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Thayer Consultancy Background Briefing:

ABN # 65 648 097 123


Vietnam and the South China
Sea
Carlyle A. Thayer
March 23, 2009

[client name deleted]


1. What do you think about recent developments involving China, the US, the Philippines over
the South China Sea?
ANSWER: These are two separate and distinct incidents but are linked with the larger issue
of the applicability of the UN Convention on Law of the Sea. In the China-US case both sides
disagree over whether military vessels can conduct intelligence in China’s 200 nautical mile
Exclusive Economic Zone. The US has not signed UNCLOS. China has a right to claim a EEZ
and to restrict certain typed of activities, including military activities that constitute a threat. It
is arguable that intelligence gathering by a ship like the USNA Impeccable, manned by a
civilian crew and without armaments, constitutes a military threat. The US claims it was in
international waters. The right of China to claim an EEZ is not an issue. But China has forced
the issue by sending naval vessels to interdict and harass a US ship.
In the second case the Philippines has arbitrarily redrawn its baselines to extend its territorial
waters and thus also its EEZ. This brings the Philippines into conflict with Vietnam whose
claimed EEZ overlaps, and China which claims the entire South China Sea on historic
grounds. The Philippines has not yet tried to enforce its claims to a new maritime zone.
Both incidents should sound an alert to regional states that a serious security issue could
blow up suddenly with little apparent warning. Now is the time for diplomacy and confidence
building measures to reduce strategic uncertainty.
2. In your opinion, what are the implications for Vietnam?
ANSWER: Chinese actions against the USNS Impeccable set a worrying precedent for
Vietnam which suffered civilian casualties in 2007. This incident signals a new round of
Chinese assertiveness than can only impact negatively on Vietnam. Vietnam will be forced to
redouble its diplomatic efforts to reach a modus vivendi with China to prevent such an
incident between Vietnamese naval vessels and Chinese naval ships. The Philippines’
actions bring Vietnam into possible conflict with a fellow member of ASEAN. China is always
willing to exploit such disarray.
3. In light of growing tension over South China Sea, what should Vietnam opt to do now?
ANSWER: Vietnam’s leaders much reach consensus on the best way to deal with China.
Their strategy will include continual naval modernization. But Vietnam must exercise
diplomacy to ensure that all ASEAN members are united on this issue. This means resolving
the conflict of claims with the Philippines and fashioning a common ASEAN united front
against China. Vietnam should also raise this issue at the ASEAN Regional Fourm and at the
Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore in mid-year.
4. Vietnamese and Chinese communist officials have recently held many bilateral meeting,
even setting up encrypted hotline. What could be seen from those hectic moves?
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ANSWER: Vietnam and China has longed sought to create a mechanism to manage their
myriad bilateral relations. They have agreed to a high-level Joint Steering Committee on
Cooperation as the appropriate forum. The agreement to set up a hot line raises Vietnam’s
prestige because China and the United States have also set up a hot line. The hot line is also
an indication that senior leaders wish to ensure early intervention when an incident is caused
further down the chain of command. Vietnam is desperate to constrain China’s actions
through diplomatic means.
5. After what happened over South China Sea, Vietnam media seems to have been given
green light by the authorities to be more open about this so-called sensitive subject. The first
official conference on disputed Spratlys and Paracels was recently held. Do you think
Vietnam is stepping up its fight for rights over these islands by using communications tools?
ANSWER: Up to now Vietnam has been very circumspect about raising any clash of interest
in the South China Sea with China in public. This was because the issue was largely bilateral.
Now the South China Sea has been elevated on the strategic level because the great powers
are involved and fellow ASEAN members have undertaken unilateral steps. In addition to the
Philippines redrawing its baseline, Malaysia has recently reasserted its sovereignty over
features in the South China Sea. Vietnam has had to alter its information strategy to suit the
changing circumstances.
6. On a broader scale, how should Vietnam balance its relation with China and the US in
resolving disputes over South China Sea?
ANSWER: Vietnam will not try to balance its relations by attempting to play off China against
the United States. And Vietnam should try an avoid having territorial issues in the South
China Sea dominate the agenda of its bilateral relations with China. Vietnam has several
international institutions it can use to exercise diplomatic influence such as the ASEAN
Regional Forum. In addition Vietnam attends the Shangri la Dialogue which draws defence
ministers and other high ranking government officials. This would be a new ground for
Vietnam to pursue. Vietnam, through ASEAN, could raise the issue in ASEAN Plus Three
summit process. But most importantly, Vietnam needs to convince fellow ASEAN members of
the importance of this issue as well as ASEAN diplomatic unity when dealing with China.
Vietnam is not at odds with the US but its diplomats in Washington must work overtime to
determine what future courses of action the Obama Administration is likely to take.