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COVID-19 can’t freeze Vietnamese geopolitics forever

Author: Thuy T Do, Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam

The first quarter of 2020 has been preoccupied with global concerns over the outbreak of COVID-19. Geopolitical dynamics — including the US–China trade war and issues in the South China Sea — seem to have cooled down. This applies to Vietnam’s situation in the South China Sea where, unlike last year, the past few months have passed without major incident at sea.

The USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) is seen while entering the port in Da Nang, Vietnam, 5 March 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Kham).

Yet recent developments suggest that geopolitics remains relevant. The Philippine Daily Inquirer stated on 2 March that despite Beijing’s preoccupation with COVID-19, more than 100 Chinese vessels were spotted near the Philippine-occupied Thitu Island in the South China Sea in the first two months of 2020. On 20 March, China also announced the launch of two new research outposts on the Subi and Fiery reefs in the Spratly Islands which are also claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam. More recently, China conducted an anti-submarine drill over the South China Sea and the United States launched live-fire missiles in the Philippine Sea as signs of warning for each other. And in the latest development, Hanoi accused a Chinese Coast Guard ship of ramming and sinking one of its fishing boats on 1 April in the waters near the Paracel Islands — a move that has already precipitated expression of serious concern from the United States and the Philippines.

The sightings remind Vietnamese observers of the fierce standoff between Vietnam and China last year. China repeatedly deployed its survey vessel Haiyang Dizhi 8 to stop Vietnam’s oil-drilling activities around the Vanguard bank within Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Although China is yet to employ similar tactics against Vietnam this year, they cannot be ruled out once China overcomes the worst of its COVID-19 emergency.

Vietnam’s new Defence White Paper released in November 2019 expresses Hanoi’s concern over challenges to the country’s national security stemming from ‘new developments’ in the South China Sea.

These include references to ‘unilateral actions, power-based coercion, violations of international law, militarisation, change in the status quo, and infringement upon Vietnam’s sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction as provided in international law’.

The paper also states that ‘depending on circumstances and specific conditions, Vietnam will consider developing necessary, appropriate defence and military relations with other countries’. This statement implies that the United States and increasingly Japan loom large in Hanoi’s strategic mindset.

Vietnam received a high-ranking defence delegation from Japan and the two sides agreed to transfer military ship building technology on 2 March 2020. Vietnamese policymakers also suggested Japan help provide capacity building for its defence industry technicians, as well as peace-keeping forces.

The move added to increasingly strong defence ties between the two countries in recent years, beginning with Japan’s provision of six patrol vessels for the Vietnamese Coast Guard, followed by annual naval consultations and technical assistance for Japanese defence equipment provided to Vietnam for maritime surveillance.

To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the normalisation of ties between Vietnam and the United States, US aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt made a port call in Danang in March 2020. Additional port calls from Japanese and US military vessels might be seen in the future as this is largely seen as a way for Vietnam to hedge against China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea.

Vietnam’s recent Defence White Paper nonetheless announced a ‘four-nos’ policy — no military alliances, no alignment with one country against another, no foreign military bases on Vietnamese territory and no use of force or threats in international relations. The last ‘no’ is to reassure Beijing that Hanoi has no intention of engaging in armed conflict for reasons other than self-defence.

Hanoi is well aware of the negative impact of strategic rivalry between major powers which may risk turning the South China Sea into a ‘flashpoint’ or space of conflict. Both Japan and China are Vietnam’s leading economic and strategic partners, so Hanoi needs to carefully manoeuvre to balance its relationships with Beijing and Tokyo.

Hanoi commemorated the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties with China in January 2020. Although the White Paper acknowledges the two countries’ divergence on the issue of sovereignty in the South China Sea, it also suggests the issue ‘need[s] to be settled with precaution, avoiding [any] negative impacts on general peace, friendship, and cooperation for development between the two countries’.

China is Vietnam’s largest import market and second largest export market, while Vietnam is China’s largest trading partner within ASEAN. China has pitched infrastructure projects to connect the two countries’ border region within the framework of the BRI initiative. But Vietnam has thus far been prudent about BRI projects as well as the 5G technology offered by Chinese telecommunication company Huawei.

Japan is Vietnam’s largest official development assistance donor, second biggest FDI investor, third largest tourist market and fourth largest trading partner. Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc stated that as a steadily developing country with economic potential, Vietnam wishes to increase connectivity between the two economies through the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Vietnam is also the coordinator of ASEAN–Japan relations for the 2018–2021 period, so further collaboration between Hanoi and Tokyo during Vietnam’s ASEAN chairmanship this year — which should include discussions about a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership — may occur.

During Vietnam’s first ASEAN chairmanship in 2010, Hanoi initiated the ASEAN Defence Minister’s Meeting Plus mechanism and involved external powers like the United States, Japan, India and Australia in the platform. Hanoi has the chance to shape regional politics with its ASEAN chairmanship, particularly during the 2020 East Asia Summit, when leaders from in and outside ASEAN come together.

While most Asia Pacific nations are predominantly concerned with COVID-19, regional politics seem to have eased for the time being. But Hanoi needs to prepare for the full return of geopolitics, particularly during the year of its ASEAN chairmanship.

Thuy T Do is Vice Dean of the Faculty of International Politics and Diplomacy at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on the novel coronavirus crisis and its impact.

By EastAsiaForum

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