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Media Interview: Wide-Ranging Live Online Chat, Part 1 of 3 By Carlyle A. Thayer

C3S Paper No. 0038/ 2015


International Center for Journalists, Washington, D.C., Live Online Chat with Vietnamese journalists:

Thayer Replies to Questions by Vietnamese Journalists – Batch 1 of 3

Key words: ASEAN (Q1 and Q9), China (Q2 and Q 7), press censorship (Q 8), Russia (Q4), South China Sea (Q 3 and Q 6), United States (Q 5),

Q1. Malaysia’s chairmanship: Are there any chances for the ASEAN bloc and China to achieve the code of conduct this year under Malaysia’s chairmanship to defuse sea tensions to ensure peace, stability and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea? –

Ba Duy Vu Câu trả lời (Answer): There is little prospect for ASEAN and China reaching final agreement on a binding Code of Conduct (COC) for the South China Sea this year. China has insisted that the implementation of the Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) be implemented first. Although a number of working groups have been set up under the DOC, and China has made funding available, not one confidence-building project has been approved or commenced. So far the ASEAN-China consultations have agreed only on the structure and general form of the COC. Specific details remain to be worked out. Thailand, as ASEAN’s country coordinator for relations with China, increased the number of working group meetings last year. This is a positive development. However, ASEAN wants a binding COC. It is unlikely that China will agree to a COC with treaty status.

Q2. Economic independence: What do you think Vietnam can do be independent from the Chinese economy and, once independent could Vietnam have a frank talk or even taking strong actions against China on the East Sea issue?

Tam Nguyen Thi Câu trả lời: Vietnam can never be “independent” of China’s economy. China’s economy is the second largest in the world (with GDP as a measure). The world economy is interdependent. Vietnam has a massive trade deficit with China. Vietnam has sought to even the balance but there is little hope this can be reduced in the short-term. The best Vietnam can hope for is to gradually reduce this imbalance in selected areas. For example, India has offered Vietnam a U.S. $300 million line of credit to promote commercial ties. Vietnam could use this to import materials for garment production and reduce its dependency on China. Vietnam can carry out domestic reform of its economy by making state-owned enterprises more  productive. At the same time Vietnam can provide a suitable environment for foreign firms in China to relocate to Vietnam. Finally, Vietnam can join the TPP (Trans Pacific Partnershp) and gain access to 40% of the global economy of its members. While there is some evidence that China has used economic leverage for political ends (halting the export of rare earth minerals to Japan and the import of bananas from the Philippines) China has generally been restrained. As long as the territorial dispute in the South China Sea is kept relatively low-key Vietnam is safe from Chinese economic pressures. Also, Vietnam is a member of ASEAN and the China- ASEAN Free Trade Agreement. China’s heavy handed use of economic leverage on Vietnam could produce a backlash in Southeast Asia especially as the ASEAN Economic Community takes shape.

Q3. Easing of tensions: You also once predicted in late November that tensions in the East and South China Sea should remain less tense for perhaps another six months. Do you think they are now satisfied with the situation in the South China Sea and the relationship between Vietnam and China is at ease?

 Hoang Uy Cao Câu trả lời: It is clear that China has reassessed its tactics last year in the South China Sea. China suffered damage to its prestige and witnessed a rise in concern by regional states. China is now quietly consolidating its presence in the South China Sea through land reclamation, an increased presence of fishing fleets and larger mother ships, larger Coast Guard vessels and more military exercises by the People’s Liberation Army Navy. At the same time, China is advancing a larger agenda through its proposals for land and maritime “Silk Roads.” Time appears to be on China’s side. China must “neutralize” ASEAN, that is, keep it from aligning with the United States and Japan. China has close relations with Malaysia, this year’s ASEAN Chair. Malaysia prefers to keep South China Sea disputes quiet. This will suit China. China will react when it perceives that its interests are threatened. So far the Philippines has adopted a low-key approach to its dispute with China so as not to jeopardize its claim to the Arbitral Tribunal. This also suits China. This leads me to believe that “all will be quiet on the South China Sea front” this year.

