Vietnam's Use of Academia to Promote Its Political Position on the South China Sea
The decision for Vietnam's leaders to pursue arbitration against China will be more political than legal. Photo: VOA
By Mark J. Valencia

Vietnam's Use of Academia to Promote Its Political Position on the South China Sea

Nov. 21, 2019  |     |  1 comments

The media have been replete with “revelations” regarding China’s use of academia and academics to promote and support the government’s political positions and actions -- including in the South China Sea. Sadly many of its “scholars” do seem to be more advocates than objective analysts regarding the South China Sea issue. But Vietnam has apparently followed suit. Its government now also allegedly uses international academic conferences to promote its national position and its “scholars” seem to readily follow the government’s lead.

In the late 1980s, I and the late superb academic entrepreneur Ian Townsend-Gault and his team were among the first to break the academic “bamboo curtain” between the West and Vietnam regarding the South China Sea issue. At the invitation of Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we assisted the then nascent Vietnam National Boundary Commission -- a key advisor to decision makers -- to analyze Vietnam’s maritime boundary issues and its options for resolving them. The commission was then headed by Colonel Le Minh Nghia -- a former top aide to General Vo Nguyen Giap during the wars. General Giap gave his personal support to Le Minh Nghia, who was widely respected for his intellect by his countrymen and a prominent patriot in his own right. He and his staff impressed upon us that Vietnam did not want to “give away the store” regarding its maritime entitlements, but it did want to use peaceful means to obtain what was fair. They emphasized that Vietnam had suffered decades of war and did not want new conflicts to arise over maritime boundary disputes. In our training and work together assessing Vietnam’s maritime rights and responsibilities, we impressed upon them the importance of analytical objectivity and balance in determining legal and political options. We stressed that this was necessary to ensure that Vietnam’s decision makers have the best unvarnished information available on which to base their decisions.

Unfortunately, these concepts have apparently not been transferred to their successors. Of course, situations change and people change. But the importance for policy makers of balanced objective analysis does not. Now many prominent Vietnamese academics researching the South China Sea issue have become advocates for Vietnam’s position. They draw their conclusion -- often the government’s position -- before beginning their analysis and then use their analysis to back up that conclusion. It seems that for them policy analysis and in particular international law are the arms of geopolitics. I understand why this is -- I see the same phenomenon in China and elsewhere -- but I am deeply disappointed at these researchers claiming to be objective analysts. The region and the world should be aware that in such situations, it is increasingly rare to find such.

Allegations of Vietnam’s use of academia as a political weapon first came to public light in the West in July 2017 when Greg Rushford posted an “expose” entitled “How Hanoi’s Hidden Hand Helps Shape a Think Tank’s Agenda in Washington”. Rushford said that since most of the funding for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) conferences on the South China Sea came from the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam (DAV), an arm of its Ministry of Foreign Affairs’, that Vietnam had an important say in who has been invited to the annual CSIS maritime conferences, and who hasn’t.

This sounded like mere speculation. But Rushford backed up his allegations by revealing an e-mail exchange between DAV and CSIS principals that indicated bias regarding the purpose of the conference and invitations to speakers. DAV informed CSIS, “We cannot agree with the way you handle the conference. You invited Chinese Amb without consultation with us and now saying that you cannot dis-invite him. Please understand that to create a forum for promoting Chinese propaganda is not our purpose”. CSIS replied, “Our goal is not to create a forum for Chinese propaganda, but to create a credible forum that shows China’s unacceptable behavior in the [South China Sea]”. Such politicization of academia can be counterproductive. As US Senator and Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has said in reference to similar revelation involving another think tank, “Think tanks play a critical role in shaping policy, but their credibility is jeopardized when decisions are based on funder preferences.”

The most recent example of Vietnam’s apparent attempt to politicize academia was its organization of this year’s DAV’s conference on the South China Sea. By stacking the panels with known anti-China speakers, the organizers turned the meeting into what Chinese participants perceived as an exercise in China bashing -- reaffirmation of Vietnam’s position to the detriment of that of China. It is a credit to Chinese scholars that they continue to participate in such biased forums. But this may have reached its limits.

Beyond the questionable academic ethics, such analytical bias can lead to poor policy decisions. For example, Vietnam is considering pursuing arbitration against China under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Several speakers at the DAV Conference recommended that Vietnam do so. It is all well and good to make such suggestions. But they need to be based on a careful objective evaluation of their pros and cons -- not advocacy without consequences and responsibility.

An arbitration victory against China is not a “slam dunk” or without possible serious negative consequences. China claims at least the outer parts of Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and continental shelf and has put out blocks for lease that overlap Vietnam’s already leased petroleum blocks. China has been demanding -- with words and actions -- that Vietnam’s contractors cease production from the disputed area pending negotiations between it and Vietnam. During an arbitration proceeding regarding disputed areas, international precedents have it that neither party should undertake unilateral exploitation of resources in the disputed area.

If Vietnam takes the issue to arbitration, it must first persuade the panel that it has jurisdiction.  A Chinese claim to part of Vietnam’s claimed EEZ and continental shelf based on the Spratly feature and the Paracels could complicate an arbitration panel’s acceptance of jurisdiction.  Exemptions from jurisdiction include sovereignty disputes, boundary delimitation, and military and law enforcement activities. China might argue that this dispute does indeed involve one or more of these exemptions. The China-Philippines arbitration panel made a rather narrow interpretation of these requirements for jurisdiction. But another panel in another context might decide differently.

Another obstacle that Vietnam has to overcome is “admissibility”. China and Vietnam have a bilateral agreement that stipulates “for sea-related disputes between Vietnam and China, the two sides shall settle them through friendly negotiations and consultations.” If this “agreement” is considered formal and binding, it could prevent the panel from proceeding.

It is by no means certain that the panel will accept jurisdiction and admissibility.

But the decision for Vietnam’s leaders to pursue arbitration against China will be more political than legal. They have to weigh those advantages and disadvantages as well.

If its complaint passes the procedural hurdles and Vietnam is eventually victorious, the advantages are that it will satisfy Vietnam’s nationalists, recover some lost pride, credibility and legitimacy for the government, and bring international law to its side -- for what that is worth in these days of increasingly “might makes right” international relations.

But the disadvantages may outweigh the advantages.

First, even if the panel decides it has jurisdiction, it is possible that Vietnam will lose part of its claimed EEZ and shelf. Second, even if it does “win” all that it claims, the ruling cannot be enforced. Third, and perhaps most importantly, by “internationalizing” the dispute, Vietnam will have alienated and angered its permanent giant neighbor with whom it must live into the indefinite future.

The point is that weaponizing academia can be counterproductive and lead to false assumptions and bad policy decisions. Vietnam should think twice before following other countries too far down this road. Good analysts want decision makers to have the best balanced information available to make their decisions, and good decision makers should want that too.