chapter  7
10 Pages

Conclusion: China’s and Vietnam’s foreign policies and subregionalism in the Greater Mekong Subregion

This study has been concerned with two broad thematic categories: subregionalism and institution-building in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), using the regime approach and the concept of committee governance; and the foreign policies of China and Vietnam towards each other and towards the GMS. The study further set out to examine how these two thematic categories influence each other. Let us first consider Vietnam-China relations and the manifestation of

both countries’ foreign policies in the GMS. The relevant research questions were as follows: How did Vietnam’s and China’s foreign policies change after the Cold War so that Mekong cooperation became possible again? How do China and Vietnam perceive each other, and how do these views shape the foreign policies of both countries towards the GMS? What roles have Vietnam and China allocated to the GMS? Is GMS cooperation a means to attain foreign policy goals, or is it an end in itself (such as integrating the economy into the subregion), or is it both a means and an end? Did the change in the foreign policies of both countries result in compatible or contradictory foreign policies towards subregional cooperation? Are there dual Chinese and Vietnamese strategies in foreign policy and economic policy towards the GMS? The regime approach argues that regimes can come into being where uni-

lateral action in the anarchic self-help system produces suboptimal outcomes. Actors need to find common interests to cooperate. Cooperation emerges where states regard (or are forced to regard – in our case due to changes in the global security structure, which led to a realignment of foreign policies) their policies as being in actual or potential conflict over the realization of a common interest; and it happens only when the conflict is not asymmetrical. Yet the common interest of GMS countries to turn from Cold War contention to cooperation is manifested in the peaceful and sustainable exploitation of the Mekong’s waters as a common resource for irrigation, food, electricity production and transport. The notion of the Mekong turning into a source of cooperation is especially important when going through the history of Mekong cooperation, which time and again was hampered by the outbreak of violent conflict. Looking at Vietnam-China relations, further mutual goals and gains

can be observed in the development of China’s western and Vietnam’s northern provinces with the aim of diversifying growth away from the centres of economic activity in both countries to mountainous areas, which are difficult to access – a goal generally shared between the respective provinces and the central governments in Hanoi and Beijing. As these regions border each other, the common goal of their development almost inevitably produces their growing interdependence and, as a result, a growing interdependence of the economies of China and Vietnam. Cooperation and the development of a foreign policy that creates means to settle disputes without recourse to military force are therefore necessary for the realization of the national interest. Keohane’s mention of ‘a reputation for reliability’ and the ‘provision of

high-quality information’ to others as prerequisites for maintained cooperation (Keohane 1984: 259) is important with regard to Vietnam’s foreign policy in the GMS, since Vietnam wants to ‘demonstrate trustworthiness in international relations’ (Nguyen Than Duc 2005: 123). With regard to China, being viewed as a friendly power helps to increase Chinese influence in Southeast Asia at the expense of the United States. But global goals and regional goals are intertwined: the expansion and future sustainability of cross-border trade along the Chinese-Vietnamese border has made it necessary to compile information systematically and make it accessible to interested parties. Furthermore, Vietnam’s concerns about the ecology of the Mekong Delta needs continuous information exchange of hydrological data and dambuilding activities with upstream Mekong countries, in particular with China as the country at the river’s source. The Mekong Delta is vital for Vietnam’s agriculture and fishing industry. Salt intrusion and floods threaten its ecology. Therefore what is done in the upper reaches of the Mekong, most notably at the source in China, is of importance down in the delta. The old rivalry between China and Vietnam is reinforced by a new conflict. But Mekong cooperation was taken as a potential means to divert attention from contention to cooperation in order to realize the common goal of peaceful and long-term use of the Mekong’s waters. As a major source for electricity and energy production, irrigation and transportation development, the Mekong is important for all of the countries in the Mekong basin. Being a source of potential contention, it had to be turned into a source of cooperation in order to achieve mutual gains. This also constitutes a ‘shadow of the future’ (Axelrod and Keohane 1985: 232) on the side of Vietnam, due to Vietnam’s position at the end of the Mekong and the importance of the Mekong Delta for agricultural production, and due to its position at the border of a big China. Vietnam therefore needs ‘reliability of information’ about China’s current and future policies and ‘quick feedback about changes’ in China’s policies. Hence Vietnam’s wish to engage China in the subregion and make its policies predictable, because the Mekong region is vital for Vietnam’s security outlook. Cooperation over transboundary rivers is thus brought to the attention of security policy. The asymmetrical power situation between China and Vietnam produces a

