Vietnam well placed for challenges

Calm but alert – Vietnam continues to monitor Chinese ships in the South China Sea while attempting to ease tensions.

Subtle diplomacy, innate caution and rigorous contingency planning have left Vietnam relatively well placed to contend with a brave new world of regional insecurity.

Vietnam’s communist leaders have also proved adept at seizing opportunities presented by the shifting sands of geopolitics – seeing a chance to hammer their domestic critics as western countries show less interest in human rights.

President Trump’s startling arrival on the world scene has, at a stroke, scuppered many long held assumptions about the strategic picture in Asia.

Doubt, confusion and uncertainty are the new watchwords, with conflict between China and the United States no longer considered a scenario on the outer reaches of possibility.

Vietnam could find itself in the firing line in the event of a clash in the South China Sea – but vigorous efforts to shore up its military position, a renewed drive to manage and de-escalate tensions with China, and the cultivation of strategic partners from Delhi to Moscow, Washington and Tokyo, makes it less vulnerable than it was.

Enthusiasm for brinkmanship

The subtleties of Vietnam’s position were illustrated by the signing of a deal with Exxon-Mobil last month to develop an offshore gas field in waters contested by China. The agreement was signed even as the Secretary-General of the Communist party, Nguyen Phu Trong, was in Beijing earnestly patching up the quarrel with China.

The situation is made no less intriguing by the appointment of the former Chairman of Exxon-Mobil, Rex Tillerson, to the Department of State. He comes to the job with detailed knowledge of China’s attempts to intimidate foreign oil companies in the South China Sea, and has already shown himself happy to bait China over its territorial ambitions.

By raising the possibility, in his confirmation hearing, of blocking China’s access to its man-made islands in the Spratlys, he signalled an enthusiasm for brinkmanship that will have given even the hard-boiled autocrat, Xi Jinping, pause for thought.

The Chinese have learnt, not for the first time, that Vietnam is no pushover. Their attempt to bully Vietnam in the South China Sea backfired, and Beijing now appears as eager as Hanoi to mend fences, given the potential new dangers presented by the Trump administration.

Vietnam, meanwhile, has incrementally but significantly bolstered its defences on the 21 features it controls in the Spratly Islands.

Reclamation work, albeit on a much smaller scale than China’s, has developed once submerged reefs into permanent military posts. Reports last year that it had deployed new rocket launchers on some of the islands appeared to be a direct response to China’s militarisation of its islands.

Vietnam’s deployment of Russian made Kilo-class submarines, the upgrading of its surface fleet and the acquisition of new air defence missiles have made clear that China would pay a high cost for military action.

Brutal response to dissent

Trust between Vietnam and China will remain low. Vietnam looks set to hedge any deals made with Beijing with clear signalling that it has friends and options in a range of other capitals, all with a stake in restraining China’s expansionist urges.

But the communist leaderships in Hanoi and Beijing are nothing if not pragmatic. Both see the strategic sense in easing tensions at a time of potentially alarming instability emanating from the new administration in Washington.

Vietnam also appears impressed by President Xi Jinping’s brutal and uncompromising response to dissent.

Vietnam has been more constrained by western criticism of its human rights record in recent years, and appeared, for a time, to be becoming more tolerant of independent bloggers and other critical voices.

No longer. The loss of the TPP, and clear signals that economic and strategic ties with the west are not contingent on human rights improvements, have eased inhibitions for a more wholehearted crackdown on dissent.

President Trump’s unembarrassed lack of interest in human rights and the promotion of democratic norms, gives the green light to party apparatchiks to tighten the screws on the incipient development of civil society in Vietnam.