Prior to visiting Vietnam for the APEC summit in early November, Xi Jinping called on Vietnam to settle future South China Sea disputes with China as kindred communist spirits. Xi’s statement came on the eve of President Trump’s visit to Vietnam and likely aimed to soothe diplomatic tensions, to counterbalance American influence, and to temporarily improve negotiating atmospheres for bilateral trade agreements with Vietnam. However, a 2014 incident during which China built an oil rig in Vietnamese waters serves as a reminder that, despite any normative behaviors Xi might prescribe, Chinese behavior towards other South China Sea claimants is generally inconsistent with these messages of goodwill. Despite withdrawing the rig after a forceful Vietnamese response, China has likely learned new lessons to calibrate its strategy in the future when dealing with other countries with claims in the South China Sea. While China backed down in that instance, it might not do so in future clashes, the possibility of which raises real questions about sovereignty rights for Vietnam.
China displays an acute sensitivity over perceived violations of its own sovereignty and territorial claims but has no reservations about using force to violate the sovereignty of its neighbors. China loudly proclaims the legitimacy of its claims in the South China Sea, but has no interest in considering similar historically substantial claims from others. For all the talk of a neighborly big brother-little brother relationship with Vietnam, China indicates a preference for bullying its little brother with military force. If China expects to step into the internationally influential and respectable role for which it yearns as a superpower, it cannot soothe with the mouth while striking with the fist.
Although Hanoi is generally accommodating to Beijing’s aggression to avoid risking open war, anti-Chinese sentiments driven by nationalism among the Vietnamese public are strong and deeply entrenched in history. Future instances of unrest in response to incidents such as the 2014 oil rig standoff, while likely not threatening to the Vietnamese regime, could potentially carry unintended consequences for a long-term China-Vietnam diplomatic relationship. Moreover, the brief but intensely bloody border war of 1979 deeply wounded the Vietnamese public’s psyche across generations and continues to feed smoldering resentment towards China. Vietnam does not seek to unnecessarily antagonize China, but its powerful northern neighbor has previously shown a lack of restraint in its aggression.
On the other hand, public opinion polls indicate that both the United States and President Trump are widely favorable with the Vietnamese public despite the much bloodier and socially destructive Vietnam War. Vietnam is amicable to the United States and seeks a closer relationship through trade and security cooperation, as indicated by the current volume of Vietnamese exports to the United States and recent lifting of the arms embargo by President Obama in 2016. Moreover, President Trump suggested that Vietnam should buy more arms, indicating a rapid normalization and a significant potential for growing security cooperation between the two countries.
If the United States is serious about countering unauthorized expansion of Chinese military power in the South China Sea, it should look to Vietnam as the most useful partner and strategic anchor for achieving the goal of maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific. China is continuing to shorten the gap in military technology with the United States and enhance its ability to project military force further from its own coast. This makes Southeast Asian partners like Vietnam increasingly important to United States interests in the Asia-Pacific region at a time of decline in relative naval power. Throwing our diplomatic and, if required, military support behind South China Sea claimants willing to actively resist Chinese maritime coercion allows the United States to maintain its influence, and thus its claim, as an Asia-Pacific power in the absence of a physical presence. The United States should not go quietly into the night, allowing the rules-based standards for international conduct and behavior to be usurped.