Asia in Review Archive (2019-2020)


Date of AiR edition

News summary

4 August 2020

USA pledges support to Vietnam in agreement on South China Sea

(jn) The United States and Vietnam have signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on July 22 in which Washington, among other things, seeks to share expertise and technical assistance on sea patrolling, and to cooperate with Vietnam and international law enforcement agencies to combat illegal fishing and intimidation. Experts see the MoU as a sign of a toughened U.S. stance against Beijing’s geopolitical aspirations in the South China Sea even though China was not explicitly mentioned. However, the impact of the MoU remains to be seen as Vietnam is still treading a fine line between emphatically asserting its sovereignty under intentional law in the South China Sea while at the same trying to not overly antagonize Beijing, let alone to get onto a slippery slope towards armed conflict. Likewise, analysts assess U.S. options to be limited by practical constraints and by its own choosing; the U.S. will signal Beijing that it is keeping a close eye on events in the area, boosting Vietnam politically through agreements like the one at hand, while also continuing its freedom of navigation exercises for the time being. 

With regards to Vietnam, the country is still weighing whether to bring suit against China’s encroachment in the South China Sea at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, as did the Philippines successfully in 2016. [South China Morning Post]


4 August 2020

Vietnam scrambles to contain COVID-19 spread, reporting first deaths and facing second wave

(jn) Vietnam reported more than 640 coronavirus infections and six deaths as of Monday after almost two weeks of spiking cases across the country, the origin and epicenter being the central city of Danang, a tourism hub. The town confirmed the first domestically transmitted cases in 100 days nationwide on July 24, after which the virus spread to at least ten places, including Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. 

The rapid resurgence of the coronavirus left authorities scrambling for a response, triggering multiple measures including lockdowns and quarantines [see AiR No. 30 July/2020, 4], but also mass-scale testing which the government announced on Saturday would also cover Danang’s entire population of 1.1 million people. [Vietnam Ministry of Health] [Straits Times]

To make matters worse, health authorities said that the Covid-19 strain detected in Danang appears to be more contagious than older versions. The infection rate is at about five to six people compared to the previously known strain that accounted for 1.8 to 2.2 people. An infection rate indicates how many people contract the virus in a certain time span after having been in close contact with an infected person. 23 per cent of the latest infections are reported to be asymptomatic.

In an online conference on Saturday, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said he preferred targeted social distancing measures as opposed to another nationwide lockdown. This stance reflects that Vietnam can hardly afford to put the economy into an artificial coma again since the first already diminished government revenue and severely cut economic growth for this year, according to experts. Of all economic sectors, the tourism industry has been especially hit hard, with the number of foreign tourists dropping more than two thirds this spring compared to last year. The government had lifted virtually all domestic restrictions at the beginning of last month eyeing to revive a sluggish economy, however, this will now have to be reversed at least in part.

Phuc also said on Monday that early August would be the “decisive” time to stop the virus from spreading on a large scale, and that the new outbreak could have a more “critical impact” than the original one.

Local analysts also speculate that the Communist Party convention in January 2021, where all major party and government positions will be selected for the next five years, could be postponed [see also AiR No. 20, May/2020, 3]. [Nikkei Asian Review] [Straits Times 2] [The Diplomat] [Asia Times]

28 July 2020

Vietnam: New local Covid-19 cases, triggering evacuations and border control

(jn) After four infections with the Coronavirus were confirmed in the Vietnamese city of Danang over the weekend, authorities imposed stay-at-home-orders, mass-evacuations and tighter border controls. The government under Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc reacted quickly to the news of the – still minor – outbreak and revived a directive first imposed in March only allowing residents to leave their homes for essential needs, banning public gatherings of more than two people and ordering them to socially distance.

The first cases after more than three months and a remarkably successful infection control [see AiR No. 17, April/2020, 4] rattled the country and caused the government to evacuate 80,000 people of mostly domestic tourists from Danang and start testing of 10,000 residents. [Bangkok Post] [Straits Times]

Phuc also asked local authorities to tighten border controls echoing concerns in both mainstream and social media about Chinese immigrants who are reportedly entering Vietnam illegally through its northern border on a regular basis in search of work.

Vietnam had about 431 Covid-19 infections with zero deaths as of Sunday. [Nikkei Asian Review]

28 July 2020

Chinese influence on Vietnam’s economy amid South China Sea tensions

(jn) Tensions between Vietnam and China over the South China Sea dispute notwithstanding, the Beijing-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) has approved a loan of $100 million to Hanoi-based commercial VP Bank last week. According to the AIIB, the money is meant to help the Vietnamese economy recover from pandemic-related woes, especially propping up small and medium-sized businesses.

Experts see the loan as part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the large-scale development strategy that it is pursuing worldwide to expand its economic reach and gain geopolitical clout. Given the relatively frosty relationship between both countries, the loan was not so much a breakthrough for the BRI in Vietnam than an “olive branch” extended to Hanoi as it weighs new steps in countering China’s ambitions in the South China Sea. [Nikkei Asian Review]

In another instance, it has now become public that the government-owned energy company PetroVietnam is liable to pay compensation of around one billion dollars to international oil companies, the Spanish company Repsol and UAE-based Mubadala. The financial obligations are a result of the Vietnamese leadership ordering the cancellation of drilling contracts on oil fields in the South China Sea in reaction to intense pressure from China. PetroVietnam had ordered Repsol to stop drilling operations in 2017 and 2018 in two blocks of seabed after China had flexed its naval muscles in a large-scale exercise off Hainan island [see AiR No. 13, April/2018, 1]

This month, Chinese pressure led to the cancellation of another contract for a new oil rig for the Russian company Rosneft that had waited in a Vietnamese port until now. A Chinese coast guard ship was spotted circling the predecessor platform at the Russian site, which surprised observers who expected China to be more reluctant to antagonize Moscow. [The Diplomat]

Analysts assess Vietnam’s options in the South China Sea dispute to be rather limited, especially in the case of armed conflict. China’s military capabilities seriously dwarf Vietnam’s, even giving Beijing the opportunity of a mere “warm-up fight” in the South China Sea, the real adversary for China being the US. Vietnam would, according to experts, stick to diplomacy as long as possible to uphold the status quo. 

It is still unclear whether Vietnam’s strategic deck of cards has really been improved by the newly outspoken and hardened US position on China’s encroachment in the South China Sea: The US has still to prove that it would live up to its commitments to international law and the sovereignty of states in the region when push comes to shove, and the superpower is not the military ally (yet) that Vietnam could rely on for plotting its future course. [Asia Times]

21 July 2020

Vietnam reacts to hardened US stance on South China Sea dispute

(jn) Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry welcomed any views in accordance with international law on the South China Sea, and that “respecting the legal order at the sea and implementing [the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea] in full and with good faith” was crucial. The statement came after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had told reporters that the US would support countries around the globe which believe their legal territorial or maritime claims were violated by China, though the US would do so by pursuing diplomatic means, such as in multilateral bodies like ASEAN. [South China Morning Post]

Despite the rhetoric, Beijing is seen as carefully navigating its relationship with Vietnam for the moment instead of reciprocating in kind.

The Deputy Foreign Ministers of China and Vietnam held a video meeting in their respective functions as General Secretaries of the Steering Committee for Vietnam-China Bilateral Cooperation last Thursday, discussing the South China Sea dispute among other things. Details of the conversation were not provided. In the same week, the Chinese-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) announced that it would lend $100 million to a Vietnamese bank to prop up its lending to private businesses suffering from the coronavirus pandemic.

On the other hand, Vietnam appears to have cancelled a contract with an oil rig off its coast near the Vanguard Bank, a reef near the Spratly Islands within Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and payed compensation to the parent company. One year ago, the Vanguard Bank became the place where Chinese and Vietnamese coast guard ships met in a tense and prolonged stand-off (see AiR No. 29, July/2019, 3). Hanoi did not publicly comment on rescinding the contract, but it comes at a time when China has increased its incursions into Vietnamese waters, deploying a China Coast Guard vessel to the Vanguard Bank last recently and a survey vessel into Vietnam’s EEZ in June.

According to experts, Vietnam may feel emboldened by the vocal and assertive US positioning and increasing US military presence in the region. Even though the Chinese and Vietnamese economies are very much intertwined with Vietnam having a significant trade deficit, the South China Sea dispute is the decisive factor for the country’s geopolitical alignment against China (see also last week’s AiR No. 28, July/2020, 2). [South China Morning Post 2] [Nhan Dan] [Radio Free Asia]

14 July 2020

Vietnam’s continued crackdown on online activists 

(jn) A Vietnamese court has sentenced pro-democracy activist Nguyen Duc Quoc Vuong to eight years in prison on criminal charges of “disseminating information against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam”. It is believed to be the longest ever prison term for posting content on social media. Before his arrest in 2019, Nguyen had decried the corruption and autocracy of the ruling Communist Party in an online livestream. He had also touched on land confiscation cases, political prisoners, and his support for protests in Hong Kong.