cooperation agenda in the GMS, which is set by the limits within which

China is willing to cooperate. It is aggravated by a contradictoriness of Beijing’s and Vietnam’s wider foreign policy goals as they find expression in the divergent approaches to the GMS. Although both China and Vietnam have created omnidirectional foreign policies after the Cold War, they pursue opposing aims, which result in incompatible foreign policy interests. Both countries have turned their attention to Southeast Asia, but use the region and its institutions for different purposes: China in order to gain influence in Southeast Asia, Vietnam in order to bind China into the subregion and gain stature visà-vis China in international affairs. While Beijing pursues an aggressive approach, Vietnam’s approach is cautious, needing to balance cooperation with China on the one hand and the United States on the other. In this regard, Vietnam has so far managed to send subtle signals to China that it might be prepared, and able, to balance China with US help: the annual visits of US navy ships since 2003 point in this direction. And the US strategy of gaining footholds in individual countries in order to make them comply with US wishes and to use this influence vis-à-vis assertive countries (here, China)1 might, in the future, aid Vietnam in asserting itself in conflicts with China. At the same time, China acts against this strategy with its new security concept, the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, and specifically in its relations with Vietnam, with the Five-Point Proposal of 20022 and the 16-Character Principle (long-term stability, future-oriented, good-neighbourly and all-round cooperative bilateral relations) of 1999.3 So far, however, Vietnam is trapped by Beijing’s perception of Washington and has to adjust its US policy accordingly to avoid yet another alienation of Beijing. The careful approaches to Washington are balanced by assuring China that they are not directed against its security interests. While Vietnam needs good relations with China in order to create a secure environment, Beijing pressures Hanoi not to seek too close relations with Washington. On the other hand, China is the closest ideological ally, a fact that produces a common perception of the US strategy of peaceful evolution in Vietnam and China of conveying Western political ideas to the Vietnamese and Chinese citizens, which eventually might grow and develop a domestic force that topples the communist regimes in both countries in favour of a liberal pluralist democracy. Consequently, peaceful evolution constitutes yet another shadow of the future, which pushes Vietnam into close cooperation with China. To summarize the importance of the GMS for Vietnam and China, we can

observe the following constellations of interest. For Vietnam: a first point is the need to multilateralize and diversify for-

eign economic relations and to integrate the economy in successive steps: the subregion, the ASEAN region, inter-regionally (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) and globally (World Trade Organization). The strategy aims at sustaining doi moi, avoiding dependence on China, and gaining stature in international politics. The trade deficit with China is troubling Vietnamese authorities the closer China integrates with Southeast Asian economies. Second, Vietnam aims to mitigate the China-threat perception by engaging

China in cooperative networks. While Vietnam has again acknowledged

China’s political and economic power, it does not have a clear idea of how to deal with it. Interestingly, China’s foreign policy is also still in a state of postCold War flux, waiting for concretization in a new post-Cold War order which has as yet to emerge. In Vietnam, China’s embrace of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation is often regarded as a largely cosmetic alteration of Beijing’s assertive foreign policy. There are positive signs, however: so far successes in having pacified the region seem to be prevalent. On 20 December 2007, it was announced that the border demarcation between Lao Cai and Yunnan was finished (Viet Nam Net 2008); from 14-21 January, the 23rd chairperson level session of the Vietnam-China Joint Committee for Land Border Demarcation and Landmark Planting met and announced its aim to finish demarcation of the rest of the land border by the end of 2008 (Viet Nam Net 2008b); efforts continue to implement the 2004 demarcation and fishing agreement on the Gulf of Tonkin (The Economist Intelligence Unit 2004); and the first joint naval patrols of Vietnam and China in the gulf were held in April 2006 (Shanghai Daily 2006), marking an improvement in military cooperation between both countries from ‘exchanges of views on regional security, ideological matters and border security issues’ to the first ‘consultations on defensive security’ in April 2005 (Thayer 2006: 22-26). Thayer reports that four more patrols have been carried out since then: in December 2006, July 2007, October 2007 and May 2008 (Thayer 2008: 18). Fundamental difficulties remain as to the strategic relevance of the gulf. In April 2007, Chinese naval vessels detained 41 fishermen near the Spratlys and released them against a fine. On 9 July 2007, Chinese naval vessels opened fire on Vietnamese fishing boats near the Spratlys (Mitton 2007). On 3 December 2007, Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs objected to a Chinese State Council decision to ‘establish symbolic administrative control over the city of Sansha on Hainan Island in order to oversee the disputed islands. This is the second Vietnamese objection to Chinese action in the South China Sea, following a Nov. 23 complaint about Chinese naval exercises in disputed waters’ (Stratfor 2007). Not only is each country trying to prevent the other from taking control of the oil and natural gas deposits in the gulf and neighbouring parts of the South China Sea, but they also want to thwart each other’s attempts to gain military control over the commercial waterways, particularly the Straits of Malacca, by occupying sections or the entirety of the Spratly Islands (Stratfor 2007). Third, the GMS is vital for Vietnam’s economy in order to sustain the

