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

C3S Paper No. 0040/ 2015

International Center for Journalists, Washington, D.C., Live Online Chat with Vietnamese journalists: Thayer Replies to Questions by Vietnamese Journalists – Batch 3 of 3

Key words: ASEAN (Q 33), China (Q 20, 21, 24, 26, 27, 29, 30, 31 and 32), Diplomacy (Q 32), HD 981 (Q 32), India (Q 22), Indonesia (Q 29), International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (Q 19), Japan (Q 25), Russia (Q 27), South China Sea (Q 20, 21, 26 and 28), United States (Q 24, 25, 32 and 33), and Vietnam’s foreign policy (Q 23).

Q19. International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea: How could a beneficial judgment of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) for the Philippines affect related countries?

Quang Dung Le ANSWER: A judgment by the Arbitral Tribunal favourable to the Philippines would rule that China’s nine-dash line was illegal, Chinese-occupied features were not entitled to any maritime zones, and the Philippines was entitled to sovereign jurisdiction within its Exclusive Economic Zone. All the South China Sea claimant states would benefit because this would bring the force of international law behind their maritime claims. It should be noted, however, that UNCLOS contains no provisions for enforcement. China rejects international arbitration. China could ignore the Arbitral Tribunal’s ruling and brazen it out. But this would undermine China’s international stature and bring it under pressure by the major powers to conform to international law.

Q20. Restraining China: Some people say that there will be more Haiyang oil rigs in the East Sea and other intrusions from China. What’s your opinion on that? What should Vietnam and other regional countries do to restrain China’s ehaviour?

Hong Phuc Nguyen Thi ANSWER: In addition to HD 981, China is presently constructing two more mega-oil exploration platforms that are due to come on stream in 2016 and 2017. These are expensive structures and are designed to locate commercial oil and gas deposits in deep water. Given the fall in world oil prices and assessments that low oil prices will be the new normal, China is more likely to deploy mega-drilling platforms where it is commercially feasible to do so rather than in areas where it seeks to reinforce sovereignty claims. Vietnam and other regional states should build up their own  maritime enforcement capabilities, work hard to ensure ASEAN stays unified and oppose unilateral Chinese actions, and enlist the support of major external powers.

Q21. China’s strategy: What is your assessment of China’s current strategies in the disputed areas in the East Sea?

Chi Ngo ANSWER: China is moving on several fronts to dominate the South China Sea and consolidate and expand its interests there. China’s strategy involves: land reclamation including docks and air strips; building large floating docks that can function to provide fresh water, medical facilities and storage; dispatching its fishing fleets and large mother ships (30,000 tons) further south; building up its maritime enforcement capacity with larger ships (3,000 tons plus); and maintaining an ever larger military presence by the People’s Liberation Army Navy. Eventually China will colonize its artificial islands with Chinese people.

Q22. India: The warming of US –Vietnam relations , India –US as a thorn in the eyes of the Chinese , have you got any comments on the reaction of China during the visit to India of President Obama?

Hang Tran Thi Thu ANSWER: China has been most circumspect in its public response to President Obama’s visit to India and the Modi-Obama Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region. China was most critical of comments on the South China Sea in the India-US joint statement. China was also critical of Obama’s support for India’s inclusion in the Nuclear Suppliers Group because India is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. China is competing for influence in India. Xi Jinping visited last September (2014) and his trip was spoiled when on the eve of his arrival a small Chinese army unit made an incursion into Indian territory. China does not want to jeopardize its current economic relationship with India and future investments. China is also aware that despite the warmth of US-India relations and the evolving quadrilateral ties between India-Japan-Australia and the US, India will not ally permanently against China or participate in a US-led containment strategy. Prime Minister Modi will visit Beijing in May 2015 to balance relations.

Q23. Risks to Vietnam: What risks do you think Vietnam will have to face with its multilateral and non-aligned relations?

Dang Dam Van ANSWER: The main risk to Vietnam’s policy of multilateralization of its external relations was shown last year during the HD 981 crisis. Multilateral relations work when each external power finds value in its relationship with Vietnam to the extent that it must stay in the game rather than loose out to another external power. Vietnam is adept at convincing other countries that their interests overlap. However, when there is friction in bilateral relations the multilateral approach becomes unbalanced offering Vietnam a choice of alignment with the US or backing down to mollify China.

Q24. Picking friends: Do you think the Vietnamese people would prefer to be friends with America or China?

