1) continue the current strategy of hedging between the U.S., China and Russia; 2) ally with the U.S. against China; or 3) develop Vietnam’s military capabilities, including a potential nuclear deterrent.
China’s actions against Vietnam’s territory, Vietnam’s strategic response, and the outcome of the interaction, have global consequences. A win by China against Vietnam would intimidate other countries into granting concessions, and embolden China militarily. For this reason, Vietnam’s strategic decisions in the coming years should be of concern to everyone with an interest in international politics.
China’s threat against Vietnam is principally an attempt to take over Vietnam’s maritime exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) reserves to Vietnam. Vietnam will likely address the threat through a mix of accommodation and two types of deterrence. Due to the exclusion effects of these strategic options, however, the emphasis of Vietnam’s strategy will likely be only one of the three.
All three strategies incur costs, entail risk, and will likely cause fundamental changes in Vietnam’s politics and economy. Vietnam’s decision will profoundly affect the domestic and international outcome of events in the near future, including whether China strengthens its de facto presence in Vietnam’s maritime territory, the stability of Vietnam’s current leadership, and China’s strategy against other countries.
Vietnam’s current strategy, hedge between the U.S., China, and Russia, is the most complex, but least likely to lead to diplomatic, economic, or even military conflict. Vietnam is highly likely to follow this path. It includes the relatively inoffensive elements from all three strategies: seeking negotiations, development funding and trade with all potential allies, including the U.S. and China; only moderately increased defense cooperation with the U.S. and its allies; and new weapons purchases short of a nuclear deterrent.
Overemphasizing any single element of the three strategies that compose hedging will lead to unintended consequences and exclude the effectiveness of the other strategies. Too obvious hedging will alienate all major allies, and erode Vietnam’s image as a committed ally. Too close alliance with the U.S. against China will lead to retaliatory measures by China and perhaps Russia. Obtaining a nuclear deterrent would produce, at the very least, strongly negative diplomatic reactions from both the U.S. and China.
Hedging reduces the risk of war, but leaves Vietnam relatively weak and vulnerable to increasing Chinese influence. As China increases its absolute and relative economic and military strength in Asia, its influence over Vietnam will increase proportionately. This Vietnamese vulnerability will mean increasing political, diplomatic, and economic concessions to China over the next decade or two. If Vietnam chooses to hedge as its primary strategy, it should expect China to demand, and obtain, concessions such as a private recognition of Chinese sovereignty within the 9-dash line, joint development and revenue sharing of hydrocarbon and fishing resources, and possibly even discreet forms of taxing Vietnam’s maritime trade. Increasing Chinese influence in Vietnam and the resulting concessions will create discontent among Vietnam’s population, risking political stability and the tenure of the current Vietnamese leadership.
A second strategy would be for Vietnam’s leadership to largely eliminate China’s influence on Vietnam andally closely with the U.S. and its allies, including Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Australia, and India. As part of this strategy, Vietnam could bring its own arbitration case against China through UNCLOS. This strategy of allying with the U.S. is most likely to maintain Vietnam’s independence and sovereignty over its hydrocarbon, fishing, and maritime shipping economies. But Vietnam’s newly close allies would, over time, have their own influence on Vietnam, including more active encouragement of democratization and freedom of speech reforms.
Link to article here.