China turns the screw

All smiles at ASEAN, but Vietnam looks more increasingly isolated in the South China Sea. Photo courtesy AFP

Vietnam is struggling to revive its China policy following a series of snubs and threats that have left it looking isolated and vulnerable.

China’s last-minute cancellation of a meeting between the two foreign ministers – on the sidelines of the ASEAN gathering in Manila – was the latest rebuff, following a reported threat of military action against Vietnam in July.

Vietnam’s claim that the two ministers had snatched a handshake and a few words in a corridor underlined its urgent attempts to cover up the breach with Beijing.

Vietnam has been attempting to maintain close economic cooperation with China and “fraternal” party to party relations, while at the same time standing firm over territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea.

This delicate balancing act appeared to be paying off until Beijing abruptly called Hanoi’s bluff  last month.

The BBC reported that China had threatened military strikes on Vietnam’s outposts in the Spratlys if it did not cancel a gas drilling operation near the island chain.

Potentially explosive

Whatever the nature of the threat, Vietnam quickly caved in to China and suspended what promised to be a lucrative gas exploration project on the edge of its 200 nautical mile EEZ off the southeast coast.

Such kowtowing to China has potentially explosive consequences at home, where the Communist party feels acutely vulnerable to charges of complicity with its comrades in Beijing.

Vietnam attempted to show some backbone at the ASEAN meeting in Manila, working hard to shape a more defiant statement than usual over China’s ambitions in the South China Sea.

In the event, the communique referred to concern about “island building” and “militarisation” in the disputed waters, without naming any country.

The hint of defiance, however, provoked the latest slap down from China, with the Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, cancelling his pre-arranged meeting with his Vietnamese counterpart, Pham Binh Minh.

“At this time, if you ask who is carrying out reclamation, it is definitely not China,” said Mr Wang.

“Perhaps it is the country that brings up the issue that is doing it,” he added – a clear reference to satellite evidence that Vietnam has also been reinforcing its military posts on isolated rocks and shoals.

Antagonised Beijing

China’s anger was further emphasised by an article in the Chinese state media that likened Vietnam to “a thief crying ‘stop thief'”.

Vietnam’s apparent success in stiffening ASEAN’s resolve may merely have antagonised Beijing without securing any long term benefits.

ASEAN and China are clearing the way to formalise their much discussed “code of conduct” in the South China Sea, seen by some as an attempt by China to buy time while it consolidates its hold in the region.

Vietnam is in danger of becoming more isolated than ever in ASEAN, with its once reliable partner, the Philippines, increasingly siding with China, and Thailand and Malaysia also slipping further into the China camp.

No interest in human rights

In the final years of the Obama administration, Vietnam appeared to be forging new and deeper ties with the West.

Trade deals with the US and the EU, and President Obama’s firm commitments in the South China Sea, helped bolster Vietnam in its resistance to China.

Elements in the leadership even appeared to be considering less repressive domestic policies, in line with encouragement from Washington and Europe for more democratic freedoms.

But President Trump ditched the TPP trade deal and has shown no interest in human rights. He is also seen as unreliable at best in resisting China in the South China Sea.

Vietnam has quickly reverted to harassing and rounding up its domestic critics.

It has also deeply offended Germany, surely the key to the EU trade deal, by last month’s alleged kidnap in Berlin of Trinh Xuan Thanh, a fugitive former oil executive.

Vietnam seems to hold ever fewer cards in its unequal struggle with China in the South China Sea.

The time may come when the communist leadership in Hanoi sees little choice but to bow the knee to Chinese hegemony.

It’s a reversal that would come at a substantial cost, stirring up deep resentment at home and fuelling a vicious cycle of further repression.