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The Big Read: Hanoi's delicate dance with the US shines a light on shifting regional alliances

SINGAPORE — Haiyang Shiyou 981. To get a clearer understanding of the remarkable events that took place in Hanoi early this week, casual observers must acquaint themselves with that name.

US President Barack Obama attends a town hall meeting with members of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) at the GEM Center in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam May 25, 2016. Photo: Reuters

US President Barack Obama attends a town hall meeting with members of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) at the GEM Center in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam May 25, 2016. Photo: Reuters

SINGAPORE — Haiyang Shiyou 981.

To get a clearer understanding of the remarkable events that took place in Hanoi early this week, casual observers must acquaint themselves with that name.

(An oil rig (centre) which China calls Haiyang Shiyou 981, and Vietnam refers to as Hai Duong 981, is seen in the South China Sea, off the shore of Vietnam in this May 14, 2014. Photo: Reuters)

It represented the shock that Vietnam woke up to in May 2014: The Haiyang Shiyou 981, a US$1 billion (S$1.37 billion) giant Chinese oil rig, parked off its coast, in waters that both countries claim.

Vietnam tried to dislodge the deep-water drilling rig, sending a flotilla of ships its way, but was beaten back by a more forceful response from the Chinese ships that escorted the China National Offshore Oil Corporation rig. The ensuing chaos sparked an international crisis, and a violent nationalistic response within Vietnam.

But it was the silence on one end that quickly moved things onto a different plane — when Vietnam’s communist party leader Nguyen Phu Trong tried to reach Beijing to protest, his calls were not returned. Hanoi wasted no time in turning to the United States, lobbying its former enemy to lift an arms embargo so that Vietnam could buy American lethal weapons to protect itself.

The US partly relaxed the ban, allowing the purchase of non-lethal equipment for maritime defence, and last year, warmly received Mr Trong at the White House.

That visit arguably set in firm motion the full lifting of the arms embargo this week, announced during the first official visit by President Barack Obama to Vietnam.

The move not only ends one of the last vestiges of the Vietnam War, but, more importantly, marks a recalibration of US-Vietnam ties as well as Hanoi’s relationship with Beijing.

“In a sense, you can consider this Vietnam’s version of ‘rebalance’ after the estrangement of the Vietnam War,” said Singapore’s Ambassador-at-Large Bilahari Kausikan, noting that Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh himself had made overtures to the US after World War II and only decisively turned to the communist bloc after he was rebuffed.

“The Vietnamese are first and foremost nationalists,” added Mr Kausikan. The S R Nathan Fellow has this year given a series of public lectures about how the South China Sea issue has become one where the parameters of Sino-American competition and their interests are most clearly defined and from which South-east Asia nations will draw conclusions about American resolve and Chinese intentions in the region.

While Mr Obama said the decision to lift the arms ban had nothing to do with China, most experts and analysts believe it was partly in response to Beijing’s assertiveness in staking Chinese claims in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

Analysts have suggested that, in return, Hanoi may allow the US access to Cam Ranh Bay — a strategic deepwater port in an inlet of the disputed South China Sea. Such a development, if it comes to pass, will upset China and raise further questions on how the diplomatic and military dance around the waterway will play out.

The picture is further complicated by disputes involving China and several countries in the region over fishing rights in the South China Sea. Malaysia this week detained three Filipino fishermen for fishing in its territorial waters. Indonesia has launched an aggressive crackdown on illegal fishing vessels — including those owned by Chinese, Filipino, Malaysian, Thai and Vietnamese fishermen — in its waters, sinking more than 60 of them so far. The fishermen have insisted they were plying their trade in traditional fishing waters.

(Click to Enlarge)

Against this background of tension and rivalry, some South-east Asian countries are already changing positions with regard to their relations with the major powers. Thailand, a long-time ally of the US, has been alienated from Washington since Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha launched a military coup in 2014. Mr Prayuth’s government has been strengthening ties with Beijing.