Human Rights Watch condemned the sentence as outrageous while the US state department voiced concern noting: “the lengthy sentence is another in a number of troubling arrests and sentences of journalists, bloggers, and activists aimed at denying freedom of speech in Vietnam.”

Radio Free Asia has counted about a dozen recent cases in which activists or ordinary citizens were prosecuted for their activities on Facebook [see also AiR No. 18, May/2020, 1]. [Radio Free Asia 1] [Channel News Asia]

In another case, journalist and author Pham Doan Trang said she would quit working for “Liberal Publishing House”, an independent and dissident publisher of books, because of the intense harassment by the police over her work and the abduction and abuse of colleagues. [Radio Free Asia 2]

14 July 2020

US and Vietnam celebrating 25th anniversary of diplomatic ties

(jn) On the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the US and Vietnam, leaders of both countries exchanged congratulatory notes, vowing to further strengthen their ties in the future. 

President Donald Trump wrote in a letter to Vietnamese President Nguyen Phu Trong on Saturday that the US was committed to enhancing and expanding the bilateral ties based on a shared vision of a peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific and respect for each other’s sovereignty and regulations. 

In his own congratulatory letter to the US, President Trong said that US-Vietnam relations throughout the last 25 years had “surpassed differences and geography” to develop positively and stably, making the US Vietnam’s leading partner in various areas.

After the Vietnam War, during which up to 3.8 million Vietnamese people and almost 50,000 US soldiers perished, Washington maintained sanctions against the unified, communist-led country well into the 1980s.

The normalization of US-Vietnam relations was phased in during the early 1990s, starting in 1991 with a roadmap plan presented by the Bush administration that included opening a US office in Hanoi on “Missed in Action” (MIA) issues. Bush’s successor Bill Clinton lifted the trade embargo against Vietnam in 1994 and on July 11, 1995, he announced the normalization with Vietnam. Shortly after, then Vietnamese Prime Minister Võ Văn Kiệt followed by declaring diplomatic relations to be established and a new chapter to be opened. In 2000, both sides signed a bilateral trade agreement (BTA).

In recent years, both nations have experienced a growing trade relationship and have expanded their military ties, establishing a Comprehensive Partnership in 2013. The US lifted its arms embargo in 2016.

The US is Vietnam’s second largest trading partner after China. Despite the pandemic, trade increased by almost 8% in the first five months of the year compared to the same period last year. Experts see this as a trend only to grow in the coming years as American firms are eyeing Vietnam as an alternative haven for investment in light of Washington seeking to “decouple” supply chains from China.

However, the major reason for both Vietnam and the US striving for reconciliation is owing to Vietnam’s ever-increasing geopolitical tensions with China, in particular over territorial claims in the South China Sea [see e.g. AiR No. 19, May/2020, 2AiR No. 24, June/2020, 3]. The US serves as the alternative superpower that Vietnam can turn to and that has even proclaimed itself a defender of the international rule-based order and freedom of navigation in the region. 

As a sign of this development, only in March a US aircraft carrier docked in Vietnam for the second time in recent years [see AiR No. 10, March/2020, 2]. At the same time, Congress is weighing the so-called Pacific Deterrence Initiative that could send almost $7 billion in military spending to US allies in Asia, including Vietnam.

Vietnam might upgrade its relationship with the US to a Strategic Partnership or Comprehensive Strategic Cooperative Partnership in the coming years, experts estimate.

Although China continues to enjoy a Comprehensive Strategic Cooperative Partnership with Vietnam, Sino-Vietnamese relations have constantly deteriorated. At the same time, Vietnam has become that ASEAN country in recent years that showed the most unequivocal signs of a strategic rapprochement with the US accompanied with closer relations to other Quad-nations as well. 

Still, the overall picture of the strategic triangle might change, US-Vietnamese relations be tested if the US foreign policy would turn to a more value prone approach. Disputes about human rights and democracy would then become emblematic for the major challenge to bridge the difference between both countries’ disparate political systems. In parts, degree this lingering conflict potential has not flared up because of the American focus on China’s unbridled striving for power and abysmal human rights record. [Nhan Dan] [Philippine Daily Inquirer] [VN Express] [VN Express 2] [Asia Times]

7 July 2020

Vietnam sends diplomatic protest note to China over navy drills

(jn) Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry has lodged a protest note with China to complain about the recent military drills in the South China Sea. Speaking at a regular briefing, the spokeswoman explained the step, saying that the drills would “seriously violate Vietnam’s sovereignty” and would “further complicate the situation”, as they “are detrimental to the relationship between China and ASEAN.” Having delivered the diplomatic note, Vietnam would now ask China to refrain from repeating similar actions in the South China Sea. The Philippines had also criticized the drills which like Vietnam lays claim to parts of the South China Sea according to the concept of Exclusive Economic Zones under to international maritime law. [Straits Times] [SCMP]

China had scheduled the exercises in waters near the Paracel Islands for five days starting last Wednesday. It asserts historical rights to over 80% of the South China Sea. As a sign of increasing geopolitical tensions, Chinese vessels harassed Vietnamese fishing boats in June and April, and in the earlier case sunk one of them [AiR No. 24, June/2020, 3] [AiR No. 14, April/2020, 1]. China had called Vietnam’s maritime claims illegal and “doomed to fail.”





30 June 2020

Malaysia wants no more Rohingya refugees – APHR calls ASEAN’s limited help shameful

(cm/ls) Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has said that Malaysia did not have the resources and capacity to allow further Rohingya refugees be admitted to the country. Malaysia implemented strict border control since April when an influx of Rohingya refugees attempted to enter. Many of the refugees have been detained. Muhyiddin urged “the UN Refugee Agency to speed up the resettlement of Rohingya in Malaysia to third countries” as there are more than 100,000 refugees currently in Malaysia. [Bangkok Post] [South China Morning Post] [Air No. 23, June/2020, 2]

Meanwhile, Indonesian fishermen have rescued nearly 100 Rohingya refugees, including 79 women and children, in Aceh province. Officials said they planned to push them back out to sea with a new boat, gas and food, but these plans have not been realized following protests from the local fishermen. [Reuters]

The chairman of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), Charles Santiago, called the ASEAN response to the refugee crisis “totally shameful”. The Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network said the crisis was exacerbated by the pandemic due to travel restrictions and the closure of borders across the region. [Jakarta Post]





30 June 2020

Malaysia wants no more Rohingya refugees – APHR calls ASEAN’s limited help shameful

(cm/ls) Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has said that Malaysia did not have the resources and capacity to allow further Rohingya refugees be admitted to the country. Malaysia implemented strict border control since April when an influx of Rohingya refugees attempted to enter. Many of the refugees have been detained. Muhyiddin urged “the UN Refugee Agency to speed up the resettlement of Rohingya in Malaysia to third countries” as there are more than 100,000 refugees currently in Malaysia. [Bangkok Post] [South China Morning Post] [Air No. 23, June/2020, 2]

Meanwhile, Indonesian fishermen have rescued nearly 100 Rohingya refugees, including 79 women and children, in Aceh province. Officials said they planned to push them back out to sea with a new boat, gas and food, but these plans have not been realized following protests from the local fishermen. [Reuters]

The chairman of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), Charles Santiago, called the ASEAN response to the refugee crisis “totally shameful”. The Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network said the crisis was exacerbated by the pandemic due to travel restrictions and the closure of borders across the region. [Jakarta Post]





30 June 2020

Philippine President Duterte calls ASEAN not to escalate South China Sea dispute

(mp) Echoing ASEAN’s general stance on the South China Sea (see above), also Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte called the parties involved in the conflict to exercise self-restraint and respect the rule of law to avoid “escalating tension.” He stressed that the conflict needed to be solved peacefully and in accordance with international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Duterte, the country coordinator for ASEAN-China dialogues, demanded to work with China closely and to achieve an early conclusion with the other member states to reduce the tensions in the region that have continuously risen. [Inquirer]




30 June 2020

At summit, ASEAN leaders stress importance of international law for South China Sea dispute 

(jn) Leaders of the members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Friday emphasized the importance of maintaining and promoting “freedom of navigation and overflight” above the South China Sea. The passage in their vision statement is seen as a response to reports of China planning to establish an air defense identification zone (ADIZ), something the country has also not ruled out publicly. The prospect of an ADIZ was not only decried by ASEAN members, but also the US military in the region.

ASEAN members explicitly stressed “the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability, and avoid actions that may further complicate the situation.” They also agreed to work on “an effective and substantive Code of Conduct” for the South China Sea, a framework that would go further than the 2002 Declaration of Conduct that the ASEAN once agreed on with China.

On Saturday, another ASEAN statement authored by chairing member Vietnam pointed out that the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) should be “the basis for determining maritime entitlements, sovereign rights, jurisdiction and legitimate interests over maritime zones” in the South China Sea. Such remarks can be seen as a strong repudiation to China’s controversial historical claim to most of the disputed waters, and it is no coincidence that Vietnam as one of the most vocal critics of China’s encroachment was the drafter. As a sign of increasing geopolitical tensions, Chinese vessels harassed Vietnamese fishing boats this month and in April, and in the earlier case sunk one of them [AiR No. 24, June/2020, 3] [AiR No. 14, April/2020, 1].

