Why Vietnam might need to embrace ‘shamefare’ in the South China Sea

For those who were hoping that China and the Philippines might be able to move towards negotiations after Manila’s victory in the Hague over Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea — well, it seems China is back to its usual bag of tricks.

After the Philippines reacted with what I would consider praiseworthy restraint–and in complete contrast to China’s countless venomous statements — Filipino leaders seemed to offer Beijing what they have been craving most: bilateral negotiations with an eye towards a settlement. Manila is even ready to dispatch former President Ramos to talks with China as a special envoy, a role the former president has now accepted. However, at least for the time, those talks seem dead in the water, as Beijing won’t allow the ruling to be considered part of any negotiation — a pity that China won’t accept reality.

So, it seems, at least for the time being, China and the Philippines are at an impasse. What happens next, especially when it comes to the reaction of other claimants such as Vietnam, is now of greater importance. What will Hanoi do now that the ruling has been handed down and Beijing seems unwilling to back down or at least negotiate?

A Chinese marine surveillance vessel sail in the South China Sea. In the background is an oil rig China illegally deployed in Vietnam's exclusive economic zone in May 2014.

A Chinese marine surveillance vessel sail in the South China Sea. In the background is an oil rig China illegally deployed in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone in May 2014.

To be clear, in many respects, Vietnam’s reaction is almost as important as the Philippines. Hanoi has large, overlapping Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) claims with China when it comes to the extent of Beijing’s now illegal nine-dash-line — claims that extend over almost the entire length of Vietnam’s coastline. Then there is also overlapping claims in the Paracel and Spratly Islands. Indeed, Hanoi has much to win or lose when it comes to reacting to the Hague’s ruling.

My own sense is that Vietnam will take a very cautious approach to the ruling.  Having interacted with Vietnamese diplomats and scholars for many years now, my  personal feeling would be they would want to read over every line, every part of the nearly 500-page document to get a sense of its impact — away from the headlines and daily press reports. Whatever they decide, you can be sure it will be well thought out, pragmatic, and in what they feel is in their national interest.

However, Hanoi can’t be happy with China’s continued belligerence. Carefully produced photos of Chinese bombers travelling over Scarborough Shoal clearly demonstrate Beijing will not be deterred easily — essentially doubling down on its strategy to dominate the area or force negotiations on its own terms.

Here is where asymmetric strategies could come into play. A strategy that I have coined in these pages called shamefare might just be the best approach for Vietnam. If China continues on with its aggressive rhetoric and does not enter into negotiations with the Philippines by Oct. 1 — this gives China until at least after the G-20 summit, being hosted in that nation’s capital, as Beijing just might be on its best behavior until the summit is concluded and could be holding back more aggressive actions–Hanoi should respond with a carefully crafted shamefare strategy.

How Vietnam would use shamefare:

Shamefare itself is straightforward. As I have noted several months ago, it puts China on the defensive and shames Beijing in the media–especially social media — time and time again, for their now clearly illegal actions in the South China Sea. It might not be as sexy as building islands with military bases, but it does stand the chance, when combined with other methods, to make Beijing pay a heavy and near constant price for its actions, putting roadblocks in place that China would have to suffer massive reputational costs to remove.

How would such a strategy be employed? Simple. Hanoi would leak to the press that it is considering suing Beijing as well as also utilizing other non-kinetic measures if it does not work constructively towards compromise in the South China Sea. Assuming China stands pat, Vietnam would sue Beijing in international courts, what many have called lawfare, but in essence, would be the ultimate form of shamefare considering the media attention this would bring.

While the details of the suit could be very different than what I would suggest here, Vietnam could highlight the expansive nature of China’s now illegal nine-dash-line and the impact it has had on Vietnamese fishing, the various placements of oil rings in Hanoi’s EEZ, the near collapse of fisheries in the region due to overfishing, the environmental damage done by dredging on reefs throughout the area and various other challenges China will not recognize or negotiate over.

Then there is the more classic shamefare concepts that could prove very useful. UAVs or drones — provided by the United States thanks to the lifting of bans on military equipment sales — could be utilized to patrol and document Vietnam’s own challenges with China in the South China Sea and beamed in real time on social media in places like Facebook Live or Periscope. Hanoi would be able to show the extent and scope of Chinese fishing trawlers in areas of competing claims, document environmental damage to the region — all the while waging an asymmetric public relations campaign against China’s claims.

Vietnamese officials would be very careful in their comments to the media — they would explain clearly that this is an action they take with a heavy heart, however, efforts to negotiate with Beijing have failed and this was the least coercive option they had on the table. Officials would also make clear that if China was willing to sit down in either a multilateral or bilateral setting, free of any preconditions, then Hanoi would stop its shamefare tactics and be willing to pull its legal case if a clear settlement is reached. Vietnam would make clear talks and a settlement are the preferred option — but Hanoi would demonstrate it does have options to respond.

David’s Sling:

Vietnam, the Philippines and other nations that have various overlapping claims in the South China Sea face a classic problem stretching back all the way to ancient times: what do smaller nations do when a rising power challenges their national interests? Shamefare, using lawfare and leveraging the asymmetric capabilities of social media, could work to level the playing field and provide South China Sea claimants a capability to express their outrage and dispute China’s claims but also keep such disputes from becoming militarized. Considering Beijing is already worried when it comes to this strategy, it might be one Vietnam and other parties might need to take seriously in the months to come.

Harry J. Kazianis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Center for the National Interest and Senior Editor for the National Interest Magazine.You can follow him on Twitter: @Grecianformula.

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