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Vietnam: Coercive Political Outreach by China

Paper No. 5918                                  Dated 23-Apr-2015

By Dr Subhash Kapila

China chastened by cumulative international condemnation over its conflict escalation in South China Sea in mid-2014 embarked on a political outreach to Vietnam, but highly coercive in nature.

Sampling the official outcomes asserted in joint communiques/statements/exhortations issued in the last few months of high-level Vietnamese political dignitaries/officials visits to Beijing and vice-versa one finds a contradiction between official statements of China on Vietnam and the South China Sea issue and the commentaries that have recently surfaced in official Chinese media organs like the Global Times etc.

In fact while official Chinese assertions stress on the imperatives of establishing stable and peaceful China-Vietnam relations including peaceful resolution of disputes, the commentaries in Chinese official media analyse what pushes Vietnam to adopt more accommodative stances towards China especially in relation to the South China Sea.

Implicit in such analyses is a notable fact in which China seems to chasten Vietnam for internationalisation of Chinese conflict-escalation in South China Sea like the May 2014 oil-drilling rig sent by China in Vietnamese waters and the construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea.

Implicit in China’s chastening of Vietnam are the criticism of Vietnam’s improvement of relations with the United States, India and Japan. There seems to be resentment by China of Vietnam moving in this direction. It needs to be noted from my earlier SAAG Papers that the emergence of a US-India-Japan Trilateral and an Asian-indigenous Japan-India-Vietnam Trilateral as logical responses to China’s not so peaceful military rise would be a cause of strategic concern for China.

It seems that it is this evolution that prompted China to adopt ‘reasonableness’ approach to China as if to arrest Vietnam’s movements in that direction.

Vietnam’s hedging strategies against its perceived China Threat by a deepening of its relations with United States is a ‘red rag to the Chinese bull’. Even as the high-profile Vietnamese visit to China of the Secretary General of Vietnam Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Trong was taking place earlier this month, surely, not by coincidence, US Navy warships were on a visit to Vietnam.

Implicit in Chinese commentaries is the resentment on Vietnam-Philippines initiatives to coordinate approaches to restrain China’s propensities for conflict escalation in the South China Sea. Both countries efforts to draw the United Nations in conflict resolution of South China Sea disputes by UN arbitration is frowned at by China.

So while China has made a political outreach to Vietnam and Vietnam one may say grudgingly responded with reconciliation responses after China’s conflict escalation in mid- and the virulent anti-China violent protests in Vietnam 2014, to contain further breakdown in China-Vietnam relations, the truthful reality is that China is still smarting under the internationalisation of China’s conflict escalation in the South China Sea maritime expanse by some very deft diplomatic manoeuvres by Vietnam.

Surprisingly therefore, op-eds appearing in the Chinese official media organ The Global Times and elsewhere, recently after Vietnam’s top Communist Party boss visited Beijing to reset relations, spoke of Vietnam in terms of being a “double dealer’ and a “two-faced” entity as it vainly tries to balance a threatening China in the South China Sea by moving closer to the United States.

Somewhere down the line implicitly accompanying China’s calibrated efforts to erase the “Strategic Distrust” that heavily pervades China-Vietnam relations was also political coercion that Vietnam’s options of moving wider afield diplomatically to offset China, stood straitjacketed by compulsions of geography, Communist Party solidarity and economic interdependence.

The crucial question that arises is as to what impelled China for a political outreach to Vietnam when it is sure of its hold on Vietnamese compulsions?

The answer lies in the strategic reality that China’s bold gamble for a Maritime Silk Road spanning the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans is heavily dependent on stability in the South China Sea which in turn implies that China expects that Vietnam should not only desist from any challenges in the South China Sea but also that Vietnam should subscribe pro-actively to the concept of China’s Maritime Silk Road.

But China at the same time does not desist from its mischievous ways of driving wedges in its opponent’s domestic polity and between nations opposed to it. This sentence says it all: “Some outsiders are exploiting every possible excuse to sow divisions between them (China and Vietnam), while a few in Vietnam’s political circles have been divided by external ‘Pied Pipers’ and become accomplices”.  The connotation here by China is that divisions exist in Vietnam between the Communist Party and Vietnam’s political circles. Also, that the United States is driving a wedge in good China-Vietnam relations.

Somehow the impression that I gain, wrongly or rightly, is that China is also sowing discord in Vietnam’s polity by implying in the above quoted statement that some in Vietnam’s political administration are accomplices of the United States and that the Vietnam’s Communist Party hierarchy must do something to stop this.

Reinforcing China’s intransigent stands on China’s stances on the South China Sea sovereignty disputes the Chinese Ambassador in the United States at a recent lecture at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies asserted that “Let there be no illusion that anyone can impose a unilateralist ‘Status Quo’ and let there be no illusion that anyone can repeatedly violate Chinese sovereignty without consequences”

This Chinese warning is obviously targeting both the United States as the emerging proactive protector of freedom of maritime navigation in the South China Sea and also Vietnam’s hopes of enlisting greater United States support against the incessant conflict escalation by China in the South China Sea maritime expanse.

Putting aside the recent months rhetorical flourishes by Chinese and Vietnamese dignitaries the reality that emerges is that China’s attempted  political outreach to Vietnam in recent months was done to lessen international condemnation and outcry on China’s aggressive brinkmanship in the South China Sea region . China, however, concurrently did not hesitate to accompany this political outreach to Vietnam with subtle and implicit political coercion assertions.

(Dr Subhash Kapila is a graduate of the Royal British Army Staff College, Camberley and combines a rich experience of Indian Army, Cabinet Secretariat, and diplomatic assignments in Bhutan, Japan, South Korea and USA. Currently, Consultant International Relations & Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. He can be reached at