Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung during a visit to the Philippines last month. Pic: AP.

Hanoi could be ready to turn its back on Beijing, writes Asia Sentinel’s David Brown

It’s been more than a month since China’s deep water oil drilling rig Haiyang 981 dropped anchor in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone.  Beijing’s deployment of the US$1 billion rig and an armada of escort vessels shocked the Vietnamese regime, shattering illusions about its “comprehensive strategic partnership” with China.

Hanoi had hoped that a policy of conciliation would temper China’s aggressive pursuit of hegemony in the South China Sea.  Its deferential posture papered over a fragile intra-party consensus that Vietnam’s dispute with China over maritime sovereignty was a rare cloud in the otherwise sunny sky of fraternal cooperation.  Come what may, insisted party conservatives, the comrades to the north would not rock the foundations of a brother socialist regime.

But rock them they did.

For several weeks, Hanoi seemed literally stunned. When the central committee of the Vietnamese Communist Party ended a week-long meeting on May 8, it had nothing new to say.  Although denunciations of Chinese aggression filled online media and to an unusual extent, the state-supervised media as well, Party leaders with only one exception were inarticulate, seemingly conflicted even on whether to allow citizens to protest.

The exception was Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s appeal to an ASEAN summit on May 11.  Dung stressed that despite grave provocation, Vietnam would not be drawn into a firefight.  We “always spare no effort to maintain and strengthen our fine friendship with China,” he added for the record, and urged ASEAN members to join in voicing opposition to the Chinese move.  For Dung’s pains, Asean foreign ministers endorsed a weak collective statement registering “deep concern” over “events that intensified tension in the region.”  China was not named.

May was two-thirds gone before Hanoi gave signs of deploying a coherent strategy.  On May 21, Dung conferred with Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, a visit that signaled readiness to take concerted military and diplomatic responses with the Philippines despite Chinese warnings.  In particular, Dung voiced support for Manila’s complaint to the International Court of Justice and said Hanoi might lodge its own complaint.

High profile interviews Dung granted to Reuters, the AP and Bloomberg left no doubt that the Vietnamese government had found its voice.  “We won’t trade our sovereignty and legitimate interests ‘for a false and dependent friendship’ with China,” papers reported Dung saying.  “There is a vast gap between the words and deeds of China.”

Then, at the World Economic Forum meeting in Manila, Dung warned that Chinese actions threaten disruption of huge flows of trade through the South China Sea, and “might even reverse the trend of global economic recovery.”

Conspicuously unheard, as Dung and other government spokesmen sounded the alarm, were the prime minister’s peers in the party hierarchy, State President Truong Tan Sang, General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, and the chairman of the national legislature, Nguyen Phuc Hung.  All three are among a solid majority of the Party’s 14-member Politburo that’s said to support a policy of leaning toward China.

Perhaps deployment of the Haiyang has 981 silenced the so-called pro-China faction only for the moment.  Based on present evidence, however, it seems as likely that sentiment within the secretive conclaves of the Vietnamese Communist Party has shifted, perhaps decisively, toward cooperation with the US and any other power willing to invest in blunting Beijing’s drive to dominate the South China Sea.

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