Vietnam’s Strategy of ‘Cooperating and Struggling’ with China over Maritime Disputes in the South China Sea

Published date01 August 2016
Date01 August 2016
Subject MatterArticles
Vietnam’s Strategy of
‘Cooperating and
Struggling’ with China
over Maritime Disputes
in the South China Sea
Carlyle A. Thayer1
Since the normalization of relations in 1991, bilateral relations between Vietnam
and China have developed into one of normal or mature asymmetry. This is a
relationship in which China seeks acknowledgement of its primacy and Vietnam seeks
recognition of its autonomy. Maritime disputes in the South China Sea have emerged
as the major irritant in bilateral relations because of salience of conflicting claims to
sovereignty. This article presents an analysis of Vietnam’s strategy to maintain its
autonomy in relations with China with respect to maritime disputes in the South
China Sea. Vietnam pursues a strategy of ‘cooperation and struggle’ with China over
maritime disputes in the South China Sea. Vietnam’s leaders have attempted to
prevent maritime boundary disputes from spilling over and impacting negatively on
Vietnam’s comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership with China. At the same
time, Vietnam has attempted to manage its maritime disputes with China through
government-to-government negotiations and in times of crisis through party-to-
party channels. During the oil rig crisis of May–July 2014, Vietnam defended its
autonomy by standing up to Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea.
China, South China Sea, Vietnam, asymmetry, cooperation and struggle, multi-
lateralization and diversification
Vietnam’s relations with China are one of the most asymmetric bilateral
relationships in the world. According to Brantly Womack (2006, pp. 235–237),
1 University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra, Australia.
Corresponding author:
Carlyle A. Thayer, University of New South Wales, Canberra, Australia.
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
3(2) 200–220
2016 SAGE Publications India
Private Limited
SAGE Publications
DOI: 10.1177/2347797016645453
Thayer 201
the current relationship between Vietnam and China is one of normal or mature
asymmetry that he defines as ‘when both sides are confident that their basic
interests will not be threatened and that differences can be managed’ (ibid., p. 28).
Vietnam seeks to enmesh China in a web of bilateral ties in order to make China’s
behaviour more predictable. This has taken the form of a series of agreements
that stress comprehensive cooperation through party-to-party, state-to-state and
military-to-military ties (Thayer, 2011: 350–357). Maritime disputes in the South
China Sea have emerged as the major obstacle to the maintenance of a mature
asymmetric relationship with China because these disputes have the potential to
undermine Vietnamese autonomy.
This article discusses Vietnam’s strategy towards China on maritime disputes
in the South China Sea in its broadest historical, foreign policy and defence
context and the implications of this strategy for Vietnam’s bilateral relations with
China. This article is divided into six parts. Part 1 sets out Vietnamese historical
perspectives and its claims to sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly islands.
Part 2 discusses the reconceptualization of Vietnam’s foreign policy in the post-
Cold War period as it elevated the importance of national interests over socialist
ideology in its relations with China and pursued a policy of ‘multilateralizing and
diversifying’ its external relations with the major powers. Part 3 traces the evolution
of Vietnam’s new national defence strategy comprising three components: force
modernization, national defence industry self-help and international defence
cooperation. Part 4 discusses the application of Vietnam’s policy of ‘cooperation
and struggle’ with China. Part 5 analyzes Vietnam’s counter-intervention strategy to
China in the South China Sea. Part 6, offers a summary and conclusion of these
developments on Vietnam–China relations.
Part 1. Historical Background
This section reviews the basis of Vietnam’s historical claims in the pre-colonial,
colonial and post-colonial eras up to the reunification of Vietnam in 1975–76.
These historical claims play an important role in shaping Vietnam’s sense of
autonomy vis-à-vis its relations with China.
Pre-Colonial Era
Vietnam’s claims to features in the South China Sea date to the pre-colonial era.
In the first half of the seventeenth century, the ruling Nguyen Lords commissioned a
small naval flotilla known as the Hoang Sa Brigade to sail to the present-day Paracel
islands on an annual and later intermittent basis. The Hoang Sa Brigade comprised
between five and eight boats with a crew of 70 men recruited from present day
Quang Ngai province (Bo Ngoai Giao & Uy Ban Bien Gioi Quoc Gia, 2013).
The Hoang Sa Brigade ordinarily spent up to five months carrying out mapping,
hydrographic surveys, erecting markers, fishing, planting trees and recovering
the cargo from merchant ships that had run aground. During the first half of the
eighteenth century, the Nguyen Lords also organized the North Sea Brigade

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