The Vietnam Communist Party (VCP) Central Committee will convene its eleventh plenum from October 7-13. According to VCP statutes, the Central Committee must meet in executive session twice a year. The second plenum usually meets in October and so the timing of this this plenum is normal.
But the times are not normal. Vietnam’s leaders face a major challenge to their stewardship of Vietnamese sovereignty. In early July, China deployed the geological survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 to waters clearly within Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and continental shelf to undertake an illegal seismic survey for hydrocarbons.
China’s Haiyang Dizhi 8 was accompanied by a number of escorts including China Coast Guard (CCG) vessels, maritime militia trawlers and fishing boats. CCG vessels kept their Vietnam Coast Guard (VCG) counterparts at bay by cutting across their bows at high speed and by the use of high-pressure water cannons. According to Vietnamese sources, the water cannons were used at a distance to warn off VCG vessels unlike the violent confrontations that occurred in 2014 when China deployed the Hai Yang Shi You (HYSY) 981 to Vietnamese waters.
The Haiyang Dizhi 8 conducted its surveys in waters that the China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) identified in 2012 as hydrocarbon exploration blocks. Over the last seven years no foreign oil company has taken up CNOOC’s offer.
On 12 May, a Japanese-owned drilling rig Hakuryu-5, contracted by Russia’s Rosneft Vietnam, recommenced oil exploration in block 06-01 in the Nam Con Son basin. Subsequently, China dispatched one of its CCG vessels to harass service vessels assisting Rosneft.
In mid-August the Haiyang Dizhi 8 temporarily withdrew from the area to replenish at nearby Fiery Cross Reef before returning to resume seismic surveys closer to Vietnam’s coast line. On 23. September the Haiyang Dizhi 8 once again has left the area to replenish at Fiery Cross Reef.
In early September, China deployed the world’s largest crane ship, Lan Jing, owned by CNOOC, to an area 90 kms (55 miles) off the coast of Quang Ngai province in central Vietnam.
The current withdrawal of the Haiyang Dizhi 8 is not entirely for commercial reasons. China has made it clear in its submission to the ASEAN-China South China Sea Code of Conduct Single Draft Negotiating Text that it opposes any foreign oil company operating in the South China Sea. Chinese officials both privately and publicly have called on Vietnam to cease Rosneft’s oil exploration activities.
In addition, China appears to be trying to influence the deliberations of the forthcoming VCP eleventh plenum.
It should be recalled that in 2014 China’s deployment of the HYSY 981 provoked widespread even violent anti-China demonstrations in Vietnam. A group of retired party, state and military official signed an open letter calling on Vietnam to “exit China’s orbit” [thoát Trung]. In addition, pressure building up in the VCP to convene a special meeting of the Central Committee to condemn China and to shift closer to the United States.
When Chinese authorities learned of this possibility, they announced that the HYSY 981 had completed its mission and were withdrawing the mega-oil drilling rig due to an impending tropical storm. China’s action took the winds out of the sails of VCP members pushing for decisive action against China. No special meeting of the VCP Central Committee was held.
The convening of the October eleventh plenum comes at a time when diplomatic rumors are rife that VCP Secretary General and President Nguyen Phu Trong may visit President Donald Trump at the White House in October. It should be recalled that when Trong and Trump met in Hanoi in February on the eve of the second Kim Jong Un-Trump summit, the U.S. president personally invited his Vietnamese counterpart to visit to discuss “intensifying their comprehensive partnership.”
The atmospherics for Trong’s visit are mixed. On the one hand, Trump and his trade officials have been highly critical of Vietnam because of its rising trade surplus with the U.S. due in part to the relabeling and transhipment of goods made in China.
On the other hand, the Department of State has been highly critical of China’s bullying and intimidation of Vietnam and its long-standing oil exploration program. And Vietnam itself has taken a determined stand in publicly calling for support from the international community. Further, the United States’ Indo-Pacific Strategy singles out Vietnam as a potential strategic partner. In sum, Trong should find a sympathetic audience if he visits Washington.
The agenda for the VCP’s eleventh plenum undoubtedly will consider the recommendations of the Politburo on how to deal with the present standoff in the waters near Vanguard Bank and, more generally, what policies to adopt towards relations with China and the United States in the present situation.
Up until now Vietnam has responded to Chinese intimidation in a very low-key fashion. Vietnam has lodged numerous complaints through diplomatic and other channels calling for China to withdraw from Vietnamese waters. The VCG has adopted a policy of non-aggressive monitoring of the Haiyang Dizhi 8 and its escort vessels and trawlers.
Vietnam has kept the foreign media at bay unlike in 2014 when foreign journalists were embedded on VCG vessels. Vietnam has also kept a tight lid on reporting in its domestic mass media in order to forestall anti-China public protests that could turn violent.
Multiple Hanoi-based sources report privately that Vietnamese leaders responsible for national security have not yet reached consensus on these vexed issues.
In general, the Central Committee will be faced with three broad options: (1) continue to muddle through by “cooperating and struggling” with China; (2) back down in order to relieve unrelenting Chinese pressure, the precedent set in the Repsol case in July 2017 and March 2018; and (3) counter-balance Chinese pressure by stepping up security and defense cooperation with the United States by agreeing to raise bilateral relations to a strategic partnership in the near future.
Carl Thayer is emeritus professor at The University of New South Wales, Canberra.