Vietnam stance on East Sea dispute: Be humble but firm

By To Lan Huong   June 7, 2021 | 06:04 pm PT
"No Vietnamese leader has any intention of making concessions to China on sovereignty," former Deputy Minister of National Defense Senior Lieutenant General Nguyen Chi Vinh has said unequivocally.

In an interview with VnExpress, he said, "If the East Sea is lost, all military soldiers and leaders would have wronged the people."

For the veteran who has been at the helm of Vietnam's defense and foreign affairs policies for over a decade, it was necessary to be humble in international relations but, more importantly, also confident.

Matters that could be conceded should be conceded, but in key matters such as independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, there could never be concessions.

"When interacting with my friends around the world, I've never felt the need for self-deprecation about Vietnam being a small country, or thought we must look up to anyone else. And in reality I could also feel the international community's respect for our country."

Vietnam's heroic history, paid for with the blood of previous generations and upon which the country's fortune was being built, was an important reason for Vietnamese to be confident and proud of their country.

"Never think that when sitting with Americans we should not mention the Vietnam War or the victory of our people. Whenever we meet, I always recount to U.S. generals stories about the Vietnam War, about Vietnam's leaders, generals, about the sacrifices of Vietnam's people, soldiers. They quietly listen, and often say, 'You should tell us more about what you have been through, and how you managed to beat us'."

Former Deputy Minister of National Defense Lieutenant General Nguyen Chi Vinh. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

Former Deputy Minister of National Defense Senior Lieutenant General Nguyen Chi Vinh. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

In foreign affairs, today's issues always ought to be tied to historical lessons, especially in the case of countries that had a "history" with Vietnam, said Vinh, who stepped down from the deputy minister position at the end of May.

By having conversations with foreign leaders about past conflicts, he could tell that Vietnam's arguments and persuasiveness were both accepted even if deep in their hearts the other parties might not be satisfied with them.

Foreign policy

But Vietnam's heroic history of fierce wars and great victories notwithstanding, Vinh found its post-war behavior as a civilized, peace-loving victor to be even greater.

"Americans often ask me why Vietnam-Cuba relations are so good. My response is: 'We have a blood relationship with Cuba. In addition to the traditional affection between the two countries, Vietnam also wants the world to see that we never abandon our friends. You might not like it, but you definitely also want to have such loyal friends.'

"Don't think that ignoring Cuba would make the Americans treat us well, having tensions with China would win American support, or closing our doors to the U.S. would make China talk to us less harshly."

Vietnam's foreign policy was founded on using historical lessons in relationships with other countries.

He quoted Senator Patrick Leahy, president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate, as saying: "In Vietnam-U.S. relations, the most difficult and sensitive issue is overcoming war consequences. But miraculously, it has now become one of the most effective and inspiring areas in promoting Vietnam-U.S. relations."

The same applied to relations with China, where Vietnam had never shied away from discussing the border war or the black spots in the history of bilateral relations.

The two countries discussed those issues so as not to repeat them, which was mutually beneficial.

"Even for today's issue of the East Sea, we must also use that historical lesson to review and handle it. Even for the most difficult issues, if we could recognize the true and legitimate interests, both sides would be able to find a way to resolve them without having to use force."

East Sea

Vietnam was always fully aware of the security challenges in the East Sea [internationally known as the South China Sea], which could violate its territorial integrity and lead to conflict, making them the biggest risks currently for the country.

It was therefore understandable that all Vietnamese are concerned about the East Sea.

China appeared to be very strong, and had been carrying out many activities in the East Sea with ever growing ambition and determination. It had been extremely persistent in gradually achieving its sovereign ambitions, and was not afraid of public opinion, making it difficult not to be concerned.

To guide its behavior in the East Sea, Vietnam must assert its sovereignty, never be vague about it, never forget it or let go of it, be confident in its ability to defend its sovereignty, Vinh said.

In this struggle, it is of utmost importance that Vietnam fully defined the scope of its sovereignty. It must legalize its claims, spell out which islands and rocks it had sovereignty over, and the extent of its continental shelf.

Using this as a basis, Vietnam must at all costs defend the 21 island points, 33 garrison points and waters over which it had sovereignty in the Truong Sa (Spratly) Islands, he said.

The country must also persistently fight for its sovereignty over the Hoang Sa (Paracel) Islands. Even though the islands are being illegally occupied by China, Vietnam would never, and must never, give up on it.

