Tuesday, Jun 2, 2015Tuesday, Jun 2, 2015

South China Sea stand-off turns into domestic challenges for Hanoi

Published on May 21, 2014 7:23 PM
A Vietnamese Coast Guard ship (left) faces off with a China Coast Guard ship close to the site of a Chinese drilling oil rig on May 14, 2014. The foreign policy standoff with Beijing in the South China Sea is turning into a domestic dilemma for Hanoi. -- PHOTO: AFP  

China's deployment of a drilling rig in Vietnam's claimed exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea - which Vietnamese unanimously view as a violation of their sovereignty - has struck some dangerous chords in Vietnam.

The Vietnamese government gave its implicit support to May 11 rallies by thousands of anti-Chinese demonstrators in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and other locations across the country. Vietnamese leaders have rarely allowed such rallies to take place for fear they could be hijacked by anti-government forces, but this time demonstrators were focused exclusively on Beijing's recent aggressiveness.

Hanoi faces a dilemma. Diplomatic channels, including those between the two countries' communist parties, have been exhausted. Both sides have held working sessions since early May. But at the highest levels, President Xi Jinping reportedly refused to talk with Communist Party Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong.

The use of force is a non-starter. The military gap with China is simply too large, and any military action would undermine Vietnam's longstanding plea to resolve the South China Sea conflicts peacefully based on international law. On the economic front, a decision by Beijing to sever trade with Vietnam would effectively halt the country's manufacturing sector, which largely depends on Chinese supplies to make its final products.

Enjoy 2 weeks of unlimited digital access to The Straits Times. Get your free access now!