Q4. Russia’s presence: Russia is reportedly coming back to Vietnam’s Cam Ranh airbase again. And now Russia and China become allied due to the Western’s isolation and sanctions. How do you think this development will challenge the Obama government’s Asia-pivot strategy?

 Thi Thu Phuong Nguyen Câu trả lời: Russia will gain special access to Cam Ranh Bay because it is supplying and servicing Vietnam’s Kilo-class submarines. Russia has also pressed for rest and recuperation stops for its fleet as it returns from anti-piracy duties in the Gulf of Aden. I do not think Vietnam will permit Russia to establish formal military bases – either naval or air – at Cam Ranh Bay. This goes against the long-established policy of “three no’s” – no alliances, no foreign bases, and no use of one country against a third country. The China-Russia relationship is one of political convenience; it is opportunistic. While they share a desire to frustrate U.S. power and influence, they also have their differences. China has stolen intellectual property from Russia in high-end military technology. Illegal Chinese immigration into Russia’s Far East is of concern. China views Russian involvement in the Crimea and Ukraine with concern. China also got Russia to lower the price for natural gas supplies. Russia is not a major player in the Asia-Pacific. The Obama strategy of rebalancing towards the Asia-Pacific  builds on a firm foundation. The United States is militarily strong and will continue to be so. China may be the largest trading partner for many states, but U.S. investment is more substantial. Russia’s main interests lie in Central Europe. It cannot really compete militarily or economically in the Asia-Pacific.

Q5. US relationship: The US – Vietnam relationship has become warmer recently and China always threatens Việt Nam to play with fire as the country become more friendly with the former foe. How do you see the role of US in the East Sea conflict between Vietnam and China?

Dat Van Luu Câu trả lời: This year will be a banner year in US-Vietnam relations as both countries celebrate the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations. Both sides will further enhance their Comprehensive Partnership. Certainly Chinese lobbying and pressure on Vietnam with respect to its relations with the United States have had an impact. Vietnamese leaders must take likely Chinese reactions into account as they forge relations with Washington. No matter how much US-Vietnam relations improve it will not result in any major change in US policy towards the South China Sea. The US will continue to be neutral with respect to competing territorial and sovereignty claims. The US will step up its support for Vietnam’s maritime security by aiding the Vietnam Coast Guard. US interests are limited to freedom of navigation, over flight and unimpeded lawful commerce. The US will oppose China use of coercion but not militarily. Having said this, China must be careful not to overplay its hand in relations with Vietnam.

Q6. Lack of legal action by Vietnam: Why do you think Vietnam hasn’t taken any legal action against China such as bringing the case to International Court on the issue of East Sea, Paracels and Spratly like the Philippines has done?

Thành Trung Dương Câu trả lời: The Philippines’ case to the Arbitral Tribunal does not challenge China’s claim to sovereignty but focuses on what the Philippines is entitled to as a littoral state under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The Philippines is asking for a determination of its maritime entitlements and for a ruling on whether China can claim maritime zones from low tide elevations (submerged features). In Vietnam’s case the dispute over the Paracels is bilateral and relates to sovereignty. UNCLOS does not deal with sovereignty disputes. This matter can only be settled between China and Vietnam. Vietnam and the Philippines also have territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The Philippines protested the joint Malaysia-Vietnam submission to the Commission on the Limits to the Continental Shelf in May 2009. Vietnam did not back the Philippines because it did not want to incur Beijing’s wrath. Vietnam took the view that if the Philippines succeeded it would benefit Vietnam (because the 9-dash line would be declared without legal foundation). If the Philippines failed, then Vietnam could take its own legal action. Vietnam, however, has tabled a statement of interest to the Permanent Court of Arbitration stating it has interests in the matters raised by the Philippines. Vietnam stated that the Arbitral Tribunal had jurisdiction and eight features claimed by China were neither islands nor rocks and could not claim a maritime zone. Vietnam actions in lodging a statement of interest will raise the importance of the Philippines case. Vietnam could even be invited to explain its interests. Vietnam still has the right to take legal action in future. This ploy may serve to deter China to a certain extent.

