The growing confidence and belligerence of China in the South China Sea has exposed the vulnerability of Vietnam’s diplomatic and military position.
It also presents a potential political challenge for the Vietnamese Communist party that could prove even more damaging.
The party has struggled to convince a sceptical public that it can be relied on to defend the national interest against its ideological comrades in Beijing.
If the current confrontations in the South China Sea escalate into conflict the consequences for the party could be catastrophic according to some observers.
“The Chinese could probably take all our positions in the Spratly Islands in a day or two if they wanted, ” says Dinh Kim Phuc of the Open University in Ho Chi Minh City, one of Vietnam’s foremost authorities on the territorial disputes.
“If China took even one island I cannot imagine what would happen to our government. Throughout our history we have always shown that we cannot accept foreign occupation,” he said.
China’s apparent development of air bases and missile sites in the disputed Paracel and Spratly Islands poses a military challenge that Vietnam can do little to contain.
Beijing has succeeded in changing the status quo in the Spratly Islands by building military platforms on once submerged reefs. It now
poses a significant threat to the more than 20 positions in the chain that are occupied or controlled by Vietnam.
“It is not clear where the Vietnamese leaders stand (on the South China Sea) in practice,” says Trinh Huu Long, a lawyer from Hanoi and pro-democracy activist, “they talk a lot about international law, but what are they really doing to defend our national interests ?” he asks.
Long accepts that the government is working hard to upgrade naval defences, and to build up the army on the border. Vietnam has also had some success in internationalising the territorial dispute in the South China Sea and encouraging a bigger role for the United States.
But Long says scepticism about the government’s commitment is fuelled by ambiguous messages from sections of the party.
“Their position is just not clear. They contradict themselves too often. The defence minister, for example, is very close to China. He has warned that it is against our interests to speak up too loudly.”
Drive for hegemony
The United States has stepped up its military presence in the region, sending warships on what it calls “freedom of navigation” missions close to Chinese outposts in the Paracels and Spratly Islands.
US military commanders have also publicly denounced what they call China’s drive for hegemony.
But Dinh Kim Phuc warns that Vietnam cannot rely on the US for help.
“The United States has made clear that it will not get involved in the territorial disputes,” he says. “China will not challenge US ships in the region…China’s aim is to get the Vietnamese to fire first so that they can justify a takeover.”
The confrontation in the South China Sea was once a taboo subject for Vietnam’s state controlled media. It was considered too sensitive a subject given the party’s ambiguous relationship with China.
But the media has now been given license to let rip with denunciations of perceived Chinese aggression.
Huge public concern
The public attacks on China have confused pro-democracy activists and other dissidents, some of whom faced harsh repression the last time they took their protests against China to the streets.
“Now that the situation is so bad they are instructing the press to give us a green light for demonstrations. So why did they put me in prison nearly two years ago, ” asked Trung Nghia, an activist who served a 15 month prison sentence for his role in an umbrella group that organised anti-China protests.
Some suspect that the government wants to use protests as a way of showing China the extent of its indignation.
But it is a risky strategy given the tendency of nationalist demonstrations to turn on the party and attack its close ties with China.
“There is huge public concern about the threats to our territory,” says Trinh Huu Long, “when we try to protest about human rights, it is hard to generate much enthusiasm from ordinary people, but on China everyone has the same view. It is a question of patriotism.”
The territorial dispute is proving a major test of the Vietnamese government’s finesse and judgement in foreign relations as well as domestic politics.
That task can only get harder as China steps up the pressure, and Vietnam’s inability to contain its neighbour’s territorial ambitions becomes ever more apparent.