Last update 6/8/2011 7:06:45 PM (GMT+7)

Vietnam cannot come in second in “information warfare” with China

VietNamNet Bridge – “Vietnam needs to re-think its information strategy and modernize it in order to get Vietnam’s views before international opinion,” said Professor Carl Thayer in an interview on VietNamNet’s Tuan Viet Nam (Vietnam Week).

VN condemns Chinese intrusion

Professor Carl Thayer
In China’s history, Cao Cao, one of the central figures of the Three Kingdoms period, defeated the strong Xi Liang army, by resorting to dividing tricks and releasing ambiguous information to cause disagreements and internal division. Today, this trick seems to be used by Cao Cao’s descendant in the East Sea dispute.

Vietnam Week talked with Prof. Carl Thayer about this story and the future of multilateral approach to this dispute.

Vietnam Week: Are you surprised with the seem-to-be-unusual reactions on the Vietnamese media, as well as Vietnamese researchers? Do you think China’s aggressive moves have urged Vietnam’s public opinion, and partly Vietnamese authorities to jump over the “barriers of sensitivity”? But how should Vietnam do to help the world understand the true nature of the issue and, thus, get increasing support to survive in the “imbalanced fight” with China?

Prof. Carl Thayer: Vietnam’s leadership is in a difficult position because the East Sea is best dealt with through diplomacy.

Vietnamese leaders know that the Chinese Embassy will make strong protests anytime they see any report in the Vietnamese media that is critical of China. But, if the Vietnamese government does not let the media play a greater role in reporting on the East Sea, this will allow rumor and foreign reports to shape Vietnamese public opinion.

There is a sign that more reporting is being done on the East Sea. VietNamNet Bridge ran an interesting series on the May 26th incident, in which the views of scholars and former officials were printed. Major General Le Van Cuong offered some sharp comments for example.

Vietnam needs to re-think its information strategy and modernize it in order to get Vietnam’s views before international opinion. Press conferences by MOFA are not enough. Each ministry concerned should have a webpage that is accessible and contains current information. Visual material including videos need to be distributed in a timely manner. Vietnam also needs to translate material into foreign languages in a timely manner.

PetroVietnam, for example, distributed a Power Point briefing about the incident. This could have been more professionally presented and it should have been translated into English and given wide circulation.

Vietnam has held two international workshops on the East Sea and invited many foreign scholars to present papers along with colleagues from Vietnam. These papers should have been posted on a website for access by the whole world. The proceeding of the first workshop took a year to publish. The proceedings of the second workshop have not yet appeared. Papers by Vietnamese scholars have not been translated into foreign languages such as Chinese and English.

Vietnam cannot afford to come in second in “information warfare.”

After Vietnam first provided details of the March 26th incident, contradictory information appeared. It was said that this was not the first time China has interfered with oil exploration ships. Then, it was said this was the first incident. It is unclear if this meant the first time a cable had been cut. The way this was handled led some observers to speculate why Vietnam chose to publicize this incident but not the others. Vietnam must be more transparent and consistent in releasing information.

Vietnam Week: Remarking the peaceful protest against China in Hanoi and HCM City on June 5, Deputy Defense Minister, General Lieutenant Nguyen Chi Vinh told BBC that “Vietnamese people should believe that the State will have solutions and enough responsibility to keep both territorial sovereignty and friendship with China”. As an expert on the East Sea and Vietnam, what is your opinion?

Prof. Carl Thayer: Maintaining unity at home is vital for Vietnam’s strategy in dealing with China. The Vietnamese government needs to explain its actions and policies to the people. Obviously the government cannot release confidential material related to diplomacy. But the government should outline its general foreign policy strategy and put it before the public. Government officials should address students at their universities and answer their questions.

Vietnam has held internal conferences on the East Sea but little information has been released to a wider circle. These are complex issues and if the government does not explain its policies to the public, it runs the risk that rumor and false information will flow into Vietnam.

At the same time, Vietnam must hold high-level meetings with the Chinese leadership and get an agreement that both sides should refrain from instigating incidents like the Binh Minh 02 incident. Vietnam could quietly step up its maritime cooperation with major powers, like the Japanese Coast Guard and India, to signal to China continued belligerence will only internationalize the East Sea issue.

Vietnam Week: With regard to "false information", did you mean the report by the China Daily June 4, on the bilateral meeting between Vietnamese and Chinese Defense Ministers?

This newspaper wrote: "Vietnamese Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh, said on Friday that disputes with China over the East Sea should be solved without any interference from a third party."

It previously reported that in a meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on the sidelines of the 17th ASEAN Summit in Hanoi last fall, former General Secretary Nong Duc Manh had agreed to settle disputes in the East Sea through bilateral approach; and--

Lieutenant General Nguyen Chi Vinh had been also misquoted during his visit to China last summer. A Chinese newspaper, perhaps The Global Times, said that General Vinh was happy with the rapid rise of Chinese military strength, instead of what General Vinh said was "defense capacity".

Prof. Carl Thayer: Yes, I was referring indirectly to Chinese news reports. My concern was that these would be picked up by other journalists and scholars and repeated, thus confusing Vietnamese who read reports from overseas.

I was also referring to blogs and internet posting by some overseas Vietnamese who exaggerate and make false claims.

Vietnam Week: It seems that the momentum for a multilateral approach for the settlement of disputes in the East Sea has been worsened since 2010, judging by the standstills of the implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea (DOC), partly at the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) in Indonesia, as well as the recent Shangri-La Dialogue 2011 in Singapore. Do you think so?

