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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soundoff (22 Responses)
  1. Ben Senior

    China not only wants Paracel and Spratly Islands but also this whole world to show that it is the most powerful nation. The aggressive country does not have friends on this blue planet but economic partners, those want to tap into the biggest and most potential market. If black sheep doesn't change its mind, it will be lonely gotten rid of the herd, what a shame!

    May 8, 2013 at 9:54 pm | Reply
  2. Minh

    Vietnamese stand up and fight to defend Vietnam's sovereignty‎ against DEVIL China INVASION
    Paracel (Hoang Sa) and Spratly (Truong Sa) Islands and Vietnam East Sea belong to Vietnam
    Pro-DEVIL Communist China party in Vietnam is guilty of treason
    DEVIL China launched its first attack to capture ALL Paracel Islands (Hoang Sa) from South Vietnam in 1974
    DEVIL expansionist communist China Invasion of North Vietnam (1979) by force and claims hundred Kilo Meter Vietnam border’s land belongs to EVIL China
    DEVIL China launched its second attack to capture partial Spratly Islands (Truong Sa) from South Vietnam in 1988
    DEVIL China is launching its next attack to capture the rest of Spratly Islands (Truong Sa) and Vietnam East Sea from South Vietnam
    STOP Expansionist DEVIL China from INVASION neighbors
    STOP Pro-EVIL Communist China party in Vietnam from secrete DEAL with Expansionist DEVIL China

    May 9, 2013 at 9:27 am | Reply
    • Minh 2

      Minh comments could be right about DEVIL China have done to Vietnam, But Minh comment is forgot about Vietnam is doing the same actions to Laos and Cambodia as smaller neighbors of Vietnam. What's a awful actions if the same person is doing against his own speeches.

      May 12, 2013 at 11:36 pm | Reply
  3. j. von hettlingen

    Vietnam's reconciliation with the US did bear fruit. The US is Vietnam's biggest trade partner and the country has seen steady economic growth. . Vietnam would need the good will of both China and the US, to balance trade and security concerns. Vietnam's relationship with China seemed to be a sensitive issue. In 2008 an activist Nguyen Hoang Hai was sentenced to 30 months prison for criticising his government's handling of disputes with China over the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.

    May 9, 2013 at 12:21 pm | Reply
  4. Minh 3

    Minh 2, can you answer me what, how, when and where Vietnam did to Cambodia and Laos?

    May 21, 2013 at 1:59 am | Reply
    • Minh4
      10 years Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia, which officially ended on 26 September 1989

      May 29, 2013 at 12:34 pm | Reply
  5. Subotai

    Minh4 forgets that Cambodia, under Khmer Rouge threatened VN. After occupation, VN looked for a way to leave. Never any trouble w Laos.
    After defensive war against Khmer Rouge got rid of them (and did the world a favor), China attacked VN for about the 1,000,000th time in history. Valiant VNese killed about 50,000 of the brutal Chinese PLA.
    At least that's a start.

    June 11, 2013 at 3:05 am | Reply
  6. globeharmony

    The frequent one-sided stories serve no purpose other than encouraging the two sides to fight for the benefit of the world's warmonger and support its policy of pivot into Asia.

    Vietnam would have owned no island without China's help in the past. What a friend for?

    July 27, 2013 at 2:58 pm | Reply
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    August 6, 2013 at 1:51 am | Reply
  8. THEcredibleHulk

    Wow talk about irony, Vietnam is mad at China for taking their islands. But was it not but back in like the 60's-70's that China and Vietnam where like best friends against the evil U.S.. I see where that friendship ended. Kind of funny really.

    August 15, 2013 at 7:36 am | Reply
    • sunnyday9478

      the truth is China doesn't help much in Vietnamese war. They even supported to Vietnam the rockets which didn't work and many Vietnamese best engineers were died because of these bad rockets. China also taked the best weapons that Soviet supported to Vietnam,....

      May 9, 2014 at 2:11 pm | Reply
  9. i_aiken

    I do not agree. Read

    October 28, 2013 at 3:04 am | Reply
  10. Randy

    During VN war, China in fact fought the US to...the last Vietnamese. At the end of VN war, China uncovered her true face of expansionism, invaded Paracel Islands form SVN, backed Khmer Rouge to invade VN. During her evil plan, fore seeiing the Khmer Rouge was no match to Vietnam, Chica heself launched a big scale invasion into the North VN and prolong the conflicts along the border to ruin VN economy. YET, right aster Soviet Union' collapse, China sneaked attacking and invaded Spratly islands of VN. Enough is enough, VN should always be prepared to fend off China expasionism -just like ancient Vietnamese ancesstors did. Damn the evil Chinaman...

    December 25, 2013 at 10:45 am | Reply
  11. jjking20000101

    Andrew Billo:
    I really hope you can be honest to yourself and the world by saying the obvious truth that you kept referring to in your opinionated article. Your high school history teacher would fail you for your article which included too many opinions / judgments not supported by facts.
    1. He wrote, "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 he included nothing to prove his point.
    2. He wrote, "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." Yet he failed to mention even once when the U.S. forged and ten scrapped alliances.
    Am I too stupid and ignorant to understand the obviously or is he shoddy a reporter?

    May 17, 2014 at 9:20 pm | Reply

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