Thi Hong Chi Nguyen ANSWER: In the present strategic context the majority of Vietnamese would probably favour relations with the United States, especially the younger generation. But more sophisticated and educated Vietnamese would argue that Vietnam does not have to make an either or choice. There are many positive things Vietnam has 3 borrowed and adapted from China. It is in Vietnam’s interest to be on good terms with both China and the United States to the extent possible, and be on good relations with Russia, India, Japan and the EU as well.

Q25. US and Japan: Do you think the US and Japan will implement their recentlyannounced policies towards Vietnam and ASEAN countries this year? – Trong Giap Nguyen ANSWER: Yes. Both Japan and the United States will follow through on their commitment to assist Vietnam develop its maritime security capabilities. Both Japan and the United States will conduct their relations with Vietnam under the terms, respectively, of the enhanced strategic partnership and the comprehensive partnership. These are government-to-government commitments that both Japan and the US take seriously.

Q26. Vietnam’s reactions: In the context of aggressively and increasingly movements of China in Gac Ma island, which attitudes and actions should Vietnam react to keep the sake of country as well as the relations with China?

Huy Tran Quang ANSWER: Vietnam should raise its concerns directly to China through face-to-face meetings by diplomats and high-level officials. Vietnam should also lobby fellow members of ASEAN and major powers to voice their concerns. Vietnam should also ensure that due international publicity is given to China’s actions. The recent ASEAN foreign ministers’ retreat in Malaysia is a case in point. The ASEAN ministers voiced their concerns over China’s land reclamation activities. Vietnam and ASEAN need to argue this is a violation of the spirit and letter of the 2002 Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. However, Vietnam should not undertake any action that is physically threatening to China.

Q27. Russia and China: What challenges would the alliance between Russia and China put on the US in addressing East Sea issues? Or is the US waiting for a better chance to step in? If yes, what can it be?

Anh Duc Phan ANSWER: Russia and China have entered into an “alliance of convenience.” They both share a convergence of interests in undermining US leadership and influence globally and in the Asia-Pacific region. At the same time China and Russia share differences. Russia is concerned about the theft of intellectual property regarding military technology. Russia is also concerned about illegal Chinese migration into Russia’s Far East. China does not approve of foreign intervention and is privately concerned over Russia’s intervention in the Crimea and Ukraine. Both Russia and China have a seat at the East Asia Summit but the number of states that support the US is far greater than for China and Russia. Russia and China might complicate the implementation of US policy, but the whiff of an alliance between Moscow and Beijing will send negative signals to the region. In short, Sino-Russian collusion on a permanent basis is likely to be counterproductive.

Q28. View from abroad: Analyzing and attending the tight situation at South China Sea, would you like to give the view of the scholars and international community about the action of Viet Nam?

Tung Phan Le ANSWER: The vast majority of foreign scholars – excepting Chinese scholars – are sympathetic to Vietnam because they view it as the victim of China’s aggressive 4 assertiveness. The majority of foreign scholars who specialize on the South China Sea do not accept the legal foundation of China’s nine-dash line claim. Many international scholars are more outspoken than their Vietnamese counterparts in criticizing China for its actions. A minority of foreign scholars, however, argue that there is some basis to Chinese sovereignty claims and that the actions by the Philippines and Vietnam have been provocative. The international community is composed of states. With the exception of Russia that has remained quiet on South China Sea issues, all major powers are critical of China. However, many regional states and distant powers remain silent or only make general statements in favour of the peaceful settlement of disputes because they do not want to offend China.

Q29. Indonesia’s role: Can Indonesian moves curb China’s aggression in the South China Sea? If Indonesia asserts itself, what can Vietnam benefit from that in South China Sea disputes?

Van Linh Pham ANSWER; Indonesia faces two policy decisions with respect to China and the South China Sea. The first is to get absolute clarification about the overlap between China’s nine-dash line and Indonesia’s EEZ and to stop the intrusion of Chinese fishing boats into Indonesia’s maritime zone. Second, Indonesia has declared that it would like to play a role in the peaceful settlement of the South China Sea disputes. China would like these disputes settled bilaterally between the states directly concerned. Indonesia, as the largest country in Southeast Asia and as a member of the G20, cannot be ignored by China. Vietnam stands to benefit by Indonesia playing a proactive role. President Jokowi would like to revive the grandeur of Indonesia’s past maritime empires. A greater role for Indonesia in regional affairs means a diminished role for China. This is in Vietnam’s interest. But Indonesia alone cannot curb China’s aggressive actions.