The red spot is the position of the Binh Minh 02 ship when its cable was cut by Chinese ships

Prof. Carl Thayer: There are mixed signals about whether or not progress is being made between ASEAN and China in adopting guidelines to implement the DOC. The main reason is that China wants the matter to be settled bilaterally and only by the countries directly concerned.

When the DOC was adopted in 2002, it made no mention of the Hoang Sa (Paracel) or Truong Sa (Spratly) islands in deference to China. In other words…the scope of the DOC was left vague. China will not permit the Paracel to be included in any new statement on the East Sea as it occupies them and considers the matter closed.

At the same time, Indonesia, as ASEAN Chair, has announced it will approach China about a code of conduct and raise the East Sea issue at the East Asia Summit. ASEAN has the main responsibility for engaging China on the East Sea. This means the Foreign Ministers have the lead.

The ADMM does not have direct responsibility and all it can do is support the on-going diplomatic process. Its joint statement declared: Reaffirm ASEAN Member States’ commitment to fully and effectively implement the Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the East Sea, and to work towards the adoption of a regional Code of Conduct in the East Sea that would further promote peace and stability in the region.

It also reaffirms the importance of regional peace and stability, and freedom of navigation in and over-flight above the East Sea, as provided for by universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The Shangri-la Dialogue is merely a discussion forum. However, in the keynote opening speech Malaysia’s Prime Minister Dato’ Sri Najib Tun Razak stated, “I am also optimistic that ASEAN and China will soon be able to agree on a more binding code of conduct to replace the 2002 Declaration on Conduct in the East Sea.”

Vietnam Week: In this case how should Vietnam do to maintain ASEAN solidarity, while China seems to be successful in weakening it with huge ODA pledges and draw back intentions of the powers outside the region into the hot topic of high tensions in the East Sea?

Prof. Carl Thayer: Vietnam has a difficult task to maintain ASEAN solidarity. It has only seven months under the chair of Indonesia to keep up momentum for talks with China. After that--Brunei (2012), Cambodia (2013), Myanmar (2014) and Laos (2015) will chair ASEAN and these countries have no direct interest in the East Sea.

The most important thing Vietnam can do is to keep unity first among the claimant states – the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei – and lobby Indonesia to maintain its leadership on this issue. Vietnam must also consult with the other members of ASEAN and convince them to stand firm. Finally, Vietnam should lobby the major powers to keep the pressure on China to refrain from unilateral action.

Vietnam should look beyond the DOC and a COC towards a joint development and what arrangement would suit its national interests.

In the bilateral talks with the Vietnamese counterpart on the sideline of the Shangri-La Dialogue 2011, Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie said that the People’s Liberation Army of China stayed out of the Binh Minh 02 incident.

Vietnam Week: How do you imagine what would happen if the Vietnamese guarding vessels for Binh Minh 02 took some counter actions against the Chinese patrol ships that cut the cable? Would it be something similar to the Tonkin Gulf incident in 1964?

Prof. Carl Thayer: China has five separate state agencies that deal with maritime affairs in addition to the People’s Liberation Army Navy. Some observers offer the view that the China Maritime Surveillance ships may have acted independently.

Nevertheless, the central government has backed the actions of these ships as “normal” operations. China’s use of non-military ships poses difficulties to states such as Vietnam, which do not have equivalent civilian forces to counter China.

Vietnam should consult experts in international law to see if there are grounds for compensation when damage occurs. Vietnam must be extremely careful to respond in a proportionate manner. The Gulf of Tonkin incident is a lesson for Vietnam.

Vietnam needs to improve its capacity for monitoring its exclusive economic zone. It also needs to develop appropriate civilian maritime capabilities to enforce its sovereignty. This will take some time.

Vietnam could also escort its state-owned oil exploration ships. With better communication and experience, Vietnam could also provide air support when Chinese ships approach Vietnamese exploration vessels. But, the “rules of engagement” will have to be carefully worked out to prevent violence and Chinese retaliation.

Carl Thayer was educated at Brown University in the United States. He holds an M.A. in Southeast Asian Studies from Yale and a PhD in International Relations from The Australian National University (ANU). He studied Vietnamese language at Yale, Cornell and Southern Illinois University.

Before embarking on an academic career, Carl served in Vietnam with the International Voluntary Services (1967-68) and as a volunteer teacher in Botswana with the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. He began his professional career in 1976 as lecturer at the Bendigo Institute of Technology (renamed the Bendigo College of Advanced Education). In 1979, he joined The University of New South Wales and taught first in its Faculty of Military Studies at The Royal Military College-Duntoon (1979-85) and then at University College, ADFA (1986-present). He served as Head of the School of Politics from 1995-97. In 1998, he was promoted to full Professor.

Professor Thayer has spent special study leave at the ANU’s Strategic and Defense Studies Center; Harvard’s Center for International Affairs; International Institute of Strategic Studies in London; Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Chulalongkorn University in Thailand; Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore; and the Department of Political Science at Yale. In 2005, he was the C. V. Starr Distinguished Visiting Professor of Southeast Asian Studies at The Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C. During 2006-07, Carl directed the Regional Security Studies module at the Australian Command and Staff College, Weston Creek.

Professor Thayer is the author of over 380 publications, including many research works about Vietnam, Southeast Asia and Asia-Pacific.

Interviewer: Huynh Phan