While growing public anger about Hanoi’s restrained response to Chinese maritime aggression is pushing the government to take China to the international court, for the first time an influential voice has publicly called for alliance with the United States.

The latest turn has come as since July, Chinese oil survey ships accompanied by armed vessels have defiantly sailed up and down Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone. They have flouted Vietnamese sovereignty and harassed oil drilling in Vietnamese waters. China considers its foray “legitimate and reasonable”, arguing that joint Vietnamese-foreign oil operations in Vanguard Bank reef violated China’s interests (one such joint operation involves Vietnamese state oil company and Russian Rosneft with 5% shares held by India’s ONGC). China has demanded Vietnam “immediately stop its unilateral infringement activities and restore tranquillity to the waters concerned”.

In May 2014, when China first sent its drilling platform into Vietnamese waters, spontaneous public protests broke out leading to violence against Chinese and Taiwanese businesses. It was not the image of stability Vietnam wanted to present to foreign investors. Although the government has so far been successful in containing smouldering public resentment, on a visit to Vietnam I was struck by the widespread expressions of anger against China. In a privately organised meeting in Hanoi just ahead of an important Party conclave, a number of senior former officials and academics denounced Chinese aggression and rebuked the government’s weak-kneed response.

Popular anger after three months of tensions seems to have led Vietnam’s president and party secretary general to publicly pledge “tenacious defence” of its sovereignty and preparedness to tackle “challenges and opportunities”. Sources said that while militarily confronting the vastly superior Chinese navy was not an option, the government may decide to seek international support by taking China to the international court in The Hague for violation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Vietnamese officials view the Chinese action of virtually stationing its survey ship and a fleet of coast guard and naval vessels within its EEZ and continental shelf as an attempt to test Vietnamese and international response. In 2016, when Beijing ignored the ruling of the international court that its expansive claims in the South China Sea were illegal, the international response was muted. If China is allowed to continue flouting Vietnamese sovereignty it would completely lose its claim to the waters it so long strenuously defended. Vietnam fears the ultimate goal of the Chinese operation is to coerce claimant countries like Vietnam to become junior partners, by accepting joint explorations with China in all of the South China Sea.

In a recently published article Vu Ngoc Hoang, a former senior official of the Party who is said to remain influential with top leadership, strongly urged the government to sue China. “We need to use the law to take a stance against China. If we do not persist, we risk losing our East Sea. And losing the East Sea means losing our country.”

Marking a stunning departure from the traditional approach, Hoang writes that in order to protect Vietnam’s sovereignty it should consider a military alliance. “Of all Vietnam’s strategic partners, one has already exposed itself as the very aggressor that plots to take over our East Sea,” he notes referring to China. China is always termed Vietnam’s “comprehensive strategic partner” whereas the US is called just a “comprehensive partner”. Now, alluding to the US, Hoang writes, “another country, though not yet a strategic partner, has already spoken out early and strongly in support of our sovereignty. In my opinion, given that reality, the latter country deserves to be our strategic partner – even if it had done us wrong before.”

Hanoi may be far from contemplating such a move but the fact that such views are being aired might give Beijing pause.

By Nayan Chanda - The time of India - October 19, 2019