The later signal is positive, showing reduction of tension in the region. But if one looks at it carefully, the situation is not simple: China is playing two cards (hot and cold) in a randomizing way to make Vietnam loses its direction.
Let’s review the latest events: on May 26 2011, Chinese ships cut cables of Vietnam’s Binh Minh 02 ships, only several days before the ASEAN security summit (Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore). After a meeting with Vietnam on the sideline of the Shangri La Dialogue, in which Chinese officials emphasized to settle disputes by peaceful measures and to maintain the Vietnam-China friendship, in the morning of June 9, three Chinese ships cut cables of Vietnam’s Viking 02 ship.
On June 20-21, when the international conference on security in the East Sea were taking place in Washington, China threatened to use forces against Vietnam on its Global Times newspaper on June 21.
On June 25-26, during the Vietnam-China high-ranking meeting, China re-affirmed to maintain good neighborhood with Vietnam, but at the same time, Chinese general Peng Guangqian, Deputy Secretary General of the National Committee for Security Policy, stated that China might teach Vietnam a bigger lesson on the national TV channel on June 25.
Several days later, the Hainan province authorities banned fishing on the waters of Vietnam, directly violating Vietnam’s sovereignty, immediately after the two sides make a joint statement of good neighborhood.
Vietnam in the game
In strategic research, when China plays two cards like this, Vietnam may lose its direction. It means that Vietnam may be directed by China. Specifically, Vietnam may “fall” into the “arms” of China and it cannot make permanent combination with the US. It means that Vietnam “shifts” between two strategies: unilateral self-defense and defense with the US, one fighting with China suddenly occurs.
The case of Vietnam is different from that of the Philippines, in which the Philippine’s consistent combination with the US creates the deterrent power. Meanwhile, Vietnam has to face a possibility (though it is not sure to happen) that China will suddenly attack Vietnam at a key point: 1) increasing China’s real control over the international sea lane through the East Sea; 2) increasing the possibility to create disputes, which will gradually spread to undisputed areas; 3) the point of attack must allow China to bring into full play its two-card strategy to force Vietnam to make unilateral self-defense measures when clashes happen. In that case, the US cannot quickly respond or cannot send its ships to the East Sea for a clash which is considered to be small.
Choosing the time and the point of attack that satisfy the above conditions will benefit China’s short and long term interests. Particularly, Vietnam’s unilateral self-defense will make China’s occupation to take place faster. After that, bilateral conflicts will spread in a more complicated way. China can use its advantages the best to bully Vietnam to earn long-term benefits. More clearly, China is driving conflicts to the bilateral state.
In history, China’s sudden attack to the Gac Ma bank in March 1988 when the former USSR soldiers were stationed at the Cam Ranh Bay as an effective shield to protect Vietnam’s Truong Sa (Spratly) archipelago is a memorable example. That was the time the Vietnam-China border war cooled down. Vietnamese people’s wish is to have good relations with the giant neighbor – China. That wish was gradually realized through diplomatic exchanges. Trade exchanges were also resumed. In that context, nobody thought that China suddenly attacked Vietnam’s Gac Ma bank.
Let’s see the history and today, when conflicts are tense in the sea around Truong Sa and Hoang Sa (Paracel) archipelagos and they are spreading to Vietnam’s continental shelf, through the Binh Minh 02 and Viking II incidents.
It is quite clear that the bricks to build foundation for today’s conflicts to seek control in the East Sea were placed by China over 20 years ago and even 40 years ago if the incident related to the Paracel Islands is included. What will China think and do in the next 10, 20 and 40 years?
Vietnam today, like it 20 years ago, is hard to cope with China’s doubled-face policy. But Vietnam can play a similar game. It can further strengthen bilateral negotiation with China an at the same time strengthen its cooperation with the US, Japan, Russia, India and the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) in improving its early warning ability, its defense power at strategic points, implementing joint exercises, joint patrol on the air and at sea, cooperation in rescue and relief, environmental and meteorological research, etc.
That policy will change the expectations of related sides, including China, of the gain and loss when conflicts happen. Vietnam can drive China to the direction of solving bilateral disputes by multilateral forums.
In that approach, we need to extend the concept of sovereignty in a New World, in which economic-geopolitics linkage is the firm foundation for multilateral security coordination mechanism.
More clearly, though Vietnam respects and preserves friendship with China, Vietnam’s immovability when China violates its sovereignty in exploring natural resources and fishing in its continental shelf will not only harm the national pride but also weaken the friendship between Vietnamese and Chinese peoples.
Vietnam should have specific measures to defend its sovereignty through economic-geopolitics cooperation with related countries, not only China.
Vietnam can lease, for example for 100 years, its islands and waters to the US, Russia or Japan to explore oil or fishing. Its earnings from the leasing of the right of fishing and natural resource exploration are specific evidences of Vietnam’s sovereignty. When the earnings are recognized and the ownership of foreign countries or foreign groups is guaranteed under international conventions, bilateral disputes will reduce and Vietnam’s ability to defend its sovereignty increases.
Vietnam can also lease its airports and seaports to contribute to the commercial values of the international sea lanes through the East Sea.
There is the combination between commercial interests and multilateral security here, which benefits all sides. The value of combination is huge.