The UNCLOS defines certain water areas as exclusive economic zones (EEZ) where coastal states are given the exclusive right to explore and use marine resources. The leaders said in the statement that the “UNCLOS sets out the legal framework within which all activities in the oceans and seas must be carried out”. 

There was no immediate response from China, but according to AP, Southeast Asian diplomats said that the statement marked a significant strengthening of ASEAN’s assertion of the rule of law in the region. In 2016, the Permanent Court or Arbitration in The Hague had ruled that China’s vast claims in the South China Sea had no legal basis. However, Beijing did not recognize the ruling. 

For a number of different interpretations and evaluation of the ruling see [ISEAS]. Among them is a piece of Clive Schofield who refers to China’s refection of the ruling to point to the fact of “fundamentally opposed, overlapping and contested spatial visions of maritime rights in the SCS” which “sets the scene for ongoing maritime incidents and disputes” with China not giving up its claims of historic rights.  

The ASEAN leaders also dedicated themselves to tackling the economic collateral damage wreaked by the Covid-19 pandemic by establishing a regional pandemic fund, building medical supply stockpiles and reasserting the need for open trade links.  

The vision statement reaffirmed the importance of implementing free trade agreements and comprehensive economic partnerships between ASEAN and key economies. It mentioned India as a major trading partner (alongside China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and Hong Kong), although PM Narendra Modi had said last year that India would withdraw from the negotiations to sign up for the 16-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade pact [see also AiR No.45, November/2019, 1]

The 36th ASEAN Summit themed “Cohesive And Responsive ASEAN: Rising Above Challenges And Sustaining Growth” was convened as a video conference on June 26 under the chair of Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc. [The Guardian] [South China Morning Post] [South China Morning Post 2] [Radio Free Asia] [Asia Nikkei Review]





30 June 2020

Vietnam: Open and proactive communication strategy behind pandemic success

(dql) Vietnam is internationally celebrated for its success in containing the coronavirus pandemic, with 355 cases and no deaths. For Hong Kong Nguyen and Tung Manh Ho at [ISEAS], one major reason for the success lies in a proactive communication strategy of the government that was carried out from the beginning and applied through a multitude of communication platforms. The open communication facilitated “public understanding of and support for the government response, thereby facilitating effective government-citizen cooperation.”





23 June 2020

Vietnam to host virtual ASEAN summit on June 26

(jn) Under the theme “Cohesive and Responsive ASEAN”, leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will virtually meet on June 26 for the 36th annual summit. After the summit was postponed from April due to the coronavirus pandemic, Vietnam originally proposed it to be held as an in-person event in Hanoi on June 27/28. An ASEAN representative explained that, “[h]owever, because the Covid-19 is still spreading in some member countries, for now the better format is a virtual meeting, so a common agreement was reached to hold the ASEAN Summit virtually on June 26.”

Issues on the agenda will range from the current situation and economic impact of the pandemic to the US-China rivalry, especially in the South China Sea, Korea, the crisis in Rakhine and the Mekong cooperation. Leaders are expected to adopt several action plans and key recommendations in connection with combating and mitigating the impact of Covid-19, especially a post-pandemic recovery plan. In this vein, they are going to decide how to operationalize the joint Covid-19 fund that was set up at the special summit in April to purchase medical supplies and support members in handling the pandemic, and how to strengthen regional cooperation on public health emergencies. [Bangkok Post] [Bangkok Post 2] [Bangkok Post 3]





16 June 2020

Vietnam decries collision of vessels, laying of undersea cables in South China Sea 

(jn/ls) According to Vietnamese state media, last week a Chinese ship chased and rammed a Vietnamese fishing boat near Lincoln Island, a rock in the Paracel Islands’ waters occupied by China but also claimed by Vietnam. Subsequently, the Chinese crew reportedly seized fish and equipment to the value of $21.000 and also mistreated the Vietnamese captain after he had refused to sign a document. The incident may be the first after the fishing moratorium “Flashing Sword 2020” had been unilaterally imposed by China for the South China Sea north of the 12thparallel last month. [AiR No. 18, May/2020, 1] [AiR No. 19, May/2020, 2]

The Philippines and Vietnam criticized the ban and vowed not to recognize it. The last such incident transpired on April 2 when a Vietnamese fishing vessel sunk in a confrontation with a Chinese coast guard ship [AiR No. 14, April/2020, 1].

As another sign of unabated tensions between the two countries, Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry on Thursday protested against China’s undersea cable construction also near the Paracel Islands, calling it a violation of Vietnamese sovereignty. Vietnam also deployed a coastguard vessel to the equally disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea to drive away Chinese maritime militia around a Vietnamese outpost. [Radio Free Asia 1] [Radio Free Asia 2]

Meanwhile, the US Navy has currently three aircraft carriers patrolling in the “Indo-Pacific”, accompanied by Navy cruisers, destroyers, fighter jets and other aircrafts. The presence of three carrier strike groups, the first in nearly three years, is unusual as they normally take turns throughout repair schedules, port visits, training or deployments to other parts of the world. [Business Insider] Chinese observers interviewed by the government-controlled Global Times called the deployment a “mere show of vanity”. [Global Times]





16 June 2020

Vietnam: Journalist charged with opposing the state

(ls) Police in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City have arrested a journalist and charged him with “spreading anti-state propaganda” under Article 117 of the country’s criminal code. According to government reports, he was detained in connection with an investigation against another journalist who is the president of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam and who has been held in detention without trial since last November. [CPJ] [Vietnam Net]





9 June 2020

Vietnam: Jailed Australian democracy activist “disappeared” inside Vietnam’s prison system

(lm) Vietnamese-born Australian Chau Van Kham, who had been convicted of terrorism by a Vietnamese court is believed to have disappeared inside Vietnam’s prison system. After consular visits scheduled for the past four months were all scrubbed out of concerns over the spread of the coronavirus, no one from his family or the Australian consulate has been allowed to see or speak with him since February. [The Guardian]

Chau Van Kham was arrested in January 2019 and in a controversial trial sentenced to 12 years imprisonment on anti-government charges over his membership of pro-democracy organisation Viet Tan. While being described by the United Nations as “a peaceful organization advocating for democratic reform”, the Viet Tan political movement was formally proscribed as a terrorist organisation by the Vietnamese government in 2016. [The Guardian 2]





9 June 2020

Vietnam: Vietnamese parliament greenlights free trade agreement with EU 

(jn) The National Assembly on Monday ratified the European Union Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA), a deal that builds on trade agreements signed in Hanoi last June and approved by the European Parliament in February. The EVFTA, which is expected to take effect in July, will reduce or eliminate over 99% of tariffs on goods traded between the parties’ markets and commits Vietnam to standards for sustainable development, including improving its human rights record, and protecting labour rights. There is also a transition period in some areas of up to ten years. (AiR No. 21, May/2020, 4)

With Singapore being the only other member state of the Association of Southeast Asian nations holding a free-trade agreement with the EU, the EVFTA is expected to provide Vietnam with an edge over China’s growing economic power. The World Bank said last month that the trade agreement could increase the country’s GDP by 2.4 per cent and its exports by 12 per cent by 2030, lifting hundreds of thousands of people out of poverty and giving the economy a much-needed post-pandemic stimulus. [Reuters]




2 June 2020

Can Vietnam translate its Covid-19 success into political leverage?

(ls) Vietnam has been widely acclaimed for its successful management of the Covid-19 outbreak. Until today, official numbers do not show any single corona-related death. Early inbound travel restrictions at the beginning of February seemed to have been a vital element of Vietnam’s strategy. Toward the end of April, the government relaxed restrictions on people going out that had been in place for only about three weeks. In the capital, as well as Ho Chi Minh city, restaurants and street vendors started to reopen. [Asahi Shimbun]

The success provides the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam with a much-needed domestic legitimacy boost after a number of controversial issues, including the deadly clash between the government and civilians this year over a land dispute in Dong Tam as well as allegations of widespread corruption within the Party. And it may also increase the country’s prestige in the international arena as it offers a model for other countries in the region looking to contain the pandemic with limited resources. This all comes at a time when Vietnam is the current chair of ASEAN and a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. These fora can provide suitable platforms for increased crisis diplomacy. [East Asia Forum]



26 May 2020

Vietnam plans to abolish household registration books

(jk) The Ministry of Public Security is planning to abolish the paper-based version of household registration and will be using people’s ID numbers to register citizens electronically, creating an online database for all citizens with data shared across government agencies. Among the roadblocks to achieve the ambitious goal by December this year is the fact that currently only about one-fifth of Vietnamese have a personal ID number with about 80 million left to be issued. [Nhan Dan]



26 May 2020

Vietnam to vote on EU trade deal as it seeks to reposition itself in post Covid-19-economy