Vietnams national flag is raised at a ceremony in the Hoang Sa Islands waters in June 2014. Photo by Le Thanh Tung.

Vietnam's national flag is raised at a ceremony in the Hoang Sa Islands waters in June 2014. Photo by Le Thanh Tung.

"We must at all costs defend our sovereign rights over the 200-nautical mile continental shelf and make all other countries understand and respect that determination.

"We must make China and other countries respect and comply with international law when operating in waters over which Vietnam has sovereignty.

"We must maintain and develop the legal operation of the fishery, oil and gas, marine research, transport and tourism sectors."

He asserted that while the challenges in the East Sea were real, through such measures Vietnam would protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity in the East Sea, and in fact was already doing so successfully.

As for China's apparent success with its strategy of gradually encroaching without having to rely on military measures, Vietnam's presence in the East Sea was also becoming more dense and regular.

"The islands in our Truong Sa are becoming greener, more populated, lit up with electricity all night like Vietnam's lighthouses at sea, and have an increasingly vibrant working life.

"Oil rigs were present in the East Sea, marine exploration, research, and environmental protection activities were taking place there and tourist and cargo ships sailed through without any threat.

"Civil, military, scientific ships from other countries frequently come to Vietnam. Our fishing grounds are expanding and increasing in number. All are legal and in accordance with international law. We don't compete with or encroach on anyone else's territory."

The Vietnamese Navy had a confident, dignified and increasingly large presence in the East Sea, and conducted live-fire drills in the Truong Sa Islands.

In all of Southeast Asia's waters, Vietnam's was the safest with no piracy or human trafficking, and was well protected by its Coast Guard.

As for the recent presence of hundreds of Chinese militia ships in the East Sea, which had been attracting much public attention, Vietnam's foreign ministry had already issued strong, clear statements, and Vietnam's navy and coast guard were always aware of the situation and were present at the site to ensure Vietnamese and international laws were observed.

Vietnam's economic activities at sea were also proceeding normally.

"Resolute, persistent but not aggressive or provocative ... That is how we have done, are doing and will do. I once met General Liu Yazhou, political commissar of the Chinese National Defense University. He said: 'The most important thing for both Vietnam and China is that both should not overdo or make excessive statements.' I replied: 'I very much agree with you. We have never said or done anything beyond the rightful limits'," Vinh said.

He said countries could have different viewpoints, as well as different and sometimes conflicting interests.

In 2011, after the incident involving the cutting of the vessel Binh Minh’s cable, he went to meet a leader of China's defense ministry.

"During the discussions, he said: 'If I said Truong Sa, Hoang Sa did not belong to China then I would no longer be Chinese. But I understand that if you said Truong Sa, Hoang Sa belonged to China, then you would not be Vietnamese any more either. We are different and that's the reason we have to sit down together.'

"Clearly they also see the problem, but we must persistently fight and be frank but sincere. Vietnam must always bring up the issue at international forums and not be silenced by anyone. Vietnam was confident that in the East Sea both the law and justice were on its side, and with globalization no country could do whatever it wanted disregarding morality or legality."

Asked if some Vietnamese leaders were afraid of China and just wanted to get along with it, Vinh said no Vietnamese had any thoughts about giving up or making concessions on sovereignty, especially the country's leaders.

"If the East Sea is lost then the Vietnamese army, the leaders would have wronged the country, and would not be able to be at peace with the people either.

"In the military, everyone from top to bottom considers the East Sea to be vital. Territorial sovereignty is something we absolutely will never let go of."

He said all Vietnamese should have faith in the Party and state's strategy to defend the nation and ability to handle the issue with absolute wisdom and clarity and defend sovereignty without losing the peace or affecting the development of the country.

"I once said: 'If I get one additional dollar from the export of agricultural products then that is one dollar off the pressure to defend sovereignty in the East Sea.'

"The more developed a country, the stronger its borders. And development is not spending money on buying weapons. On the contrary, Truong Sa must prosper so the country could prosper. That is safeguarding our house. Don't let embezzlement and corruption erode trust and national strength. That is safeguarding our house. Don't let feelings of love or hate hinder you from grasping and taking advantage of China's development opportunities for Vietnam to co-develop. That is safeguarding our house. Each person should contribute to developing the economy to make the country stronger. That is safeguarding our house."

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