There are also indications that the Philippines, which has overlapping claims with China in the South China Sea and is another treaty ally of the US, may recalibrate its ties with Washington. President-elect Rodrigo Duterte has openly questioned the US’ commitment to the Philippines in the event of a conflict with China. He has also indicated that he is open to talks with Beijing.

Only time will tell how these changing geopolitical alliances will affect regional peace and stability, especially given the uncertainty in the US’ foreign policy towards Asia as Mr Obama nears the end of his term in the White House.

A NEW DAWN IN US-VIETNAM TIES?

Mr Obama’s visit to Vietnam this week was steeped in significance. Both sides herald a new partnership 40 years after a bitter war that claimed more than 57,000 American lives and killed as many as two million Vietnamese.

(US President Barack Obama greets attendees after a town-hall-style meeting with members of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative at the GEM Center in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, May 25, 2016. Photo: The New York Times)

The President portrayed the lifting of the arms embargo as part of the process of normalising relations between the two countries. “This change will ensure that Vietnam has access to the equipment that it needs to defend itself,” Mr Obama said in a press conference with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang on Monday.

“It also underscores the commitment of the US to fully normalise the relationship with Vietnam, including strong defence ties,” Mr Obama said.

Everywhere he went, the US President was greeted by cheering locals, all jostling to catch a glimpse of the world’s top leader. In a masterstroke of public diplomacy, Mr Obama sat down for a meal with celebrity television show host Anthony Bourdain in a humble noodle shop in Hanoi, delighting netizens and many Vietnamese.

Mr Obama also held a town hall session in Ho Chi Minh City with young Vietnamese leaders. He urged them to do more to combat climate change and touted the benefits of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

(Photo: AP)

The TPP is a landmark trade pact among 12 Pacific Rim nations, including Vietnam, and is a capstone to Mr Obama’s foreign-policy rebalance towards closer ties with Asia.

For Vietnam, Mr Obama’s visit could not have gone better.

“The messages of friendship and cooperation as well as those of looking forward to the future have been sent and well received in Vietnam,” said Mr Tran Viet Thai, deputy director of the Institute for Foreign Policy and Strategic Studies under Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Assistant Professor Richard Heydarian, who teaches political science at De La Salle University in Manila, noted that the Obama administration has “astutely tapped into Vietnam’s strategic anxieties to build a security partnership that seemed unthinkable just a decade ago”.

“Through the TPP and the growing naval cooperation with America, Vietnam hopes to dampen its deleterious vulnerability with respect to its giant neighbour,” he added, referring to China.

Vietnam’s economy will reportedly get a 10 per cent boost from the TPP in the next decade.

At first glance, ties between Hanoi and Washington appear to have been given a huge boost by the lifting of the arms embargo. Vietnam has hitherto viewed the embargo as a discriminatory practice and a relic of the Cold War, but Washington had held back so that it could continue to use the embargo as a bargaining chip to get Hanoi to improve its human-rights record.

The lifting of the ban is therefore an important diplomatic signal from the US that it wants to move the relationship with Vietnam forward, especially since Vietnam is now the biggest South-east Asian exporter to the US.

“The removal of the embargo indicates a stronger rapprochement and a higher level of trust between the two countries, which makes them more comfortable and more willing to pursue closer cooperation in the future, especially in sensitive areas such as defence and security,” said Dr Le Hong Hiep, a research fellow at the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

Vietnam, which lost two short naval wars with China in 1974 and 1988 over disputed islands in the South China Sea, is alarmed by China’s growing assertiveness in the maritime regional domain.

(The Vietnamese national flag is seen at the damaged Taiwanese bicycle producer Asama building in Vietnam’s southern Binh Duong province May 16, 2014. Photo: Reuters)

(Security forces (front) scuffle with protesters chanting anti-China slogans, during an anti-China protest in Vietnam’s southern Ho Chi Minh city, in this photo taken by Kyodo May 18, 2014. Photo: Reuters)

China-Vietnam ties were severely strained in 2014 after the deployment of the China National Offshore Oil Corporation rig sparked massive anti-Chinese protests that left at least 21 dead and dozens injured in Vietnam. Thousands of Chinese citizens had to be extracted from Vietnam for their safety. Although Beijing moved the rig back to its waters after two months, the crisis saw bilateral relations between the two nations tumble to their lowest point in decades.

