China and Vietnam have reacted very differently to the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling on the South China Sea. While China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has declared the PCA award should be 'null and void', in Hanoi it was welcomed. The PCA ruling will give the Vietnamese government extra leverage in its dealings with the Chinese however, given China’s economic and political weight in Vietnam, Hanoi will proceed carefully.
Vietnam, along with Malaysia, Brunei, Philippines and Taiwan, has been directly impacted by China's claims to sovereignty over various groups of rocks, islets, islands and reefs and their corresponding Exclusive Economic Zone. China's famous 'nine-dash line map' of claimed territory encompasses most of the South China Sea meaning all of these countries believe their own EEZs and traditional fishing areas are being overlapped by Chinese-controlled territory.
While China wants to deal with each of the claimant countries bilaterally, they prefer to solve the conflict using multilateral resources. Accordingly, in 2013, Philippines filed its case with the UN's PCA, arguing Beijing’s occupation of Scarborough Shoal (a few hundred miles West of Manila) invaded Philippine sovereign territory, and didn’t allow Philippine economic activities in the area. The court, applying the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), has unanimously ruled that China has no historical grounds for its claim, challenged the 'nine-dash line', and condemned Chinese construction of artificial islands on political, geographical and environmental grounds. Beijing has stated that the court has no say in the conflict and the verdict will be ignored.
The ruling from The Hague is unequivocally good news for Vietnam. If Hanoi should decide to file a similar case against China in relation to the Paracel and Spratly Islands, a similar verdict could be expected. However, this would be seen as provocative. Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), believes Vietnam needs to keep China close, and for that reason, it won't follow the Philippines precedent.
Another reason for Vietnam to exercise its new leverage with caution is the widely expected increase of tension in the area. After Beijing’s rejection of the verdict, Chinese vessels (of the military, paramilitary and economic kinds) will continue to patrol the region. Some of these activities may be perceived as provocations by actors in the area, including non-claimant states such as Indonesia and the US. Although the Obama administration doesn’t officially support any individual claims, it has repeatedly asked for guaranteed freedom of navigation and flight in the region, and it has military units deployed in the area. If, as widely expected, China doesn’t comply with the ruling, American units may engage in assertive manoeuvres, particularly if Beijing proceeds with the development of Scarborough Shoal.
One effect of the ruling could be a tightening of ties between Vietnam’s new government and China’s rivals in the region. Japan, India and ASEAN countries such as Indonesia now have a solid foundation from which to support Hanoi’s position in the South China Sea. In relation to the US, some observers, including Peter Navarro, author and business professor at the University of California-Irvine, believe Vietnam is trying to move closer to the US. Certainly Barack Obama’s visit to Vietnam in May, that marked the end of the weapon blockade that the White House had kept on the Southeastern Asian nation, did not go unnoticed in Beijing.
And yet Beijing will continue to exert considerable influence over the elite in Hanoi. Nguyen Phu Trong’s conservative cabinet is not naturally inclined to respond to Western influence, and the importance of trade with China to the Vietnamese economy will influence what happens next. Nguyen Khac Giang, senior political researcher at the Vietnamese Institute for Economic and Policy Research (VEPR) is among those who believe Vietnam’s political elite will seek to maintain the status quo with its northern neighbour.
The Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Relations is expected to offer an official assessment of the ruling. While this is likely to continue to express satisfaction, the Vietnamese representative is expected to use a restrained tone, similar to the Philippine foreign secretary, Perfecto Yasay Jr who asked for 'all those concerned to exercise restraint and sobriety.'
Vietnam knows it has obtained a powerful weapon, but is also aware it must be handled carefully.
JTB Photo /UIG via Getty Images