economic reform process and economic growth, and to become an important investment country in order to diversify the sources of this economic growth (Japan, the United States, India and the European Union). In this regard, relations with Japan are a major achievement: since 1990, Japan has climbed from fourth largest investor after France, Britain and Belgium (Klintworth 1990: 9) to third position after Singapore and Taiwan, and it is Vietnam’s largest donor. In addition, the bilateral investment treaty4 has assigned Japan a major role in developing the Vietnamese economy (Reuters 2003b). Japan,

along with Russia, India and, most recently, China, have officially become strategic partners of Vietnam. A buzzing economy is part of Vietnam’s security perceptions and a prerequisite for political stability. Therefore a good regional economic environment and the integration into this environment are vital for the sustainability of the economic reform programme, with repercussions for the survival of the political status quo in Vietnam, that is, the stability of the political system and the economic reform process. For China, engaging in the GMS is, on the one hand, a long-term co-

operation to help Yunnan’s and Guangxi’s economy taking off and diversify economic growth away from the coastal belt to the landlocked interior regions, thus helping the domestic reform programme as a whole. This is a purely economic concern, and does not fall into the realm of foreign policy. On the other hand, where economic policy does fall into the realm of for-

eign policy, China instrumentalizes the GMS to gain leverage against the United States. Beijing has given itself a friendly image (in particular by pronouncing the new security concept, which is meant to be a straightforward alternative to security cooperation with the United States, potentially directed against China); and it has repeatedly pledged that its rise is peaceful, as Hu Jintao did on his visit to Vietnam from 31 October to 2 November 2005. This thwarts Vietnam’s intentions of engaging China in legally binding long-term commitments. The two summits in Phnom Penh in November 2002 – the Eighth ASEAN Summit and the First GMS Summit – and the Second GMS Summit in Kunming in July 2005 – showed that China seeks to keep a free hand: with regard to the question of how to solve the disputes in the South China Sea, no Code of Conduct was concluded during the ASEAN summit. And during both GMS summits, ASEAN’s soft regionalism prevailed by avoiding the contentious dam-building issue which divides China and Vietnam. This latter point shows that cooperation happens only in non-controversial areas, a situation which generally results in deep frustration and uneasiness in Vietnam about China’s foreign policy behaviour. These constellations give rise to what regime theoreticians have termed a

‘rambo situation’ (Haftendorn 2000). As for the GMS, this is best exemplified in cooperation over transboundary water resources (Menniken 2007), which mirrors the distribution of power in the subregion and resembles Dore’s argument that ‘regional governance in the Mekong – if “environment and development” governance is any indication – in many ways is lagging, unable to approach governance ideals, and inadequate to equitably or sensibly govern far-reaching regional change’, a development which is hindered by ‘[m]isplaced and ultimately problematic interpretations of “authority to rule” and sovereignty’ (Dore 2003: 1). The unequal distribution of power in form of the rambo situation can be

observed on three levels, seen from a central government’s perspective: water use, economic/domestic policy, and foreign policy. The difficulty of GMS cooperation happens against the backdrop of China’s powerful position on all three of the levels: water use (China occupies the source of the Mekong),

domestic/economic policy (development of the Chinese hinterland through increased exports to Southeast Asia), and foreign policy (increasing China’s influence in the subregion at the expense of the United States and Japan). Vietnam pursues opposing interests on all three levels: water use (Vietnam,

as last in the line of riparian states, feels particularly affected by dam-building activities at the Mekong’s upper flow, the Lancang); domestic/economic policy (Vietnam tries to gain more economic and thus political weight through GMS cooperation and to soften the strong Chinese position, and it wants to develop the northern provinces); and foreign policy (Vietnam wants to gain more freedom of action vis-à-vis China, particularly in its relations with the United States, and a solid cooperation in the GMS would restrict China’s assertive foreign policy and make it transparent and predictable). It is important to note that the Vietnamese interest produces contradictory

