Why Vietnam Can't Count on Its Neighbors to Rally Against China

Motorists in downtown Hanoi pass propaganda billboards expressing Vietnam's determination to defend its coastal waters and islands Photograph by Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP via Getty Images

China’s fight with Vietnam has taken an even more dangerous turn. On May 2, a state-owned Chinese company began drilling for oil in a part of the South China Sea claimed by both countries, and relations have been deteriorating ever since. Ships from both sides have attacked one another and, fueled by media coverage of the incidents, anti-Chinese protesters went on a rampage around Vietnam, setting fire to Taiwanese owned factories with Chinese workers.

Now comes the latest escalation: A Vietnamese fishing boat has been sunk in the disputed waters after an attack after a Chinese ship “deliberately attacked” it, according to the official Viet Nam News. The Chinese oil exploration violates international law, VNS reported, quoting National Assembly deputy Truong Trong Nghia saying: “The area where the rig is stationed is totally within Viet Nam’s exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.”

China’s official Xinhua news agency blames the Vietnamese, saying the boat capsized “after harassing and colliding with a Chinese fishing boat.” According to the official Chinese account, “Vietnam has sent a number of ships to obstruct the drilling of Chinese companies in the waters where the collision took place.”

As in a similar dispute with the Philippines, China knows Vietnam can do little to stop it; while an appeal by Vietnam to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations could make the fight more equal, it’s not likely to be very effective. ASEAN emphasizes consensus, and Vietnam and the Philippines aren’t likely to gain the support of small countries that don’t have territorial disputes with China. “Many Southeast Asian countries are reluctant to challenge China because it has become their largest trading partner and it is the largest aid donor to nations like Cambodia and Laos,” wrote Murray Hiebert, a senior fellow and deputy director of the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Even the Vietnamese government has to be cautious about upsetting the economic relationship with China. As wages have gone up in China, companies have moved factories to Vietnam to tap the country’s low-cost workforce. The supply chains are not completely separate, though, and companies that produce in Vietnam sometimes need to send products to factories in China. Vietnam’s exports to China now account for 42 percent of its total, up from 28 percent 18 months ago, Natixis Chief Asia Economist Luca Silipo told Bloomberg Television. Even as the political situation deteriorates, individual companies are cooperating more, creating a difficult balancing act for Vietnam’s diplomats.

Regional leaders worried about standing up to China may gain reinforcements soon. As Hiebert points out, there will be several summits in the coming months at which ASEAN foreign ministers will be able to get a boost from counterparts from the U.S., Japan, India and others. “ASEAN officials recognize that they will not need to take the lead in discussions with China about the South China Sea at these meetings,” writes Hiebert. Maybe those other countries will be able to get China’s attention in a way that ASEAN can’t.

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