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Media Interview: Wide-Ranging Live Online Chat, Part 2 of 3 By Carlyle A. Thayer

C3S Paper No. 0039/ 2015


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

Thayer Replies to Questions by Vietnamese Journalists – Batch 2 of 3

Key words: Air Defence Identification Zone (Q 17), Cambodia (Q 14), China (Q 12, 13 and 14), economic development (Q 16), foreign direct investment (Q 18), Laos (Q 14), nationalism (Q 13), South China Sea (Q 10, 11 and 15), Trans Pacific Partnership (Q 12), Vietnamese research (Q 11)

Q10. South China Sea Code of Conduct: In the escalation of territorial disputes in East Sea, ASEAN wants to speed up the Code of Conduct with China to take it as an effective tool to maintain peace in the East Sea. However, China has tried to delay and hinder the formation of the COC and push the negotiation into a stalemate. What is the solution to remove this stalemate?

Then Bui Thi ANSWER: ASEAN and China agreed to move forward on the basis of consensus. This provision was included in the 2002 Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). This makes is very difficult for ASEAN to speed up consultations on a Code of Conduct (COC) if China is unwilling. China, however, has shown a willingness to respond to ASEAN’s concerns. ASEAN must maintain unity, and the current ASEAN Chair must continually press China to speed up the talks. ASEAN Foreign Ministers and government leaders can also use their annual ministerial and summit meetings to add pressure on China. ASEAN needs to set out a road map and a check list showing what progress has been made.

Q11. Vietnamese scholars and research: What are your comments on the role and statement of Vietnamese scholars in international conferences and forums on topics related to East Sea dispute? What are strengths and weaknesses of their researches?

Cam Phan ANSWER: Over the last four years I have attended an average of 16 international conferences each year, most focus on the South China Sea. The Vietnamese participants invariably hail from the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam. They are the elite of the elite. They are well trained and fluent in English. They conduct primary research and are well informed. I hold them in highest respect. There are also Vietnamese scholars who are studying abroad who participate. They are committed to legal and historical research on the South China Sea and they are collectively an impressive group. One great strength of Vietnamese scholars is their originality when writing opinion editorial pieces in the foreign press. I value highly their responses to Chinese opinion writers. If I detect any weaknesses it is that Vietnam needs more scholars fluent in Chinese language who have access to Chinese language sources. Of course Vietnamese scholars are influenced by government policy. This creates a potential weakness when the government is not transparent. For example, Vietnam should issue a comprehensive White Paper on the South China Sea setting out the legal argument for Vietnam’s claims to both the Paracel and Spratly archipelagoes.

Q12. Influence of the Trans Pacific Partnership on Vietnam: How does the participation of Vietnam in TPP affect its economic relations with China, which is now its biggest trade partner with an average annual turnover of USD50 billion?

Huong Ca Nguyen Thi ANSWER: China may be Vietnam’s largest trade partner by turnover but the United States remains Vietnam’s largest export market. If Vietnam joins the TPP it will have preferential access to markets of all other members. In other words tariffs will be cut. Vietnam’s economic relations with China will not be fundamentally affected by TPP membership. If Vietnam uses Chinese-sourced materials to make goods for TPP members it will attract a higher tariff than if Vietnam uses raw materials from other TPP members. Some Chinese businessmen, however, have calculated that it will still be profitable for them to invest in Vietnam and sell in the United States even with higher rates. Vietnam’s membership in the TPP does not preclude it from joining the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

Q13. Regional instability: From Chinese assertive manner to Vietnam and regional countries in the East Sea dispute, what is the possibility to creating regional instability of the nationalist government?

Thi Kieu Trinh Nguyen ANSWER: Nationalism, especially hyper-nationalism, is a double-edged sword. One the one hand, it creates support for government policy that the government can use in negotiating with another country. On the other hand, hyper-nationalism can restrict the flexibility of the government to reach compromise agreements. Both China and Vietnam recognize this threat. That is why Special Envoy Ho Xuan Son and Chinese State Councillor Dai Bingquo agreed “to steer public opinion” when they met in Beijing in June 2011. After that Vietnam moved to prevent public anti-China demonstrations. This mutual sensitivity was evident in agreements reached when Special Envoy Le Hong Anh visited Beijing last year.

Q14. Indochina impact: China is massively investing in Cambodia and Laos to gain influence against Vietnam. What is its agenda and how does that affect the relationship between Vietnam-China and Vietnam-US?

