Last year, the Philippines brought a complaint against China’s aggressive actions in the West Philippine Sea to the United Nations Arbitral Tribunal. The Chinese “were really unprepared for that and were really embarrassed by it,” one of Vietnam’s top experts on Chinese diplomacy told me during my recent visit to Hanoi.

It was a master stroke by the Philippine government. The move put China on the defensive, said another Vietnamese analyst, and was one of the factors that prompted Beijing last year to agree in principle to hold discussions with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on a Code of Conduct for the disputed body of water—known in the Philippines as the West Philippine Sea, in Vietnam as the East Sea, and in China as the South China Sea.

The budding cooperation between Vietnam and the Philippines is the latest development stemming from China’s aggressive territorial claims in the region. In 2009, China put forward the so-called “Nine-Dash Line” map in which it claimed the whole of the South China Sea, leaving four other countries that border on the strategic body of water with nothing more than their 12-mile territorial seas. In pursuit of Beijing’s goals, Chinese maritime surveillance ships have driven Filipino fisherfolk from Scarborough Shoal, which lies within the Philippines’ 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). In the most recent incident, the Chinese tried to disperse Filipino fishing boats approaching the shoal with water cannons. Chinese government ships have also reportedly chased off Filipino boats trying to replenish a garrison on Ayungin Shoal in the Spratly Islands.

The downside of Manila’s legal advantage was that it made the Philippines the number-one target of Beijing, replacing Vietnam as China’s primary rival in the ongoing dispute. “They’re now isolating you,” explained a China expert at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, “while relations between Vietnam and China are getting back to normal.” Despite the leaders of both countries exchanging visits, however, “we still feel the chill. In terms of China’s least favored countries in ASEAN, we’re number nine for the moment and you’re number 10. In the long run, however, Vietnam is Beijing’s main strategic problem.”

Invited to Hanoi to give a series of lectures on foreign policy and economic issues by Madame Nguyen Thi Binh—the legendary head of the Provisional Revolutionary Government’s (PRG) who headed South Vietnam’s delegation to the Paris talks that ended the Vietnam War—I took advantage of the opportunity to elicit Vietnamese views on the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Figuring out Beijing’s Motives

The Vietnamese are very well positioned to analyze the Chinese government. Not only have they fought the Chinese off and on for over a thousand years; they have remarkably similar ways of interpreting political developments. This is due to the fact that communist parties, with a common Leninist bent, rule both countries. Their putatively shared ideology, however, is hitched to different—indeed, conflicting— national interests.

How do the Vietnamese interpret China’s “Nine-Dash Line” map that claims virtually the whole of the South China Sea as Chinese territory? There are, interestingly, several schools of thought. The first sees the Nine-Dash Line as delineating the maritime borders of China and not necessarily possession of the islands in the area. The second interprets it as saying only that the islands and other terrestrial formations in the area belong to China, leaving the status of the surrounding waters ambiguous. A third opinion is that the map asserts that both the islands and surrounding waters belong to China.

There is a fourth perspective, and though it is held by only a handful of experts, it is intriguing. This view holds that the Nine-Dash Line is an aggressive negotiating device. According to a diplomat and academic expert who has first-hand experience negotiating with the Chinese, Beijing’s style of resolving territorial issues has the following steps: “First,” he said, “the two parties agree on the principles guiding negotiations. Second, both sides draw up their maps reflecting their respective territorial claims, with China pushing its territorial claims as far as possible. Third, they compare the maps to identify overlapping or disputed areas. Fourth, the parties negotiate to resolve the disputed areas. Fifth, if there is agreement, draw up a new map. Finally, they go to the United Nations to legalize the new map.”

Despite varying views on China’s intentions, however, the Vietnamese are one on two key points: 1) that the Nine-Dash Line claim is illegal, and 2) that owing to the number of parties and overlapping claims involved in the South China Sea dispute, only multilateral negotiations can set the basis for a lasting comprehensive solution.

Also, whatever may be their different readings of China’s motives for advancing its Nine-Dash Line claims, there seems to be a consensus among Vietnamese officials and experts that China’s strategic aim is to eventually assert its full control of the South China Sea. In other words, Beijing’s aim is to legally transform the area into a domestic waterway governed by Chinese domestic laws. Some of Beijing’s acts are explicit, such as the establishment of Sansha City as a domestic governing unit for the whole South China Sea and the recent passage of a fisheries law requiring non-Chinese vessels fishing in the area to obtain a license from the Chinese government.

Others are more ambiguous, such as Beijing’s views on the issue of freedom of navigation in the disputed area. Ambiguity serves their purpose at a time that they do not yet have the capability to match their power to their ambition. “But there is no doubt that when they reach that point, of having the power to impose their ambition,” said one Vietnamese analyst, “they will subject the area to Chinese domestic law.”

Vietnam on the Philippines’ Legal Case against Beijing

The Vietnamese government is said to be in full support of the Philippines’ legal case against China at an informal level but cannot “fully publicly support it,” according to one academic. What this meant was captured in the carefully crafted response to a reporter’s question about Vietnam’s position on the Philippine move by Nguyễn Duy Chiến, Deputy-Director of the National Border Committee under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: “It is Vietnam’s consistent position that all issues related to the East Sea should be solved by peaceful means, on the basis of international law, especially the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.” He continued, “In Vietnam’s opinion, all nations have the full right to choose peaceful means to solve disputes in conformity with the United Nations Charter and international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.”

