May 8th, 2013
09:38 AM ET

Vietnam must keep cool head in China row

By Andrew Billo, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Andrew Billo is assistant director Policy Programs at the Asia Society's New York headquarters. The views expressed are his own.

Ten days ago, I travelled to Ly Son Island, a volcanic atoll thirty kilometers off Vietnam’s central coast. I wasn’t there for the island's famous garlic and seafood, but rather as a participant on a Vietnamese government-sponsored trip to see the island from which the country claims Nguyen lords in the late 16th century launched exploratory trips to the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos.

But if I had taken a similar tour to China’s southern Hainan Island, the information I received would have been much different. China claims it took possession of the Paracels as far back as the Han Dynasty in 110 AD. Whether Chinese or Vietnamese ancestors occupied those islands first is now a question at the center of the two countries’ stormy territorial dispute, and shows both the difficulty – and necessity – for both countries to find resolutions grounded in contemporary realities.

Just this week, China promised to look for peaceful solutions to territorial disputes at a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, but much of the world increasingly views China's efforts to claim the South China Sea as belligerent and bullying. If its neighbors were persuaded by the country's aspirations for “a peaceful rise” in the last decade, their trust is quickly fading.

It doesn't help that countries such as Vietnam can share stories like that of Vietnamese fishermen Bui Van Phai. Bui claims his boat was fired at by a Chinese patrol vessel near the Paracels in March of this year. As we spoke beneath the scorching late-April sun, Bui's vessel floated idly behind us, its rooftop a blackened skeleton. It was void of any fishing nets or other equipment, which were lost in the blaze at an estimated cost of more than $13,000.

But even the altercation in March, as with the centuries old history, is being strongly contested. While China admits that flares were fired at Bui's boat, it denies having made a direct hit.

Unfortunately, Vietnam may have few options but showing the scars of China’s aggression if the country continues to fight for exclusive territorial sovereignty. In reality, Vietnam, as with all of China’s smaller neighbors, lacks the economic, military, and political power to deter its neighbor's possession of these territories. Even international law, which the Philippines pursued earlier this year, is challenged by China’s refusal to participate in arbitration and the lack of an enforcement mechanism with respect to the ruling.

More from CNN: China's rise creating conflict

That’s why Vietnam can gain more through an unemotional, cool, and calculated response that involves negotiation, insofar as it's possible. In doing so, Vietnam can coax China to back down from its current position, rather than pushing its big neighbor into a corner by insisting on territorial sovereignty in the disputed areas.

In fact, the two countries have had limited success on bilateral cooperation in maritime areas. In 2004, China and Vietnam entered into a joint fisheries agreement in the Gulf of Tonkin, although the agreement excluded the contested areas in the Paracel and Spratly Islands.

While nobody likes the schoolyard bully (unless he happens to be on your side), even a bully will tire of his aggression, particularly if he has nobody to pick on. Remaining above the fray will aid Vietnam's international standing, evidencing a maturity in its foreign policy and placing Vietnam on better footing as an attractive locale for international cooperation.

China's behavior is self-harming and will not likely result in success.  It is contravening a number of international laws and norms set forth by multilateral bodies, as well as behavioral expectations of a rising great power, and thus is showing itself as an irresponsible global actor. Yet simultaneously, so long as China is persistently being chastised for its actions, it is unlikely to make peace.

China’s maneuvering may partially be a knee jerk response to increased U.S. interest in the region. But Beijing would more effectively gain the favor of Southeast Asian countries by showing a willingness to cooperate with the global legal architecture it voluntarily acceded to. A transparent China would also make America’s job of gaining favor in the region more challenging, when Southeast Asian states are hedging between these two great powers.

More from CNN: Asia's disputed islands

The U.S. has increasingly shown support for Vietnam over this issue, sending its Consul General in Ho Chi Minh City (but not its ambassador in Hanoi) to visit the administrative office of the disputed Paracel Islands. But the U.S. has repeatedly emphasized the need for peaceful resolution. While the government of Vietnam may welcome this public show of support, it is also wary: the U.S. has shown in the last few decades a willingness to both forge and scrap alliances, almost in the same breath.

Still, beyond the troubled bilateral relationship with Vietnam and the Philippines, there are also signs that the Southeast Asian community is looking to make progress with China on other fronts, including economic cooperation. Its ability to discuss cooperation at the recent ASEAN summit in Brunei contrasts starkly with last year’s fiasco at the ASEAN foreign minister’s meeting in Phnom Penh, when the regional grouping failed to issue a joint statement.

But ASEAN is still susceptible to division. China’s foreign minister made his first official trip abroad this week, visiting key “neutral” Southeast Asian states whose favor could ultimately be tipped toward China in the ongoing South China Sea dispute. The four countries he visited – Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, and Brunei – have so far sought to balance the interests of the United States, China, and ASEAN.

All of this seems to play to China's policy of strategic ambiguity, but with America adopting a similarly opaque strategy, there is a risk of the most globally important economic region becoming a playground for the world's two great powers as they try to sort out their relations.

As a result, a strategy for managing the dispute that recognizes historical differences while seeking compromise for all parties based on legal principles is needed. Vietnam – and others – should not allow themselves to be incited by China's aggressive proclamations. The world is watching closely, and quietly hoping China's behavior might change.

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