Dinh Tuyen Le ANSWER: China is investing everywhere in Southeast Asia, including Laos and Cambodia, with the main motivation of making money and increasing Beijing’s influence. The Vietnamese government, in its efforts to reduce the trade deficit with China, even calls for more Chinese investment in Vietnam. Cambodia’s actions as ASEAN Chair in 2010 in preventing the release of a joint statement is evidence that China can use its influence against Vietnam. Both Laos and Cambodia want to maintain their autonomy and independence. There has been a grassroots backlash in both countries due to the behavior of Chinese businessmen. The Chinese government, above all, wants political stability to protect its investments and business interests. When popular demonstrations broke out in Phnom Penh against the Hun Sen government following the elections in 2013, there were indications that China applied some behind the scenes pressure on Hun Sen to respond to popular grievances. In sum, not everything that China does is aimed at undermining Vietnam. Vietnam has its own avenues of influence but the reality is that Vietnam must compete in the market place alongside China for influence in Vientiane and Phnom Penh. I do not think China relations with Cambodia and Laos are a major irritant in bilateral relations between Hanoi and Beijing. As for US-Vietnam relations, Vietnam can always use the “threat of Chinese influence” to convince the United States to become more engaged in Laos and Cambodia.

Q15. Nine-dash line: Vietnam has shown historical evidence to support its territorial claims to the Paracels and Spratlys but China ignored them. In reality, it has occupied the Paracels and is reaching out to the Spratlys. What’s your opinion about the ninedash line and what are your recommendations for Vietnam on protecting its maritme territory?

Thi Thanh Huyen Le ANSWER: The Paracel and Spratly archipelagoes present two sets of different issues. Under contemporary international law great weight is given to evidence of continuous occupation and administration in territorial and sovereignty claims. Vietnam’s claims to the Paracels are strong because of the Hoang Sa Brigade (Doi Hoang Sa) and French rule when the Kingdom of An Nam was a protectorate. Vietnam’s claims to several of the islands and features are even stronger because they were acquired by China by aggressive force in January 1974 [international law does not recognize sovereignty claimed by force]. Vietnam’s claims to the Spratlys has a sound historical basis and Vietnam’s occupation and administration has been established. China’s nine-dash line is ambiguous and open to various interpretations. It is in China’s interest to keep matters this way. Historical evidence and international law support the view that the 9-dash line is unsustainable and has no legal foundation. The People’s Republic of China modified the Republic of China’s original 11-dash line map of 1947/1948. China has also published maps showing the 9-dash line that are inconsistent. Finally, China’s claim that James Shoal near Malaysia is China’s most distant land is absurd. James Shoal is 20 or more metres underwater. China’s claim is based on a translation error.

Q16. Economic dependency: In terms of the economy Vietnam is having a huge deficit with China. A huge volume of Chinese goods has also been smuggled into Vietnam through cross-border trade. What should Vietnam do to reduce its economic dependence on China?

Vui Nguyen Minh ANSWER: Vietnam must reform its own economy, especially the state-owner sector, and begin producing quality goods. Vietnam should join the TPP. Vietnam is unlikely to end its trade defict with China but it can improve its terms of trade with other economies. As for smuggling – it takes two sides for smuggling to succeed. Vietnam needs to stamp out corruption by border and custom officials.

Q17. Chinese Air Defence Identification Zone: How likely is it that China will establish an air defense identification zone in the South China Sea to support its sovereignty claims and what would such a move mean for nations with interests in the sea, including Vietnam and the United States?

Thao Vi Nguyen ANSWER: China does not yet possess the means to enforce an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea. It could do so over the Paracel Islands because it has air force planes based on Hainan Island. At present and in the near term future China cannot enforce an ADIZ over the southern reaches of the South China Sea, even with its present land reclamation and construction activities. If China’s ADIZ interfered with internationally recognized air routes, the United States would deliberately fly through the zone to uphold international law. China has not interfered with US planes that pass through its ADIZ in Northeast Asia.

Q18. Inward investment: Some scholars state that if this area and these countries (such as Vietnam, China and the Philippines) still visible on media sticked to disputation, then international investors will hesitate to invest to the area, cause worrying of unstable politics. Would you please give your views on this?

Nhung Nguyen Thi Tuyet ANSWER: Foreign investors will be scared off if current territorial disputes turn violent. This would affect mainly oil and gas exploration activities in disputed areas. Foreign direct investment on land in China, the Philippines and Vietnam is not likely to be affected seriously. Korean investors put more money into Vietnam after the anti-China riots last year. Violent maritime disputes that affect freedom of navigation and over flight are likely to lead to skyrocketing insurance premiums. All parties in the dispute would be affected. At the same time major maritime powers would intervene to protect sea lines of communications.

(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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