The South China Sea: Vietnam’s Limited Diplomatic Options

By Du Nhat Dang / April 23, 2016/ The Diplomat

For Vietnam, 2016 seems fated to be a crucial year. Hanoi’s sovereignty disputes and related diplomatic efforts will be impacted by ongoing changes in Russia, China, and Japan and, yes, the results of the United States’ presidential election.

The role of Russia is of particular interest for Vietnam. On April 14, Vietnamese shipyard Ba Son launched two Russian-designed Project 12418 Molniya-class guided missile corvettes built under license for the Vietnamese Navy after 30 months of construction. Russia is still Vietnam’s long-time partner in military-technical cooperation, but the relationship is not trouble-free.

The same day, the spokesperson for Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Le Hai Binh, voiced concerns about Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s previous comments about the internationalization on South China Sea disputes.

“Issues that involve all relevant parties, namely the disputes over the Truong Sa [Spratly] archipelago, must be settled by all countries concerned,” Binh said. He added that Vietnam would stick to its position of seeking to solve the disputes through peaceful measures based on international law, especially the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and in the spirit of the Declaration on the Conduct of parties in the South China Sea (DOC).

Binh’s statement reflects the thoughts of many Vietnamese people about Russia’s position. Some no longer trust much in the Russian-Vietnamese friendship, arguing that Russia has changed since the days of the Soviet Union. Yes, there are hopes in Vietnam that Russia could take a more proactive stance on the South China Sea issue. On the other hand, there are also hopes that the United States can help Vietnam more by lifting the arms embargo completely.

The Obama administration seems willing to do this. Its positive attitude toward Vietnam was also highlighted in the visit of U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter to Vietnam in 2015, and the U.S.-Vietnam Joint Vision Statement on Defense Relations. At the same time, Vietnam and the United States are negotiation on U.S. use of Cam Ranh Bay, considered the finest deepwater port in Southeast Asia. These moves are part of a general warming in Vietnam-U.S. relations. Read more…

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