(jn) The National Assembly is scheduled to pass the European Union Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EUVFTA) on Thursday, paving the way for unimpeded economic exchange between the markets of Vietnam and the EU while also establishing new labor and environmental standards for Vietnamese goods destined for the EU. Besides dropping virtually all tariffs, the trade agreement requires Vietnam to follow up with multiple ambitious reforms in its labor, environmental and investment laws. The deal comes at a convenient time for Vietnam as it seeks to jump-start its economy and position itself as an attractive harbor of foreign investment after it has successfully contained the outbreak of Covid-19 at home (AiR No. 17, April/2020, 4). [VoA]

However, Vietnam is still far from following China as the next workshop of the global economy, even as major powers like the US are seeking to “decouple” their economies at least in part from China to decrease their dependence. This is mostly owing to the much deeper economic resources and capabilities of China which Vietnam will not be able to make up even in the long-term: Its GDP (2018) is 55 times smaller, it has a fifteen times smaller manufacturing workforce and its biggest ports can only process a fraction of goods in comparison to China. In domestic terms, Vietnam ranks at the bottom of the list of countries’ GDP per capita, whereas China boasts one of the largest and fastest growing consumer markets. Increased trade with, and investment from, the US would also present a catch-22, namely a growing trade surplus for Vietnam which, however, is running counter to President Trump and his public crusade against trade deficits. [Asia Times]


19 May 2020

Vietnam: Leadership reshuffle as almost no new Covid-19 cases anymore

(jn) Vietnam has emerged considerably less marred from its fight against the pandemic than other Southeast Asian countries with officially a little over three hundred cases and no deaths, after almost a month without new community infections [see also Air No. 17, April/2020, 4]. [Channel News Asia]

A new analysis by [The Diplomat] sheds a particular light on how the crucial decision to implement a nationwide shutdown much earlier than any other country in the region – and much to China’s chagrin – was mostly owing to the deep-rooted distrust between the two countries. Despite very similar political systems and internal party structures, the two countries’ history is marked by conflicts, currently mainly the South China Sea dispute. Yet the geopolitical rivalry has not kept Vietnam and China from cooperating in their containment effort, especially because their deep economic ties leave them no other choice.

It is still open, however, whether Covid-19 will impact the upcoming 13th National Congress in January 2021 where the conservative and reformist camps within the Communist Party will vie for the top government positions and orientation. A hard clash between those sides is not expected though, since the reshuffle is usually agreed upon internally in advance and some observers see their differences rather as policy standpoints within a tightly knit party elite.

The conservative wing under Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, who removed a reformist Prime Minister and main rival at the last Congress, has pushed a major anti-corruption policy and cracked down against non-ideological party officials while, on the other hand, continuing the reformist agenda of opening up the country economically and towards the US. 

It also remains to be seen whether the Party will return to its traditional power structure, i.e. the distribution of the “four pillars” – President, Prime Minister, Party General Secretary and chair of the National Assembly – among four different officeholders. In 2018, Trong became President despite simultaneously serving as General Secretary. He is expected to resign from the latter office after two terms but may continue as President. A faithful follower would be ready to step in and replace him but would have to face off with Prime Minister and reformist Nguyen Xuan Phuc. 

Finally, a (reformist) agenda will also hinge on the composition of the major party bodies, i.e. the Politburo, the Central Committee and the new cabinet that is chosen by the Prime Minister. A compromise candidate for that office could be economist and Deputy Prime Minister Vuong Dinh Hue, who is liberal on economic policy within the Party, yet personally close to President Trong. [Asia Times]

12 May 2020

The South China Sea II: Vietnam rejects China’s fishing ban as it weighs next steps 

(jk/jn) After China had imposed a fishing ban in the South China Sea from May 1 to August 16 [Asia in Review No. 18, May/2020, 1], the Vietnamese government repudiated this move as a “unilateral decision” and asked China “not to further complicate the situation in the South China Sea”. The foreign ministry pointed to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and historical and legal evidence to buttress Vietnam’s claims to sovereignty over maritime territory that includes Paracel and Spratly Islands. The PRC justified the annual fishing moratorium with the need for stock conservation. 

According to the Chinese coastguard “strictest measures” will be taken against any “illegal fishing activities”. Experts have already warned tensions could further flare up in the region since a possible pandemic-induced food crisis could prompt governments to increase their support and protection for their fisheries. It is worth remembering that just last month Vietnam had accused a Chinese surveillance ship of ramming a Vietnamese fishing boat near the Paracel Islands that sank as a result, while China claimed the opposite. [Straits Times] [South China Morning Post]

Vietnam is also, once again, weighing whether to lodge a complaint with the permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague over Beijing’s controversial claims to the South China Sea as a legal means to counter China’s aggressive actions. This approach, previously floated on ministerial level last year [Reuters], would follow the model of proceedings won by the Philippines who defeated China in the same court in July 2016. Even though the ruling said that China had no historical rights to the territory outlined by the so-called “nine-dash line”, China boycotted the proceedings and announced it would ignore the decision. 

After diplomatic efforts like firm protests and warnings have been to little avail so far, a judgment in favor of Hanoi’s position could strengthen its hand in the international arena where displeasure with China over its handling and disinformation regarding the Covid-19 outbreak has already been rife. It would help Vietnam to internationalize the dispute at a time when it is also chairing the ASEAN and is holding a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council, even though substantive remedy cannot be expected in the latter body given China’s right to veto.  [Asia Times]

Other approaches to China’s encroachment on Vietnam’s territorial claims could encompass a halt to joint coast guard patrols, ending its participation in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) or downgrade China’s partnership status. Vietnam could also strengthen or even militarize the protection for its indianational fishing fleet which, however, would give rise to the risk of armed conflict in which Vietnam is seriously out-gunned. A potentially less hazardous approach is to continue to work the levers of international diplomacy and seeking to build alliances as with ASEAN and increasingly with the US to find a strong counterweight to China’s military might, possibly even including access to Vietnamese military facilities. [The Diplomat][The Diplomat 2]

12 May 2020

The South China Sea I: The new administrative zones and increasing military operations  

(jk) As reported, China has recently announced that it has established administrative districts in the South China Sea, to which the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry responded that the move “seriously violated Vietnam’s sovereignty” and that China should “abolish wrong decisions”. [Asia in Review No. 16, April/2020, 3] [Reuters]

The pronouncement, despite the “ridiculousness” of China’s “historic territorial claims” as evidenced for instance by the meticulous research work of British academic Bill Hayton [Twitter thread], is potentially more challenging than “the occasional maritime pressure campaign or military exercise” for it “aims to formalize China’s control, with permanent effects”, according to recent analysis by a Vietnamese scholar published at the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. She further asserts that while she would not expect the international community to recognize these claims, it would already be a win for Beijing if there is none or only limited objection. She concludes that China clearly has “no intention whatsoever” to recognize international maritime law any time soon, or that it seriously wants to achieve a dispute management system through an ASEAN processes since its actions go “against the letter of the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration of Conduct and the spirit of the Code of Conduct that is being negotiated”. [AMTI]

In terms of pushback, even if not directly aimed at the issue of administrative zones but rather at the increased Chinese aggressions overall, the US Navy has for the second time in a month sent its ships specifically to an area in the South China Sea that is the scene of an ongoing dispute over resource rights between China and Malaysia, in addition to the regularly occurring Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs). This was followed by US Pacific Fleet Commander clear statement that “[t]he Chinese Communist Party must end its pattern of bullying Southeast Asians out of offshore oil, gas, and fisheries.” [USNI News] The [South China Morning Post] reports in an article this week on the increased military operations by the United States in all waters close to China this year. 


5 May 2020

Analyses of recent South China Sea standoffs 

(ls) Several standoffs between Chinese, Malaysian, Vietnamese and American ships in the South China Sea over the last weeks [Asia in Review, No. 16, April/2020, 3] [No. 14, April/2020, 1] have shifted back the focus on this volatile region. Recent analyses evaluate the incidents and point to Southeast Asian countries’ situation of being caught up between major global powers with opposing interests while at the same time defending their own claims to territory and resources. [Foreign Policy] [The Diplomat]


5 May 2020

Philippines protests China’s ‘new’ districts in the South China Sea  

(dql) The Philippines last week lodged a strong protest against China’s establishment of the so-called Nansha and Xisha districts in the South China Sea put under the administration of China’s self-declared “Sansha City,” adding that China’s move “violate[s] Philippine territorial sovereignty.” [Rappler] [No. 16, April/2020, 3]

In a related development, fishermen’s associations in the Philippines and Vietnam protested China’s annual summer fishing ban in the South China Sea, urging their respective governments to oppose it. The protests come after China last Friday announced its annual moratorium on fishing within waters it claims jurisdiction over, including waters down to the 12th parallel of the South China Sea, encompassing the Paracel Islands and Scarborough Shoal. Different from previous years, China added that this year it would crack down on vessels violating the ban. China has previously abstained from arresting any fishermen from Vietnam and the Philippines, but have arrested Chinese fishing vessels for violating the ban. [Benar News] [Express]


5 May 2020

Vietnam cracks down on online dissidents 

(jn) In recent weeks Vietnam has jailed or sentenced Facebook users over unwanted postings on the network. Last week a man was given a prison sentence of 18 months for sharing a story on Facebook about the deadly Dong Tam protests in January that were directed against the construction of a military airport close Hanoi. He was found guilty of “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State, lawful rights and interests of organizations and/or citizens”. In another case, Vietnamese authorities sentenced a 25-year-old Facebook user to a five-year prison term on charges of spreading propaganda against the state for his online postings. [RFA 1] [RFA 2]

Facebook itself was criticized two weeks ago by domestic and international rights activists after it publicly admitted it had helped censoring posts critical of the government. It also became public that Vietnamese authorities had pressurized the social media giant into aiding its censorship campaign by taking offline Facebook’s local servers earlier this year until the company gave in to the demands to remove posts. [RFA 3] [RFA 4]


28 April 2020

Cybersecurity firm: Vietnamese hackers have targeted Chinese government 

(jn) According to the cybersecurity firm FireEye a Vietnamese state-backed hacker group launched intrusion campaigns against authorities in Hubei province and the Chinese Ministry of Emergency Management in order to collect intelligence on the COVID-19 crisis. 