By cosying up to Washington, Hanoi has sent a clear signal to Beijing that it has powerful friends. At the same time, Vietnam is unlikely to sever itself from the orbit of its largest trading partner and ideological ally.

“Vietnam is acutely conscious it lives next to China and has done so for two thousand years. They have to simultaneously stand up to China and get along with China. That will never change and they are not going to swing all the way one way or another,” said Mr Kausikan.

Military analysts say although there is likely to be greater defence cooperation between the US and Vietnam going forward, this is unlikely to be in the form of major weapons deals.

Since the arms embargo was partially lifted two years ago to allow Hanoi to buy equipment such as radar and boats, Vietnam has not followed up with any major purchases.

“Vietnam is fully in the Russian technological domain, and to break out they will have significant technological problems integrating American weapons into their existing Russian-based armed forces,” said Associate Professor Bernard Loo from the military studies programme of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, adding that he expects more consultations and exchanges between both sides in future.

Professor Carl Thayer of the Australian Defence Force Academy said he expects the US and Vietnam to step up cooperation in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief as well as training for Vietnam’s involvement in United Nations peacekeeping.

“Vietnam likely will permit the US to preposition supplies and equipment to deal with natural disasters in the region. Vietnam will not, however, join with the US in military exercises that could appear to be aimed at China,” added Prof Thayer, who has studied Vietnam’s military since the 1960s.

Commenting on the outlook for US-Vietnam relations, Dr Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, said ties were likely to see a gradual but long-term improvement.

“Both sides will continue to protect their self-interests. To some degree, this will limit the speed at which the bilateral relationship develops. Nevertheless, the relationship can grow despite these disagreements,” he said.

“In a sense, this is an advantage because expectations are lower when everyone realises these are former adversaries with mutually-antagonistic political systems.”

(People gather and wave to US President Barack Obama’s motorcade as it travels to a Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) town hall-style event at the GEM Center in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Wednesday, May 25, 2016. Photo: AP)

BEIJING TAKES NOTICE

Mr Obama’s visit to Vietnam and how ties between both sides progress will no doubt be closely watched by Beijing.

“For China, Vietnam’s increasingly active embrace of the US rebalance — from its participation in the TPP and acquisition of US-built patrol boats, to its citizens’ fanfare reception of President Obama — is a major setback for its strategic influence in South-east Asia,” said Mr Ashley Townshend, a research fellow at the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

“Despite long-standing cultural ties and extensive party-to-party relations, China is effectively ‘losing’ Vietnam to the US,” he added.

China’s official response to the outcome of Mr Obama’s visit was muted and measured, with a Foreign Ministry spokesman saying that Beijing hoped the lifting of the arms embargo would be beneficial to regional peace, stability and development.

However, the Global Times, an influential state-run newspaper, slammed the announcement, saying the move was aimed at Beijing. It added that the US’ move would exacerbate the “strategic antagonism between Washington and Beijing” and accused the White House of “taking advantage of Vietnam to stir up more troubles in the South China Sea”.

Closer US-Vietnam ties come at a time when China is challenged on several fronts over its claims in the South China Sea, through which roughly US$5 billion (S$6.88 billion) of shipborne trade pass through every year. China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan have overlapping claims in the disputed waters.

Massive land reclamation, construction of military facilities and the siting of military equipment in the disputed islands and reefs controlled by Beijing have sparked fears of militarisation in the region. The Pentagon has carried out repeated patrols near Chinese-controlled islands, ostensibly to uphold freedom of navigation in international waters.

Manila has asked a court of arbitration at The Hague to recognise its right to exploit waters in the South China Sea, but Beijing has insisted that the court has no jurisdiction over the case.

A ruling on the case is expected in the coming weeks. But leading up to that, China has cobbled up a list of more than 40 countries — many of which are landlocked ones from beyond the region — which Beijing claims endorses its position that the issue should be settled through direct negotiations and not international courts.