During his visit to Washington, DC in July last year, President Truong Tan Sang attacked the Chinese Nine-Dash Line claim as being “legally groundless.” He remained silent, however, on whether Vietnam would join the Philippines in filing a case at the UN against China, though he was quick to add that as a member of the UN, the Philippines “has all legal rights to carry on with any proceedings they would like.”

Part of the reason for the lack of more explicit support appears to be that a judgment on the case would clarify not only the Philippines’ and China’s claims but also Vietnam’s, and some implications of this might not be positive for Hanoi. But uppermost is a desire not to enrage China at a time that high-level exchanges are returning relations between the two countries to normal, or at least something close to it.

Despite their hesitations in giving the Philippines’ legal case their full public endorsement, the effort is eliciting widespread admiration in official circles in Vietnam, with one retired ambassador calling it “heroic.” A key reason for the popularity of the move is that it blindsided Beijing and upset China’s careful calculations. According to one expert on Chinese diplomacy, “the reason they’re upset is because they already have five battlefields—the political, diplomatic, mass media, security, military—and now you’ve added a sixth: the legal battlefield.” He continued, “The Chinese have a saying, ‘when the flag is in your hands, don’t yield it to others.’” Beijing, in other words, feels very much at sea on the legal front, where experts in international law will be calling the shots.

The United States: From Enemy to Ally?

In an irony of history, the Vietnamese have welcomed Washington’s plans to increase the U.S. military footprint in the region to “balance” China. Once an enemy, Hanoi now has good security relations with the United States, whose navy Vietnam has invited to use the former Soviet naval base at Cam Ranh Bay for logistical and ship repair needs.

For the same reason, the Vietnamese approve of the U.S. military’s controversial build-up in the Philippines. Their position on this matter has not changed since I met with foreign ministry officials during a visit to Hanoi in 2011, where I was told that as a long-time ally of the United States, it was the role of the Philippines to ask the United States to increase its military presence in the Western Pacific. Hanoi’s thinking is classic Leninist balance-of-power logic: China is the ascendant force and the United States is a power in decline, so the weaker parties—including the Philippines, Vietnam, ASEAN, and Japan—must band together with the United States to contain the rising imperial power.

In my various talks over three days, I articulated my disagreement with this logic. Fundamentally, the United States cannot be counted on to support the Philippines’ and Vietnam’s territorial claims, and Washington cannot be assumed to be motivated simply by balance-of-power considerations. The United States will advance its own strategic and economic interests as a quid-pro-quo for requests for assistance.

Moreover, inviting the United States to have a larger military presence is counterproductive if the aim is to resolve our territorial disputes with China. A larger U.S. presence would transform the regional context into a superpower conflict, thus marginalizing the territorial question and the possibility for its resolution. Moreover, inviting Washington to plant an even bigger military footprint in the Philippines would convert our country into a frontline state like Afghanistan and Pakistan, with all the terrible consequences such a status entails—including the subordination of our economic development to the strategic-military priorities of a superpower.

It is also too early to tell if the U.S. decline is temporary or irreversible. It is instructive to remember that the United States snapped back strongly in the 1990s after many experts thought it would inevitably be surpassed by a rising Japan. Similarly, it is not a foregone conclusion that China will displace the United States, especially since its model of export-led development is in crisis and Beijing is not at all sure it can make the transition to a domestic market-led growth path without massive internal upheaval.

Finally, a balance of power situation is unstable and prone to generate conflict, since although no one may want a war, the dynamics of conflict may run out of everyone’s control and lead to one. On this last point, I asserted, “China’s aggressive territorial claims, the U.S. ‘Pivot to Asia,’ and Japan’s opportunistic moves add up to a volatile brew. Many observers note that the Asia-Pacific military-political situation is becoming like that of Europe at the end of the 19th century, with the emergence of a similarly fluid configuration of balance-of-power politics. None of the key players in East Asia today may want war. But neither did any of the Great Powers on the eve of the First World War. The problem is that in a situation of fierce rivalry among powers that hate one another, an incident may trigger an uncontrollable chain of events that may result in a regional war, or worse.”

My Vietnamese audiences listened politely but were unconvinced. Nonetheless, they were game enough to laugh when I jokingly said, “Well, since you have offered them Cam Ranh Bay, the Americans may no longer have any need for Subic Bay.” Subic is the former U.S. base in the Philippines that Washington has new designs on to serve as a forward site in its strategy to contain China.

Swimming with the Sharks

The Philippines and Vietnam are natural allies in their common struggle against China’s drive for hegemony in East Asia. Already partners in ASEAN, the two are likely to be driven closer together by Beijing’s increasingly brazen displays of power as it enforces its claim to some 80 percent of the South China Sea.

Both have also drawn closer to the United States, seeking to use Washington to balance China’s growing military presence in the region. Vietnam has played the U.S. card more adroitly, however, relying on the Philippines to explicitly invite an expanded U.S. military presence on its soil and seas, something the Vietnamese would not themselves allow.

Having defeated the United States in war, the Vietnamese seem confident they can handle the United States as an ally. This probably accounts for a lack of appreciation of the different relationship the Philippines has with Washington. Manila has always been in a dependent relationship with the United States, and an expanded U.S. presence in the Philippines would reinforce and deepen this status, subordinating the country’s political and economic development to the security relationship. This would mean eliminating the fragile space for maneuver the country was able to carve out when it kicked out the U.S. bases in 1992.

Vietnam, in short, may swim with the sharks and survive, but the Philippines, following the same balancing strategy, is bound to end up inside one of them.

Walden Bello is a representative of Akbayan (Citizens’ Action Party) in the Philippine House of Representatives. He was the author of the House resolution renaming the South China Sea the West Philippine Sea.