The attacks were carried out at least between January and April of this year by sending spear phishing messages and malicious attachments to personal and professional email accounts. The success of the operation is not clear as the Vietnamese government denies standing behind any such campaign and Chinese officials did not respond to press inquiries. [FireEye]

According to a senior cybersecurity expert with FireEye, the activities are an example of countries treating the virus as an intelligence priority, especially those bordering China, thus “throwing everything they’ve got at it” [South China Morning Post]. Another expert from the University of New South Wales attributes the readiness to carry out cyber-attacks against China to Vietnam’s own experience with cyber intrusions from Chinese actors in connection with the explosive territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Consequently, the country has stepped up its cyber capabilities (also for domestic use to quell the opposition) and made China its “largest intelligence collection target” [Bloomberg].


28 April 2020

Vietnam: Lockdown measures eased as COVID-19 numbers level off 

(jn) Vietnam’s government has announced last Wednesday that it would start lifting some of the restrictive measures it had taken in the fight against the spread of SARS-CoV-2. As of last Thursday, citizens were again permitted to use public transport on land and air even though they are still obliged to wear masks and do without larger public gatherings in a country where the borders continue to be mostly sealed. On Wednesday the Health Ministry said that Vietnam had carried out more than 180.000 tests and detected just about 270 cases, most of whom it said have recovered, and that none of them died. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Vietnam, until now there are no grounds to doubt the accuracy of the reported numbers.

A lone success story of coronavirus containment in the region, experts attribute this development to aggressive measures being adopted early on and a tightly run one-party state that has resorted to the vast resources and grassroots network of the extensive Communist Party apparatus to enforce and communicate social distancing measures and trace chains of infection [Straits Times] [Bangkok Post] [LA Times]

The country has also improved its disaster management after dealing with similar crises like SARS and H1N1, but also the severe 2016 marine life disaster [The Diplomat]. What is more, Vietnam has been especially mistrustful in dealing with official reports from China and did not leave anything to chance given its fraught relationship with this neighbor and its very own understanding of the inner workings of a similar political system. Thus, the country was one of the first to ban flights from mainland China just as COVID-19 cases had reached the double digits and quarantined whole villages. 

Having experienced such early relief in its own struggles with the pandemic, Vietnam has been able to donate masks and other personal protective equipment on a large scale to other countries around the globe. 

This kind of “coronavirus diplomacy” in combination with the loss reputation for China as the pandemic’s country of origin are poised to bear fruits for Vietnam’s quest to enhance its soft power, position itself as the next workshop for the global economy and seek allies in its tensions with China. The country is already exploring ways to navigate the international economic slump which is certain to leave its marks in the heavily export-oriented economy [Bloomberg][Asia Times].

 14 April 2020

ASEAN Foreign Ministers meet online and endorse plans for pandemic fund

(jk) In video meeting, led by current ASEAN Chair Vietnam, ministers endorsed several “collective steps to fight the pandemic”. These include a COVID-19 ASEAN response fund and information and strategy sharing, designed to “ease the impact of the global health crisis on people and the economy”, according to a statement by the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs. [Japan Today

Vietnam’s Deputy Foreign Minister also said that there is a possibility many more ASEAN events and summits could be held online just like the ASEAN Special Summit and the ASEAN+3 Special Summit on COVID-19 Response Tuesday this week where final approvals of response measures and a joint statement are expected.

The 36th ASEAN Summit, originally scheduled to take place this past weekend, has for now been postponed to the end of June. [Vietnam News]

 14 April 2020

Philippines Government expresses “deep concern” after China-Vietnam incident in South China Sea

(jk) After a Chinese maritime surveillance vessel rammed and sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat near the Paracel Islands [Asia in Review No. 14, April/2020, 1], the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs released a statement indicating it is increasingly worried about Chinese actions in the South China Sea and that “trust in a friendship is lost” after such incidents. It cites “momentum” in talks on a Code of Conduct, as well as the current Covid-19 pandemic, which requires coordinated responses and mutual trust. [Department of Foreign Affairs]

While Chinese activity may not have increased since the onset of the corona crisis, its continuation despite an obvious need for cooperation and trust in extraordinary circumstances has not gone unnoticed in ASEAN. The US The Department of Defense also released a statement on the incident, echoing this point: “The COVID-19 pandemic underscores the importance of the rules-based international order, as it sets the conditions that enable us to address this shared threat in a way that is transparent, focused, and effective. We call on all parties to refrain from actions that would destabilize the region, distract from the global response to the pandemic, or risk needlessly contributing to loss of life and property”. [US Department of Defense]

7 April 2020

Philippines & Vietnam: New anti-fake news laws thrive in corona crisis

(ls) After the Philippines’ president Rodrigo Duterte signed into law the “Bayanihan to Heal As One Act” on 25 March, the Act has been used to start criminal proceedings against journalists who have been accused of spreading false information about the corona crisis. According to the relevant section, the Act criminalizes “individuals or groups creating, perpetrating, or spreading false information regarding the COVID-19 crisis on social media and other platforms, such information having no valid or beneficial effect on the population, and are clearly geared to promote chaos, panic, anarchy, fear, or confusion”. [Reporters without borders] [Act on Senate’s website]

In Vietnam, a new law, which will come into effect on 15 April, will fine people who post or share false information about the corona virus online with significant amounts. The country’s Law on Cyber Security, which took effect in January 2019, already prohibits spreading fake news, but it does not stipulate specific fines for spreading them on social media. Nonetheless, the Department of Information and Communications has already issued hundreds of fines on individuals posting incorrect information about the virus outbreak. [The Register]

24 March 2020

36th ASEAN summit in Vietnam postponed

(ps) The 36th ASEAN summit in Da Nang, Vietnam has been postponed until end of June, after Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc wrote to leaders of ASEAN countries. He said Vietnam has completed the organisational work for the summit, but postponement seems necessary in the context of COVID-19 spreading in the region and being declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation. [New Straits Times] [Vietnam Plus]

17 March 2020

South China Sea: US Carrier Visit to Vietnam; Japan-Vietnam security ties boosted

(hg) The USS Theodore Roosevelt – the lead ship of the ten Nimitz class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers – made its second visit to Vietnam. The visit marks 25 years of diplomatic relations and growing security ties. It occurs amid again heightening tensions between China and the US in the South China Sea after the latter has just accused a Chinese ship of firing a laser at a U.S. surveillance aircraft flying over the Philippine Sea. 

Meanwhile, Japan and Vietnam agreed to boost their security cooperation after the chief of staff of Japan’s defense forces met with his Vietnamese counterpart in Hanoi. [The Diplomat]

17 March 2020

Vietnam: conviction and lengthy sentence of Radio Free Asia blogger

(jk) A Radio Free Asia blogger of the U.S. Congress-funded RFA’s Vietnamese language service was charged with “abusing his position and authority” in an old land-fraud case he reported on and convicted to 10 years in prison last week. The United States Department of State condemned the conviction and called for his immediate release. [RFA]

The blogger disappeared from Bangkok’s streets back in January 2019 when he came to apply for refugee status at a Bangkok U.N. office. It was suspected then that he had been taken by Vietnamese agents against his will. Three months later he reappeared under arrest in Hanoi. [Committee to Protect Journalists]

17 March 2020

Vietnam and Philippines stand out in Reporters without Borders list on disinformation

(jk) On the “World Day Against Cyber Censorship” on March 12, Reporters Without Borders published a report on countries violating internet and press freedoms. The 2020 report on “leading digital predators” contains four categories: harassment, state censorship, disinformation and spying and surveillance. With regards to disinformation and spreading state-sponsored disinformation online, the Philippines and Vietnam stand out. [RSF]

In particular, the report highlighted “Force 47 in Vietnam, an “army of 10,000 cyber-soldiers” run by the Ministry of Public Security. Similar in nature to Russia’s Web Brigades and China’s 50 Cent Army, Force 47 are a highly organised unit of commentators and trolls that participate in online forums and on social media, as well as edit Wikipedia entries, to counter critical content and spread pro-government narratives.” [Southeast Asia Globe]