Q7. Escaping from a relationship: Do you think Vietnam is capable of escaping from its long-standing relations with its big neighbour? If yes, what field do you think Vietnam should escape first and how?

Doan Lan Huong Câu trả lời: The calls inside Vietnam to “exit China’s orbit” (thóat Trung) are aimed at Vietnam’s ideological dependency on and leadership deference to China. Vietnam cannot change its geography. Vietnam, in terms of population, is equivalent to a middle sized Chinese province. It is in Vietnam interests to maintain cordial relations with China. Vietnam cannot escape China’s gravitational pull in economic terms. But Vietnam can assert greater independence by altering the interdependent relationship based on one-party rule and shared ideology.

Q8. Role of censorship: The border war with China in 1979 and the oil rig as well as other events in East Sea are categorized as sensitive and all [Vietnamese media] reports must be put under the government’s guidance, which gives us a lot of difficulties. In your experience, what are good and bad points from that censorship? And what should Vietnam do (in reporting) to improve these bad points?

Cuong Pham Câu trả lời: In February 2013, I was invited to Hanoi by VTV6 to participate in a long documentary on the Vietnam-China border war. I spent a considerable amount of my time reviewing my files and western scholarship on the conflict. In the end this massive documentary, with important interviews with aging veterans of the conflict in Cao Bang province, was censored. It never saw the light of day. This censorship contrasted with other reporting that appeared in the Vietnamese media at that time. The bad point in this instance was that aging veterans were not given the chance for closure and proper recognition for their sacrifices. Such recognition is not anti-China. On the VTV6 program I cited the attitude of Turkey’s Kemal Ataturk after the First World War with reference to Gallipoli and Australia’s greatest military defeat. The Turkish leader said after the war with respect to the fallen Australian soldiers, “your sons are our sons.” The Turks maintained the graves of Australian soldiers. And today Australia and Turkey hold an annual commemoration at Gallipoli to remember the dead on both sides and the sacrifice of youth. They do not recriminate over the war. The “good” side of censorship arises when the government can control press reporting to influence its relations with China. Vietnam gave extensive media reporting to the actions of Chinese ships around the HD 981. This assisted Vietnam gain support from the international community. This was policy was altered when Vietnam wanted to open talks with China by sending a special envoy. In Vietnam, where all the media is owned by the party-state and its subsidiaries, it is possible for leaders to use the media as a tool to advance the national interest. But the down side is that the Vietnamese public is not given a real basis to judge the issues and hear alternate views.

Q9. ASEAN’s power: People say that the role and the voice of ASEAN doesn’t have much power on China’s brazen claims of its nine-dash line. What’s your comment?

Ha Duc Hanh Nguyen Câu trả lời: Last year during the HD 981 crisis ASEAN Foreign Ministers issued a standalone statement expressing their concern. Although this statement did not mention China, it was the first time that ASEAN has expressed a view on tensions 5 arising from the China-Vietnam dispute over the Paracels and surrounding waters [Previously it was viewed as a bilateral dispute]. In this case this had an impact on China for two reasons. It indicated ASEAN unity and because it provided a basis for the US, Japan, Australia and other countries to support ASEAN. Having said this, ASEAN as a body is not a direct party to the South China Sea disputes. ASEAN has its limitations. It must function by consensus. ASEAN is at best a diplomatic community and can only exert political influence on China. This is a necessary condition to resolve the South China Sea disputes but it is not sufficient.

(Article reprinted with the permission of the author Carlyle A. Thayer, Emeritus Professor,The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra email: Carlthayer@webone.com.au)

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