Hanoi's bombast over island claims belies a state in decline

Hanoi's bombast over island claims belies a state in decline

LAST Wednesday, in Vietnam’s historic city of Hue, Le Anh Tuan, a 37-year-old taxi driver, was heading home after taking a patient to the hospital for emergency aid.

Suddenly, his vehicle began vibrating violently. He slammed on the brakes and was horrified to see that his rear axle and two rear wheels had separated from the car.

The local media noted that his vehicle was in a poor state to begin with, but still called it “a highly unusual and rare accident”.

Perhaps, but in an odd way it echoed a concurrrent report about Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s reaffirmation of Vietnam’s “incontestable” claim to two South China Sea archipelagos – the Paracels in the north and the Spratlys in the south-centre.

Dung’s little tirade came after recent clashes between Chinese and Vietnamese boats in disputed waters off the coast of Vietnam’s resort town of Nha Trang.

A Chinese vessel reportedly damaged the research cable of a Vietnamese survey ship working for the state oil company, PetroVietnam.

Dung had little option but to chastise Beijing and to announce that Vietnam will hold a live-fire naval exercise in the area today.

But frankly, the poor man sounded like a befuddled driver whose rear wheels have just fallen off.

Hanoi’s claim to the offshore islands is going nowhere, and will continue to go nowhere unless it starts to fight this battle with  more wiliness.

It is a tough world and the use of verbal bombast and provocative live-fire drills will just goad the big guy to roll over you.

Dung’s men need to remember Spring 1979 when the Chinese army swept down over the northern border, occupied five Vietnamese provinces, pulverised the capital towns and then retreated.

Beijing can do the same again if its national interests are threatened – as, in its view, they will be if the offshore territories with their vast oil and gas deposits and rich fishing grounds are lost.

Indeed, it does not even accept that there is a dispute over the Paracel Island group, which it occupied in January 1974.

Its message to Hanoi might be summarised as: “We’ve got them now, you lost them, stop whining, get over it.”

As for the more spread-out and viably contested Spratlys, well, for starters, forget historical documentation.

All the claimants, including Malaysia and the Philippines, can jimmy up plausible bits of paper from their national archives to ‘prove’ their sovereignty claims.

But like all the talk of economic exclusion zones and proximity to the claimant’s coastline, it means little in reality.

If the British can hold the Falkland Islands halfway round the world off the coast of Argentina, the Chinese can certainly do the same for the Spratlys.

No, for Hanoi to secure at least partial sovereignty, it must employ more sophisticated diplomacy to win international support. And that will only happen if Vietnam starts to democratise.

Keeping a one-party system and jailing peaceful advocates of a more open, pluralist society, only alienates the very allies Hanoi needs.

The United States, Japan and India have their own beefs with Beijing, but there is a limit to how far their domestic electorates will tolerate support for a brutal regime like that in Hanoi.

The lack of a free press in Vietnam only further hampers its case.

As the noted Vietnam expert Carl Thayer said last week: “Vietnam needs to re-think its information strategy and modernise it in order to get its views before international opinion.”

Will it happen? Probably not until the Communist regime crumbles from its own ineptitude, which of course could happen any time.

Until then, we shall get more bombast and live-fire threats from Dung and his fellow fossils in Hanoi.

And it will have as much effect in driving forward Vietnam’s sovereignty claims as would that Hue taxi driver changing gear after his rear wheels fell off.

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