17 March 2020

Vietnam-Cambodia Naval Ties 

(hg) Vietnam and Cambodia held the latest in a series of frequent joint maritime patrols earlier this month. The patrol highlights the existing bilateral defense relationship between the countries despite the fact that Cambodia represents the ASEAN member state arguably closest to China while Vietnam is arguably most critical of the Chinese role in Southeast Asia. In light of increasing Chinese assertion with regard to the South China Sea, the rather regular patrol has some significance. [The Diplomat]

10 March 2020

South China Sea: Continued tensions between Southeast Asian countries

(ls/ps) Indonesia has detained dozens of crew members from Vietnamese boats it claims have been fishing illegally near the Natuna Islands. The Indonesian government claims the area in the southernmost reaches of the South China Sea as its exclusive economic zone. In January, Indonesia deployed fighter jets and warships in a conflict with Beijing over Chinese vessels entering the area. [Channel News Asia]

In addition, Malaysia, Vietnam and China have for weeks been entangled in a quiet naval standoff. As reported earlier [Asia in Review No. 8, February/2020], Malaysia triggered the showdown by exploring for energy resources beyond its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Vietnam then deployed militia vessels to the area, and China responded by launching the China Coast Guard’s (CCG). The developments, which pitted fellow ASEAN countries against each other, leave question marks over ASEAN’s joint approach toward China’s vast territorial claims. [Asia Times]

Meanwhile, Vietnam and the US are looking to further strengthen relations as the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and guided missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill arrive in Da Nang, Vietnam. It is the second visit of a US warship to Vietnam since American troops left almost 50 years ago. China has repeatedly trespassed the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of Vietnam with oil survey ships and fishing boats escorted by its coast guard. Analysts say Vietnam is unable to protect its resources and is therefore seeking international support. [South China Morning Post][US Navy]

10 March 2020

Vietnamese emergency over Mekong river drought displays cross-border effects

(ls) The Mekong river’s water resources, which are shared between several countries, are in the spotlight again as five provinces in Vietnam’s Mekong delta region have declared a state of emergency over a continued extreme drought and salinity. Lack of rain combined with growing water consumption on river tributaries, as well as increased water storage in dams in China and Laos, are likely to spur the drought and make saline intrusion more severe. Water usage upstream on the Mekong in China, Laos and Thailand has increased the dryness. [South China Morning Post]

25 February 2020

South China Sea: New standoff between Malaysia and Vietnam questions solidarity versus China

(ls) The U.S. think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has published evidence of vessel movements in the South China Sea that indicate an ongoing standoff between Malaysian, Vietnamese and Chinese ships. In its report that outlines confrontations between Malaysian and Vietnamese ships, the center’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) questions why the Malaysian government chose to ignore a 2009 joint submission with Vietnam about continental shelf claims and, in so doing, “undermined whatever solidarity Southeast Asian parties might hope to build in their oil and gas disputes with Beijing.” [AMTI] [South China Morning Post]

18 February 2020

Malaysia seeks agreement with Vietnam to stop illegal fishing 

(fs) Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah announced that the country plans to fight encroachment of deep-sea fishermen from Vietnam in Malaysian waters by working out an agreement between the countries. A similar agreement does already exist between Malaysia and Indonesia and Vietnam positioned itself open to this idea last year. 141 Vietnamese fishermen were detained for encroachment into the Malaysian Exclusive Economic Zone in 2019.  [The Malaysian Reserve]


11 February 2020

Vietnam: NGOs urge MEPs to postpone Vietnam trade deal vote 

(fs) After the European Union gave green light to the free trade agreement with Vietnam at the end of January [Asia in Review No 4, January/2020, 4], 28 NGOs signed a letter that demanded to postpone the plenary vote next week. In the letter addressed to members of the European Parliament, the NGOs expressed regret that even though Vietnam had failed to fulfill requests to improve human rights to the satisfaction of MEPs, the International Trade Committee (INTA) voted to quickly consent to both agreements, going against recommendations of the Foreign Affairs Committee (AFET) and ignoring the pleas of NGOs, both international and Vietnamese.

As an example, the letter mentioned the 2019 EP’s refusal of ratification of the EU Turkmenistan Partnership and Cooperation Agreement because of the country’s unwillingness to abide by human rights and the rule of law. In particular, the NGOs urged Vietnam to disclose the legal mechanics behind the frequent use of penal provisions against journalists, lawyers and activists and to release political prisoners and detainees. The MEP’s decision will be made this week. [Human Rights Watch]


4 February 2020

Vietnam Orders Combat Training Jets From Russia

(jk) It was reported last week that Vietnam will buy 12 combat training aircraft from Russia, according to a US$ 350 million deal it has signed last year.  [The Moscow Times]

While Russia is the biggest arms supplier to Vietnam and to Southeast Asia, looking to increase its military footprint in the region (see e.g. Laos, Asia in Review No. 53, December/2019, 5), with the inclusion of China in a recent report on arms production and sales (see background reading), Russia has now dropped to third in the SIPRI rankings of the world’s largest arms producers and sellers, behind the US and China. 


28 January 2020

EU committee greenlights free trade agreement with Vietnam

(fs) The European Committee on International Trade has approved the free trade and investment protection agreements between the EU and Vietnam. This was preceded by almost eight-year negotiations. It is the largest free trade agreement the EU has ever had with a developing country.

Over the next ten years, many elements will be put into effect such as 99 percent of all customs duties on both sides will be abolished, a reduce of non-tariff trade barriers and bureaucratic hurdles by Vietnam, and increasingly introducing international standards and accepting EU certificates, an enhanced emblematic protection of 169 EU and 39 Vietnamese products and the market access for European and Vietnamese companies is to be facilitated. Furthermore, the agreement contains legally binding rules concerning sustainable development in matters of climate, labor and human rights.

The committee also approved an investment protection agreement with Vietnam. Unlike the free trade agreement, this not only has to be adopted by the Parliament and the Council but must also be ratified by each member state afterwards. The vote on the trade deal will be set in the Parliament’s February session in Strasbourg. After Singapore, Vietnam is the second largest EU trading partner in ASEAN. [European Parliament] [DW, in German]


21 January 2020

ASEAN foreign ministers meet in Vietnam, reaffirm UNCLOS and consider US Summit

(jk) Vietnam, holding the ASEAN Chairmanship in 2020 convened the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat last week, discussing ASEAN’s priorities and regional developments for the year 2020. 

One major theme of the following joint statement referred to the South China Sea and mentioned the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) several times. The Foreign Ministers reaffirmed UNCLOS as “the basis for determining sovereignty, sovereign rights and legitimate interests over maritime areas” and that it “is the overarching framework of legal order for the seas that must be respected by all countries”. [ASEAN

The ministers also tentatively accepted a US proposal for a special summit in Las Vegas, but a final decision has yet to be made. US President Donald Trump invited ASEAN leaders to the United States, a good sign after he disappointed many by not appearing at summits in Southeast Asia on several occasions, including the East Asia Summit. [Bangkok Post]

Were the Las Vegas summit to go ahead, it could have a positive effect on working against some of the less desirable trends (from a US perspective) that are subject of this week’s background reading (below).


21 January 2020

Vietnam: Viettel announces own 5G services  

(fs) The country’s largest telecommunication provider will develop network equipment and software to launch its own 5G network. The military-owned company will both develop civilian and military network services. 

The decision can be seen as a sign of Vietnam’s effort to bypass China and its leading telecommunication company Huawei, consequently giving in to the pressure it has received from the U.S. about boycotting Huawei for reasons of national security. Viettel has more than 110 million customers in Southeast Asian countries Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos.  [Financial Times]


7 January 2020

A closer look at Vietnam’s defence white paper of 2019 

(jk) In November 2019, for the first time in ten years, Vietnam released its Defence White Paper amid increasing tension with China in the South China Sea and an overall changing security environment. [Radio Free Asia] This article looks at the White Paper in more depth from an American perspective and interprets it as a clear message to China that it’s continued coercion may lead to closer defence relations with the US. While Vietnam does try to continue to balance its defence relationships, the authors claim that “Vietnam’s latest defense white paper is full of warnings to China and opportunities for the United States.” [War on the rocks]


7 January 2020

Japan and Vietnam vow to deepen cooperation

(dql) Taking aim at China, the foreign ministers of Japan and Vietnam at a meeting in Hanoi expressed their shared commitment to maintaining freedom of navigation and the rule of law in the South China Sea and agreed on close maritime security cooperation. They also agreed to work together to realize complete denuclearization of North Korea as well as to bring more countries into the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement. [Japan Times]

Vietnam holds the ASEAN chairmanship this year and is non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for 2020-2021.

