A Vietnamese Guide on How to Defend Sovereignty in Disputed Waters

By Lemuel Deinla

Artwork by: Matt Adapon

Duterte recently revealed that his former campaign promise to ride a jetski to the West Philippine Sea and plant a Philippine flag in a Chinese airport was a joke and that those who took it seriously were stupid. Common sense would dictate that the original statement was made in jest, not to be taken literally, but it was, nevertheless, understood as a promise to defend our territory. It was a promise made to Filipino fisherfolks whose livelihoods are affected by Chinese encroachment. Instead, Duterte’s term will end one year from now and he will leave a legacy of inconsistent, defeatist, and spineless policies on the West Philippine Sea.

Meanwhile, just across the sea, our neighbor has remained resolute in upholding their sovereignty on territories they claim throughout the years. Vietnam consistently objects to China’s intrusion into Vietnamese territory. We, together with other smaller countries, can learn from Vietnam on how to deal with big and often bullying neighbors.

Vietnamese claims in the South China Sea. Illustration from the The Economist

To begin, Vietnam has always stood by their strong legal and historical claim on Paracel Islands, Spratly Islands and other features that lie inside Vietnamese territory. According to Vietnam, it had continuous presence on the islands that go all the way back from the 17th century. The Nguyen dynasty sent a flotilla of ships annually to the Paracels to conduct surveys and fishing operations. Succeeding Vietnamese political entities never failed to lay claim to said islands. No other states challenged or questioned Vietnam’s ownership of the territories, that is, until China and Japan started their imperialist ventures into Vietnamese territory. Since then, there have been clashes between China and Vietnam, some of which turned bloody and violent.

From its historical experiences of confronting imperialist powers, Vietnam has learned a number of lessons and has applied these in formulating its foreign policies. In the 1940s and ’50s, Vietnam faced two imperialist powers — Japan and France. Vietnam’s successful anti-colonial campaigns against these states set an important context for the United States’ response to Vietnam. Shortly after France’s defeat, US imperialists swiftly moved into South Vietnam, carrying out psychological warfare and paramilitary activities throughout South Vietnam in a bid to perpetuate Vietnam’s partition and eventually turn it into a neo-colony. Although it eventually triumphed over the US, the imperialist war devastated Vietnam and the fast globalizing world pushed the country to rethink the direction of its economy. Moreover, the long and arduous war with its neighbors, Cambodia and Laos, left Vietnam isolated from the world and heavily dependent on its communist patron, the Soviet Union.

The horrors of war. Vietnamese women and children prisoners guarded by an 18-year old American soldier. Photo from time.com

These experiences help inform Vietnam’s stance vis-a-vis China and even the rest of the world. It is a strategic pragmatism that has led Vietnam to make a profound decision: it would open up to the world, but at the same time ensure that it would not lean on another country too much. As such, Vietnam pursued an omni-directional foreign policyno alliances, no military bases in Vietnamese territory, and no establishment of relations with a second country to undermine a third country — as well as market-based economic reforms.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, Vietnam’s strategic pragmatism has allowed it to thrive economically. But in the face of Chinese aggression and encroachment upon its territory, Vietnam has developed its approach and devised a ‘cooperate and struggle’ foreign policy. On one hand, Hanoi considers China as a top destination of Vietnamese goods, referring to China as a ‘comprehensive strategic cooperative partner’, the highest distinction given to any country. However, Vietnam also views China with suspicion as Chinese military activities in Vietnamese territory have been intensifying through the years. Historically, similar dynamics have played out between the two states. In January 1974, a year after US involvement in the war in Vietnam ended, China occupied a portion of the Paracel Islands, forcing Vietnamese troops to flee south and establish the first Vietnamese permanent occupation of the Spratly Islands. Yet when Vietnam won the war in April 1975, China embraced Vietnam in celebration, with Mao Tse-tung writing a message of congratulations stating, “China and Viet Nam are closely-related neighbours…our two peoples are comrades-in-arms and brothers sharing hardships and difficulties.”

With consistent economic growth, Vietnam is one of Asia’s rising stars. Photo from moderndiplomacy.eu

Today, Vietnam seeks to maintain strong open bilateral relations with China but does not hesitate to counter Chinese aggression in the Vietnamese portion of the South China Sea. This strategy was in full display in 2014, during the oil rig standoff. In May 2014, China unilaterally moved an oil rig near the Paracel Islands and it was escorted by Chinese vessels. Vietnam responded by sending 30 vessels but was overwhelmed by the superior Chinese forces. It was reported that the Chinese vessels rammed Vietnamese ships, fired water cannons, used high-frequency sonar and high-lumen light against Vietnamese crew. At the height of the crisis, China was said to have deployed 137 ships to the Paracel Islands. Vietnam ‘struggled’ by consistently issuing diplomatic protests and verbal statements that explicitly condemn China, internationalizing the issue by having foreign media board Vietnamese ships to document China’s actions, threatening to bring China to court, and even supporting domestic anti-Chinese protests at one point. But Vietnam also ‘cooperated’ by repeatedly attempting to communicate with Chinese diplomats, initiating dialogues with Chinese defense ministers, and not allowing other parts of Vietnamese bilateral relations with China to be affected by the crisis. The tension subsided when the oil rig was moved back to China in July 2014, one month ahead of schedule.

Such bold assertions stem from the Vietnamese people’s fierce belief that the territories they claim in the South China Sea belong to Vietnam. The strong conviction of the people compels and at the same time, holds the Communist Party of Vietnam accountable to enforce Vietnamese rights in its Exclusive Economic Zone.

Chinese vessels attack Vietnamese boats during the oil rig standoff in 2014. Photo from The Associated Press

From observing Vietnam’s strategic approaches, one thing is made absolutely clear: the desire for sovereignty demands a steadfast determination and tenacity in spirit to stand up to imperialist forces. Here at home, the Duterte administration wasted the arbitration award by continuously pandering to China. Nothing can be expected from Duterte and the ruling class because it is not in their interest to defend our sovereignty and protect the livelihoods of Filipino fisherfolk. We must follow Vietnam’s footsteps and loudly call for the end of the Duterte regime now. Atin ang West Philippine Sea!



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Institute for Nationalist Studies

Institute for Nationalist Studies


The Institute advances ideas and information campaigns on social issues to ferment a nationalist consciousness for the interest of the people’s welfare