results. Border integration between China and Vietnam has improved Vietnam’s economic importance to China, and has played an important role in connecting Yunnan and Guangxi to mainland Southeast Asia and in developing the economies of Vietnam’s border localities. An elaborate transport system is crucial in order to maintain this situation, and the GMS CrossBorder Transport Agreement is an important step in this direction. The development of these links can, in turn, be facilitated only by a favourable foreign policy environment, which resolves problems by non-military means. This shows, however, that enhanced economic integration coincides with an enhanced infrastructure. This also helps Chinese exports to Southeast Asia. There is thus a mutuality of interests between China and Vietnam, which may result in an undesired outcome on the side of Vietnam. And the economic development of Vietnam’s northern provinces increases the linkage of this region to China. Alarmed by this development, the central government in Hanoi keeps a close eye on the development in the northern provinces in order to keep control of the economic development in a fashion of reterritorialization versus deterritorialization (Sasuga 2004), and deglobalization (Hocking 1993). Let us now turn to the second block of research questions, which can be

grouped into two subthemes: the structure of the GMS; and the influence of the above-described foreign policy strategies on the cooperation structure in the GMS. In particular, the following issues were set out for examination: identification of the actors on the three levels of state, substate and non-state, their converging or diverging aims, the extent of their proliferation and the connections between these levels; the influence of the non-state sector in the GMS vis-à-vis central governments; differences between the local and global dimensions of Hanoi’s and Beijing’s foreign policies and the role and relevance of subnational and non-state actors in them; the structure in which GMS cooperation takes place, and the potential influence of China’s and Vietnam’s foreign policies on this structure; potential influences of the double character of the GMS as Westphalian and post-Westphalian system on the cooperation structure; and potential evolution of the effectiveness and

robustness of the GMS through the regularity and frequency of cooperation in the form of committee governance. In addition to these issues, the following pages are devoted to the overall aim of the study: the link between subregionalism and institution-building in the GMS and China’s and Vietnam’s foreign policies. Let us start by recalling the notion of Wolf (2004: 6-9) that water can be an

‘irritant’ and a ‘unifier’. This finds mixed application in the GMS. It is a unifier between governments, when it comes to using the Mekong for the common goal of economic development. It is an irritant between governments, as well as between governments, NGOs and local river communities, when it comes to the building of dams and the blasting of rapids, which in turn change the amount of water flowing through downstream sections and affect both the irrigation of riverside fields and the fish catch in these sections, hence the livelihoods of river-based communities. Recalling Haftendorn’s four categories of water conflict (Haftendorn 2000), it appears that contention over water resources in the GMS is essentially a conflict through use by dams for electrical and irrigation purposes, and therefore allocation. These conflicts occur on one level of actors, and they occur between different levels of actors. The lack of cooperation between, for instance, the national level and the NGO (transnational) level in the environmental sector is a signal that the GMS is a state-guided endeavour, in which non-state actors have only limited scope of action and influence when they espouse policies that run counter to what central governments perceive to be in their interest. This interest seems to lie almost exclusively in the field of unrestrained economic development. The importance central governments of the GMS attach to private firms organized in the GMS Business Forum, as opposed to the difficulties environmental NGOs have in making their voices heard, seems to indicate this gap between both realms of interest, the environment and the economy. Accordingly, connections between central government actors and transnational environmental actors are not very strong, whereas the proliferation and diversification of state, substate and non-state actors, and the connections between them in working groups pertaining to economic development (in particular trade and energy), are far more advanced. Consequently, as a direct outcome of the rambo situation, no institution so far, including the Mekong River Commission (MRC) or the World Commission on Dams, has managed to solve the conflicts about China’s dams, as Beijing refuses to compromise on this issue. This also shows that the agenda of Mekong cooperation is dominated by China, as it can refuse the discussion of issues or to make compromises in relation to concerns of smaller countries if it so desires. The GMS, along with the MRC, misses levers that would force the powerful countries into compromises with smaller ones. Given the seeming dominance of central governments in setting the policy

frameworks within which subnational units and non-governmental actors can act and shape cross-border cooperation, transboundary cooperation schemes ‘have tended to be forms of functional integration managed by states’. The