31 December 2019

Vietnam: Former minister sentenced to life imprisonment

(fs) A Vietnamese court sentenced the former minister of information and communications for life in a corruption case that also included over a dozen other official executives who received lengthy prison terms. He was sentenced for taking bribes during his time in office in the range of US$ 3 million to manage the purchase of the digital television service AVG on behalf of the state-owned mobile network operator MobiFone. [Vietnam News]

24 December 2019

Vietnam: Increased cross-border hacking activities and cyber espionage

(ls/fs) According to reports, a group which is believed to be tied to the Vietnamese government and known as APT32 has increased its cyber espionage activities, particularly in Southeast Asia where the automotive industry has been a key target. The hacking group’s exploits have included intellectual property theft, the same activity for which Chinese hackers are well-known. Experts say that the Vietnamese hackers have emulated some of China’s cyber methods, though on a significantly smaller scale. Vietnam is part of a growing group of countries that are developing and buying cyber capabilities. [South China Morning Post 1]

At the same time, Vietnamese Minister of National Defense Ngo Xuan Lich stated that cyberspace has become a “new territory”, which in spite of its many benefits also arises itself as a new battlefield and therefore must be reckoned with. Due to frequent training, cooperation and mobilization of resources and equipment, Lich affirmed that the country’s military is prepared to “well handle situations in cyberspace” [tui tre news]

Meanwhile, Singapore suffered from a major cyber-attack on the personal data of about 100,000 defence personnel. Sensitive information held by two security force vendors, including full names, identification details, and a combination of contact numbers, email and residential addresses could be included in the potential data exposure. Earlier this year, the personal data of more than 4,000 people was compromised after Singapore Red Cross’ website was hacked. Last year, the non-medical personal particulars of about 1.5 million patients were illegally accessed and copied during a hack, which also tried to get hold of the private medical details of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. [South China Morning Post 2]

17 December 2019

Vietnam and US strengthen economic bond 

(fs) In the course of the reception of the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council (USABC) in Hà Nội, Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc declared to adjust the country’s economic environment to improve the situation for foreign enterprises in Vietnam, including those from the U.S. Concurrently, Phúc encouraged U.S. businesses to pay attention to the Vietnamese market and its economic possibilities. Regarding Vietnam’s upcoming position as the ASEAN Chair in 2020, the U.S. assured its support in this matter. [Viet Nam News]

Over the last year, Vietnam has largely profited from the ongoing US-China trade war, since a number of U.S.-based companies transferred their production locations from China to Vietnam or are in the process of doing so in order to avoid punitive duties.

3 December 2019

China and Vietnam vow to work together on peaceful solution in disputed waters

(dql) Last week, China and Vietnam held a vice-ministerial level meeting to discuss border cooperation on land and maritime issues. Beijing and Hanoi agreed to join efforts for a peaceful resolution in disputed waters. 

The meeting came after earlier in November the months-long Vanguard Bank standoff between China and Vietnam had ended, but also after Vietnam announced that it, while prioritizing bilateral dialogue, was also considering the possibility of filing a complaint with the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague over China’s claims. [South China Morning Post]

3 December 2019

Vietnam jails 3 more activists over political Facebook posts

(jk) Three people have been jailed for anti-government posts on Facebook deemed to defame the ruling Communist Party and the state last week. Earlier in November, two others had been jailed on similar charges and an Amnesty International spokesman said previously that at least 16 people had been arrested this year prior to that. [Reuters]

26 November 2019

Vietnam: More bloggers facing prosecution

(ls) Vietnamese authorities continue to crack down on government critics. Last week, police arrested blogger and independent journalist Pham Chi Dung, accusing him of “dangerous” anti-state actions, including “fabricating, storing, and disseminating information, as well as other materials opposing the Vietnamese government.” He is the founder and president of the outlawed Independent Journalist Association of Vietnam. [VOA]

This week, blogger Pham Van Diep is facing trial on charges of posting, liking, and sharing information on Facebook in violation of article 117 of Vietnam’s penal code, which criminalizes publication or distribution of information “that aims to oppose the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” He had repeatedly used blogs, and later his Facebook account, to address human rights abuses. [Human Rights Watch]

26 November 2019

Vietnam allows formation of independent trade unions

(ls) In an historic move, Vietnam has adopted an amended Labour Code that allows the formation of independent trade unions. The law will take effect in 2021 and is expected to pave the way for the ratification of several free trade agreements Vietnam has signed, including one with the European Union. The new law also improves collective bargaining rights, strengthens protections against discrimination at work, and enhances protections for younger workers. The EU-Vietnam FTA, which was signed in June this year, includes a chapter on sustainable development, such as implementing international standards on labour rights. It still needs the approval of the European Parliament. [Straits Times]

19 November 2019

Vietnam: 12-year jail term handed to Australian retiree in Vietnam for “terrorist activities against the state” 

(jk) A 70-year old Vietnamese-Australian retiree was convicted over his membership of the Viet Tan political party, which is critical of the Vietnamese government. It is proscribed as a terrorist organisation in Vietnam since 2016. According to the police statement he gave US$400 to a second party to fund the operations of Viet Tan. [South China Morning Post]

5 November 2019

Human rights groups criticise East Asia Summit for not including human rights issues

(jk) Rights groups criticised the state of human rights protection in Southeast Asia in particular over the weekend as they pointed out that the big summits, such as the East Asia Summit, do not include official discussions or statements on the deteriorating human rights situation in the region.

Human rights watch and other organisation expressed grave concern over the fact the Rohingya crisis, the war on drugs in the Philippines, the punishment of the LGBT community or enforced disappearances of activists were largely ignored throughout the summit. [Bangkok Post]

The Rohingya refugee crisis, although not in these terms, was mentioned at length in the final statement of the 35th ASEAN Summit however. ASEAN leaders noted their desire to facilitate the safe, secure and dignified return displaced persons currently in Bangladesh to

Rakhine State from which they fled. [Chairman’s Statement Of The 35th ASEAN Summit] At the same time, they commended the work of AICHR, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights [for background on AICHR, see this article in CPG’s COM Online Magazine 4/2019]

5 November 2019

RCEP: 15 countries (RCEP minus India) declare they have agreed and will sign in 2020

(jk) During the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) summit in Bangkok on Monday, 15 countries (The ASEAN-ten, Korea, China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand) agreed to all 20 chapters of the RCEP and stated that they were “willing to sign” the deal in 2020.

All participating countries agreed to make efforts to resolve the remaining issues surrounding India’s concerns, so it too, can participate. [The Korea Herald]

Despite the positive spin on this development, it will remain a disappointment that RCEP could not be completed and signed by the end of this year as it was initially (if very optimistically) stated.

This disappointing if not entirely unexpected outcome was underscored by the US decision to downgrade US representation at the East Asia Summit, also held in Bangkok this past weekend. It was the first time since the EAS was established in 2005, that a country at the summit was represented by an official below the rank of foreign minister. Instead the US sent the new National Security Advisor, Robert O’Brien, as the Special Envoy to the upcoming EAS and the US-ASEAN Summit. [ISEAS Commentary]

5 November 2019

ASEAN: Vietnam assumes ASEAN chairmanship under “Cohesive and Responsive” Theme

(jk) Following the closing ceremony of the 35th ASEAN Summit and related summits in Bangkok on November 4, the ASEAN chairmanship for 2020 was passed on to Vietnam. Vietnamese PM Phuc stated in his speech that Vietnam’s theme for the ASEAN Year 2020 will be “Cohesive and Responsive”. He laid out that Vietnam will focus on “fostering the bloc’s sustainable cohesiveness through consolidating solidarity and unity, increasing economic connectivity, further intensifying the values and identities of the ASEAN Community, improving the efficiency of ASEAN’s apparatus, and stepping up relations with the bloc’s partners in the global community.” [Saigon Online]

29 October 2019

South China Sea: Philippines lifts moratorium as Vietnam prepares for new tensions with China

(ls) The Philippines will lift a 2018 moratorium on foreign scientific research in its exclusive economic zone so it can exploit marine resources. The previous ban was issued in February 2018 on an area called the Benham Rise, which the United Nations in 2012 declared part of the Philippines’ continental shelf. This year, two Chinese research vessels were spotted in Philippine-controlled waters, which became the subject of a diplomatic protest in August. In another incident, the Philippines protested the presence of more than 100 Chinese fishing vessels. Earlier this month, however, the Philippines welcomed the Russian oil firm Rosneft to explore the waters. [Reuters 1]

Meanwhile, a Chinese oil survey vessel that has been in the center of a tense standoff with Vietnamese vessels in the South China Sea left Vietnamese-controlled waters after more than three months. According to observers, it is likely that now China will send an oil rig to drill in the area where the vessel had conducted seismic surveys in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, which could result in a sharp rise of tensions. However, also Vietnam has partnered up with Rosneft. [Reuters 2]

22 October 2019

Maritime terrorism in Asia: An assessment

(ls) A paper published by the Observer Research Foundation evaluates the possibility of an increase in maritime terrorist violence in Asia. Based on an analysis of recent incidents, it argues that the vulnerability of high seas shipping to criminal acts of violence and the weak and inconsistent nature of maritime governance raises the possibility of a terrorist strike in the Asian littorals. [ORF]