Q30. HD 981: There’s a rumor that HD 981 oil rig is returning to Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone in the East Sea. What could be the reason? How would the US respond and why? – Binh Tran ANSWER: The HD 981 passed by Vietnam’s east coast and is being towed to explore waters off Myanmar. There is no present danger the HD 981 will be sent back to the waters off Triton Island. The US would only be concerned if the HD 981 entered Vietnamese waters for exploration accompanied by an armada of warships, tug boats and civilian maritime enforcement agency vessels. The US would mount a strenuous diplomatic offensive against China; but the US would not deploy its naval ships in the area and become involved directly.

Q31. Vietnam-China ties: In the 65th anniversary of Vietnam-China ties, the slogan “16 golden words and 4 good things” was repeated as a commitment between the two countries. As an observer, how long do you think this slogan can be maintained and what challenges can it create in Vietnam-US relations?

Nguyễn Trường Uy ANSWER: The sixteen golden words (characters) – “long-term, stable, futureoriented, comprehensive cooperation relations” – and four goods – “good neighbours, good friends, good comrades and good partners” – should be viewed as aspirational goals. The sixteen golden words and four goods capture what bilateral relations should be like. I do not think anything positive can come by discarding it. 5 The expression “good comrades” has long been debated internally in Vietnam. After Sino-Vietnamese relations were normalized in 1991 and Vietnam pressed for closer ties, China reportedly replied “dong chi khong phai dong minh” (comrades but not allies). In the 1990s, when there was a dispute over Tu Chinh reef, a member of the Vietnam Communist Party Central Committee reportedly said that “China uses socialism like a rope to tie Vietnam’s hands.” It is this ideological connection between China and Vietnam that arguably creates a mindset of Vietnamese dependence on China. The current Vietnamese leadership will continue to use both expressions because it creates common ground with China.

Q32. Vietnam’s diplomatic relations: Holding a profound knowledge of Vietnam, what do you think Vietnam should do to handle its relations with China and the US, two countries that have big influence in Vietnam’s diplomatic relations?

Hiep Pham Dinh ANSWER: Vietnam should continue as it has been doing – multilateralizing it external relations with all the major powers and avoid dependence on any one. Although Vietnam has adopted a policy of characterizing its relations as “doi tac” (partners in cooperation) and “doi tuong” (objects of struggle), it has tended to allow its concerns about China’s reactions to constrain its relations with the United States. Vietnam should be more hard headed in determining its national interests (loi ich dan toc). If an improvement in ties with the US gives mutual benefit, Vietnam should be more willing to take advantage of that and not look over its shoulder for China’s reaction. China takes a long-term view of its bilateral relationships. For example, when Australia condemned its Air Defence Identification Zone in Northeast Asia, China suspended ministerial visits and sent junior ministers to receive Australian government ministers. However, when the Malaysian Airlines MH 370 was determined to have crashed in waters off western Australia, China changed tune when Australia permitted Chinese ships and planes to take part in the search. There is an Australian expression about “swings and roundabouts” to get to a final destination. Vietnam should take this view in its relations with China – there is more than one way to getting to the final destination.

Q33. US view of ASEAN: What policies does the US use in its relations with Vietnam for not interrupting its interests in relations with China? Does the US use ASEAN countries, including Vietnam, as a brake to slow down a rising China?

Nguyễn Văn Điện ANSWER: China-United States relations are too comprehensive and important for US-Vietnam relations to seriously derail major power bilateral relations. The US and China have over sixty mechanisms to manage their bilateral relations including the annual ministerial-level Strategic and Economic Dialogue. They also hold summit meetings of their respective presidents. Generally it is the US side that attempts to step up all areas of cooperation with Vietnam, including defence and security relations. In the most sensitive areas it is Vietnam that puts a brake on the extent and speed of cooperation. Specifically, in answer to your question, the US will not commit itself to defending Vietnam and will not sell lethal military weapons that would upset the regional balance. The US is not opposed to China’s economic growth. Under the Obama 6 Administration the US has given priority to supporting ASEAN and ASEAN-related multilateral institutions such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, the Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum, the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus and the East Asia Summit. The US seeks to manage China’s rise by encouraging China to be a “responsible stakeholder” that supports international law, the peaceful resolution of disputes, and is transparent about its military build-up. ASEAN attempts to assert its centrality in regional affairs and uphold Southeast Asia’s autonomy in relations with all external powers, including the United States. Last year, for example, in light of reports on Chinese land reclamation activities in the South China Sea, the US adopted a policy of urging all parties to exercise self-restraint and freeze their actions. At last years’ ASEAN Regional Forum meeting this proposal was politely received by ASEAN. ASEAN took no action because of strong Chinese protests.

(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:

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