When asked if China is getting more nervous about developments in the South China Sea, Mr Kausikan replied that “at least the PRC MFA is getting nervous”, referring to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“Otherwise why go around collecting so-called statements of support from such major maritime powers as Sudan, Gambia and Belarus, among others? It impresses no one and only internationalises the issue, which all along (is something) the Chinese say they don’t want,” said Mr Kausikan.

“I think this is because the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) will have to explain to its own people why, if the Great Rejuvenation (espoused by President Xi Jinping) is really so great, and China under CCP leadership is recovering territories lost when China was weak, an international tribunal thinks these are not really Chinese,” he added.

“So they have to show that there is no international consensus and many countries support China, never mind if most of these countries either don’t have a clue what the South China Sea issue is all about or have had words put into their mouth.”

Mr Kausikan believed it was not necessary for Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to divide the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) by recently getting Laos, Cambodia and Brunei to agree to a so-called four-point consensus on the South China Sea.

“Asean would not have been able to agree on a common position on the tribunal’s decision even if Wang Yi did not do anything. But Wang Yi is worried about his career as the MFA was bound to be blamed if it did nothing.”

STRATEGIC CAM RANH BAY

(Cam Ranh International Port. Source: Vietnam Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Adding to Beijing’s anxieties is how the operational picture in the South China Sea might change if Vietnam allows the US Navy to access a recently inaugurated international commercial port in Cam Ranh Bay, a dual-use facility that can also serve foreign warships.

Situated on the south-eastern coast of Vietnam approximately 290km north of Ho Chi Minh City, Cam Ranh Bay is closer to the disputed Paracel Islands claimed by both Beijing and Hanoi than China’s nearest naval base in Hainan.

The bay is also near the Strait of Malacca, giving the US influence over the important global shipping route. It is a deepwater facility that can reportedly receive aircraft carriers and submarines.

The navies of Singapore, Japan and France have visited Cam Ranh International Port since it was opened several months ago. Singapore’s RSS Endurance was the first foreign warship to call at Cam Ranh port on March 17.

(The RSS Endurance at Cam Ranh International Port on March 17. The RSS Endurance is first foreign warship to call into Cam Ranh International Port since its inauguration on March 8. Photo: Ng Eng Hen/Facebook)

Despite speculation that Hanoi may be willing to allow the US Navy to access Cam Ranh Bay, the nature of the arrangement — occasional port calls, rotational deployment, or long-term presence — has yet to be announced.

If the US Navy is given access to Cam Ranh Bay, it will open up another front that China has to watch, in addition to the Scarborough Shoal at the eastern reaches of the South China Sea, where Beijing is facing off against a Philippines supported by the US and Japan.

“Were Hanoi to permit the US military to access airstrips and port facilities at Cam Ranh Bay, Beijing would be confronted with American military access points along the western, southern and eastern flanks of the South China Sea,” noted Mr Townshend of the US Studies Centre.

Professor Alexander Vuving, of the Daniel K Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, said that granting the US military access to Cam Ranh Bay would be a “smart move in a weiqi game”, a Chinese traditional chess game based on the principle of indirect offence.

“If the US Navy has permanent access to Cam Ranh Bay, this can neutralise some of the advantage China can enjoy due to its artificial islands in the South China Sea,” he said.

Other analysts point out that, ultimately, the modality through which the US is allowed to access Cam Ranh Bay will be carefully considered by Vietnam. High among Hanoi’s considerations will be how to balance sending a clear signal to Beijing that it is no pushover, with minimising the chances of conflict.

Prof Thayer of the Australian Defence Force Academy said that Vietnam is unlikely to give the US privileged access to Cam Ranh Bay. He said Vietnam will also stop short of allowing any permanent presence or rotational presence by the US Navy there.

“Vietnam will carefully orchestrate these visits so as to minimise Chinese concerns,” said Prof Thayer.

Dr Le of the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute added that, for the moment, Vietnam is likely to take a gradual approach to the issue. “It does not want to generate the perception that it is ganging up with the US and other countries against China,” he noted.

“Every step Vietnam takes with the US, it will have to look back to see how China reacts.”

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