South China Sea dispute: Will Vietnam follow the Philippines to court?

The aircraft carrier, USS John C. Stennis, which US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter visited as it was ploughing through the South China Sea. US Navy

By Dung Phan

It has been nearly a month since the ruling of the Hague Permanent Court of Arbitration rejected China’s claims over its historic rights for disputed waters. The decision, which has been called “a landmark ruling,” “an overwhelming victory,” or “a game changer“, eventually changes nothing but does affirm Beijing’s power in Asian marine disputes.

Right after the Philippines took the case to court, many questioned if Vietnam should leverage the precedent to make its own claims over the Paracels and the Spratlys. Is it time for them to follow in an arbitration suit against China?

So far Vietnam has taken a very cautious approach to the ruling. The country’s foreign ministry first embraced the tribunal’s decision, saying in a statement that it, “strongly supports the resolution of disputes in the South China Sea by peaceful means, including diplomatic and legal processes”. And it has reiterated that it wants to settle the territorial dispute with China through bilateral negotiations, just as the Philippines has also shown an interest in. “For us, all means of peaceful settlement are important. All means,” said the deputy foreign minister.

Until now there is little evidence that China is showing its goodwill. After the tribunal, it stopped the Philippines’ fishing ships from entering the Scarborough Shoal. China sources have reportedly booked a huge screen in Times Square to broadcast a 120-minute propaganda video about the country’s territorial sovereignty. It also just launched a new South China Sea website with historical maps and materials.

In recent days, the country has already conducted military exercises and started a host of patrols in the South China Sea. And last but not least, some elements within China’s military are pushing for a stronger response. “We should go in and give them a bloody nose like Deng Xiaoping did to Vietnam in 1979,” said anonymous sources.

China’s Defence Minister also warned of a, “people’s war at sea”, calling for, “recognition of the seriousness of the national security situation, especially the threat from the sea,” said the state media. “Early signals indicate that China does not plan to retreat from claiming historic rights within the Nine-Dash Line, which likely include entitlement to fisheries and hydrocarbon resources,” added International Crisis Group senior analyst Yanmei Xie.

Lessons from the Philippines’ case

It should be noted that it was the Philippines who called for, “restraint and sobriety” despite China’s rhetoric-laden statements. It was also the Filipino leaders who actively offered Beijing what they wanted most: bilateral negotiations after the tribunal’s ruling. President Duterte was even ready to send former President Ramos as a special envoy to talks with China. However there has been little progress.

And at the four-day ASEAN meeting in Laos where the Philippines hoped to make a further move on the disputed waters, the country again failed to leverage the ruling, ending up admitting that “the arbitration award is a matter between China and the Philippines.” So, for now both countries are at an impasse.

Vietnam’s government definitely does not want a rerun of what has happened between China and the Philippines. Despite tensions over the islands, especially after China moved a controversial oil rig and dropped a plan to drill in South China Sea waters in mid-2014, China is now Vietnam’s largest trading partner.

Since then the two countries have tried to mend ties by exchanging high-level visits. Those efforts, however, are never enough. Ahead of the tribunal, Vietnamese officials accused China’s coastguard of sinking a fishing boat near the Paracel Islands. Reports said the fishermen had to remain in the water until after dark before another Vietnamese fishing vessel was able to rescue them.

China can suppress its Asian neighbours by military power, but the country knows it is the media which is the most unpredictable element of their control. It has been suggested that Vietnam should, “shame Beijing in the media, especially social media, time and time again” for any of their abusive and illegal actions.  It is possible the shaming plan will work. However no matter what Vietnam chooses to do next, it is worth noting that China, “will step up and fight hard” as well as, “prosecuting people who enter the waters that China claims.”