22 October 2019

Vietnam: DreamWorks movie banned for displaying Chinese “nine-dash line”

(jk) The Vietnamese government has banned screenings of a DreamWorks animated movie, after finding that the film contains a map showing the controversial U-shaped dotted line, indicating China’s claims over the South China Sea. Other affected countries, such as the Philippines or Malaysia have also criticised or ordered to cut the scene from the movie, and after about a week, Malaysia has followed suit and also decided not to screen the movie. The so-called “nine-dash line” is a common feature on Chinese maps and even passports, but other countries reject Beijing’s claims which have no basis in contemporary international law. [Reuters]

15 October 2019

Duterte, following Vietnam, invites Rosneft to explore oil and gas field in South China Sea

(ls) Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has invited the Russian company Rosneft to conduct oil and gas exploration in the Philippines, including the contested South China Sea (West Philippine Sea). The development needs to be seen against the background that Russian companies, including Rosneft, are already helping Vietnam explore for oil and gas in similarly contested waters. Despite warnings from Beijing, Russian firms have not abandoned the projects. Thus, it appears that Duterte may have adopted Vietnam’s strategy in this regard. [Rappler]

15 October 2019

Power shifts between Laos and Vietnam as new dam opens this month

(ls) In Laos, the Xayaburi hydroelectric dam is scheduled to open this month. It is widely expected to reduce water, fish and sediment to about 50 million people downriver, many in Vietnam. However, Vietnam has not openly protested the dam. Observers consider that this is not only due to the countries’ self-perception as socialist “brothers” but also because of China’s growing influence in land-locked Laos. China has helped build infrastructure, most notably a high-speed rail line and special economic zones. Some of the projects fall under China’s 6-year-old Belt and Road Initiative. As Vietnam is witnessing the growing Chinese influence in neighboring Cambodia, analysts say that Hanoi may not want to offend Vientiane and push it closer to Beijing too. [VOA]

At the same time, also Vietnam itself faces the dilemma how to overcome a domestic infrastructure bottleneck to promote economic growth while fending off unwarranted economic and security influences from China. Vietnam needs private capital and technical expertise to build projects in a timely and efficient manner. Reserving these projects for domestic investors may cast doubt on the economic rationality of decision-making. [ISEAS]

8 October 2019

China continues to interfere with Vietnamese fishers within Vietnam’s EEZ

(jk) According to Vietnamese media outlets, Chinese ships continue to harass and chase away local Vietnamese fishermen fishing within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). In a latest incident over the weekend, three Chinese vessels drove away a Vietnamese fishing boat and prevented it from fishing just over 110 nautical miles off the coast of central Khanh Hoa Province. Similar incidents keep occurring according Vietnamese media. Last week, a Chinese speedboat prevented Vietnamese fishermen to recover their vessel after it sank in the Paracel Islands, which are claimed by both Vietnam and the People’s Republic of China. [VNExpress]

As for the broader tensions between Vietnam and China, Vietnam expert Carlyle Thayer lays out three broad options for the Vietnamese leadership to consider:  (1) continue to muddle through by “cooperating and struggling” with China; (2) back down in order to relieve unrelenting Chinese pressure, the precedent set in the Repsol case in July 2017 and March 2018; and (3) counter-balance Chinese pressure by stepping up security and defence cooperation with the United States by agreeing to raise bilateral relations to a strategic partnership in the near future. [Radio Free Asia]

8 October 2019

Cambodia – Vietnam and Cambodia – Laos ratify border demarcations

(jk) Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Vietnamese PM Nguyen Xuan Phuc have ratified 84 percent of border demarcation work completed between the two nations on their 1,270-kilometre border. [Khmer Times] Cambodia shares another border with Laos, which is also undergoing a demarcation process. PM Hun Sen  and Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith ratified 86 percent of the border between their two countries last month. [Bangkok Post]

1 October 2019

The political economy of social media in Vietnam

(ls) Unlike China where most Western social media platforms are blocked, Vietnam adopts a relatively open approach to these platforms. The Vietnamese government tends to accommodate Western social media platforms by trying to enforce their compliance with local rules through regulatory and economic means rather than blocking them altogether. This instructive piece from ISEAS describes the political economy of social media in Vietnam. [ISEAS]

1 October 2019

South China Sea: Statements at UNGA and related developments

(ls/td) At the United Nations General Assembly, Vietnam voiced its concerns over the recent developments in the South China Sea, including incidents that Vietnam considered infringements of the country’s sovereignty. Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh said that relevant states should exercise restraint and refrain from conducting unilateral acts. [Bloomberg]

At the same time, the Philippines’ Foreign Affairs Secretary Teddy Boy Locsin Jr. referred to a Code of Conduct (CoC) to cover disputed waters of the South China Sea which is targeted for signing in 2022 by ASEAN member states and China, as “a manual for living with a hegemon, or the care and feeding of a dragon in your living room. (…) even a good [CoC] is still a Chinese code of conduct.” At the same time, Locsin praised a “rock-solid relationship” between the US and the Philippines. [PhilStar]

Meanwhile, Singapore and the United States formally renewed an agreement of 1990, renewed once in 2005, that grants U.S. forces access to Singapore’s naval and air bases. It now runs until 2035. Despite a strong military relationship, the two countries do not refer to each other as “allies”. Neither do defense officials refer to U.S. facilities in Singapore as American bases. [South China Morning Post]

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16 July 2019

ASEAN defense ministers meet while Chinese-Vietnamese stand-off in South China Sea continues

(ls) During the 13th ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM) in Bangkok, the member countries’ defense ministers have signed the Joint Declaration on Sustainable Security to promote cooperation within ASEAN to counter non-traditional and transnational threats. Among the concept papers that have been adopted are the Terms of Reference of ASEAN Our Eyes and Guidelines for Maritime Interaction. The ministers also stressed the implementation of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and the early conclusion of an effective Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. [Xinhua]

At the same time, six coastguard vessels – two Chinese and four Vietnamese – have been eyeing each other in patrols around Vanguard Bank in the Spratly group of islands in the South China Sea since last week. Initially, a Chinese survey ship entered waters near the Vietnamese-controlled reef to conduct a seismic survey. Vanguard Bank is the westernmost reef of the Spratlys and sits within what Hanoi claims is 200 nautical miles of its exclusive economic zone. That claim is contested by Beijing and Taiwan. [South China Morning Post]

2 July 2019

EU-Vietnam free trade agreement finally signed

(ls) Vietnam and the European Union have signed a free trade agreement on Sunday. It will eliminate almost all tariffs for goods traded between Vietnam and the EU’s 28 member countries. The deal, which had been negotiated since 2012, is the EU’s second free-trade agreement in the Southeast Asian region, after one with Singapore. [South China Morning Post]

11 June 2019

Singapore Prime Minister’s post on the 1978 Vietnam-Cambodia issue upsets both countries

(cl) On May 31st, Prime Minister Lee posted on Facebook that the then-five Association of Southeast Nation members previously came together to oppose “Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia and the Cambodian government that replaced the Khmer Rouge”. In a 2011 speech, former deputy prime minister said that Singapore had to respond to the “invasion of a smaller county by a larger neighbour” or it would have undermined the credibility of Singapore’s foreign policy and had serious implications for its security, adding that this would create an undesirable precedent for small nations. [Straits Times]

However, Cambodia and Vietnam have objected to PM Lee’s remarks. Cambodia Defence Minister General told media that his comments were “unacceptable”, and Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Mr Lee’s remarks did not “objectively reflect the historical truth”. Cambodia’s Prime Minister further accused PM Lee of supporting genocide. [Reuters] In response, Singapore’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement last Friday that Singapore is committed to building on its good relations with Vietnam and Cambodia. It added that last Friday, Singapore’s Foreign Minister spoke with Vietnamese and Cambodian Prime Ministers, who agreed that notwithstanding the serious differences, they have taken a path of cooperation, dialogue and friendship. [Channel News Asia]

11 June 2019

Vietnamese activist sentenced to six years in prison for online posts

(jk) An environmental activist has been sentenced to six years in prison for “anti-state” posts on Facebook. He was arrested in September last year and according to his indictment last week, he urged and incited protests on social media. [Reuters] The sentencing is yet another example of a trend in Vietnam towards harsher penalties and shrinking tolerance on behalf of the government towards citizens expressing critical thoughts online.

4 June 2019

34th ASEAN-Japan forum held in Hanoi

(jk) The annual forum held as a dialogue between the two sides took place in Hanoi this week. In addition to Vietnam’s and Japan’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, senior officials from all ASEAN countries took part. [VietnamNews]

28 May 2019

Vietnam: Facebook increased content blocking by 500% in second half of 2018

(ls) Facebook increased the amount of content it restricted access to in Vietnam by over 500% in the last half of 2018. Facebook’s said it had made restrictions based on reports from Vietnam’s information and security ministries. The increase happened at a time when Vietnam was tightening internet restrictions, culminating in a cyber security law that came into effect this January. [Reuters]