Growth Triangles, including the GMS, are ‘forms of regional development [which] tend to involve powerful agencies setting policy agendas, with little or no direct involvement of the communities most directly impacted by the projects’ (Grundy-Warr 2002: 219, see also 217; Wain 2004a,b,c). As for the postWestphalian system, states and state-centred geopolitics are still dominant, although they are increasingly mixed with subnational and non-state activities in a region that is linked by pre-colonial trade routes, such as those between northern Vietnam and southern China. In addition, these areas had fluid boundaries before the treaties between China and France established a firm border between Vietnam and China, a development which reflected Europe’s concept of nation-states. Today, this border, although not transcended, is experiencing the emergence of a net of multiple layers of national and crossborder relations between central and subnational (provincial and local) units in combination with transnational networks of NGOs and private firms. For the whole of the GMS, the participation of subnational units, NGOs, the UN and its Specialized Agencies and the private business sector shows at least the growing understanding that issues are transnational and can only be solved through transnational and multi-level governance networks. This understanding has evolved together with the prominence of, and

insight into, the issues and the nature of non-traditional security. This has increasingly blurred the lines between foreign and domestic policies, and has contributed to what Hocking called the localization of foreign policy (Hocking 1993). A deglobalization of the space (Robertson 1992) by cooperating in subregional multilateral frameworks evolved as an interest of central governments, and put regional issues such as cross-border crime on the foreign policy agendas of states, but also national issues such as poverty alleviation, which are to be solved partly by developing local economies through crossborder integration. This development blurred not only the distinction between high and low politics, but also the domains of foreign and domestic policy, in that domestic policy demands informed foreign policy moves in order to regain lost capacity of central government for the solution of problems. In the process, central governments also tried to regain authority vis-à-vis subnational units, non-state actors, and the sections of society that feel increasingly negatively affected by the post-socialist economic development, and who moved to challenge, or at least demonstrate against, the economic policies of the central state. As a result, with the GMS an institution emerges that functions as a plat-

form for its members’ local and global policies. Within the GMS structure, a system, which might be best circumscribed as a system of committee governance, works as a confidence-building mechanism and ensures stability of cooperation and a certain degree of policy transparency and predictability, which in turn makes possible agreements such as the GMS Cross-Border Transport Agreement and its politically sensitive streamlining of bordercrossing regulations. This shows that in the GMS, a structure of a gradual and consultative approach of institutionalization has evolved that accounts

for effectiveness and robustness in the face of still underlying hostilities between Mekong states (such as the outbreak of hostilities between Cambodia and Thailand in 2003), even though it does not incorporate rules as a basis for effectiveness and robustness, as advocated by the traditional regime approach. The GMS carries clear functions of a regime: committee governance seems to account for Keohane’s propositions of what an institution must do in order to be a regime (Keohane 1984: 89-92, 100-109, 244-45): it provides mutual information and, as a result, reduces uncertainty; thus it stabilizes regime members’ expectations regarding other members’ posture towards future cooperation; and it reduces transaction costs in that it facilitates negotiations leading to mutual beneficial agreements. In the case of border cooperation between China and Vietnam, Womack argued that ‘in the long run the cooperative efforts may create a network of mutual expectations across the border and successful agreements may become the model for new ventures’. And further, since normalization of relations in 1991, ‘the unseen hands of local officials and entrepreneurs along the border have used national policies of normalization to tie together China and Vietnam through thousands of small bonds of opportunity’ (Gu and Womack 2000: 1058). While foreign policy is set in Beijing and Hanoi, and all major GMS and

border agreements are centrally negotiated and signed, subnational units are set to implement them and act within the centrally circumscribed framework. As for China, the provinces play a supportive role within the foreign policy frameworks set by Beijing. The same can be argued for Vietnam, where the border provinces locally implement the 1991 policy of diversifying and multilateralizing foreign economic relations. The process is closely watched by the central government in Hanoi. With regard to the strategic relevance of the GMS in China-Vietnam rela-

tions, it can be argued that the conditions under which Vietnam has achieved the diversification of foreign economic relations do not allow a cohesive subregion to evolve: the conditions are a strong US role in Northeast Asia, an influential Japan that contests China’s designs on dominating the subregion, and a range of bilateral agreements of GMS and ASEAN members with nonmember countries that run counter to the idea of letting cohesiveness evolve. As ASEAN members conclude bilateral agreements with outside countries, GMS members act similarly. Vietnam thus finds itself in a situation in which a diversification of foreign relations does not allow cohesive regional bodies to emerge. The diversification has happened against the backdrop of a postCold War region that has not yet found a final security arrangement, and sees regional and non-regional powers vying for influence, thus torpedoing economic as well as the political cohesiveness of regional groupings. As Vietnam regards balance of power in the Asian Pacific as important for ASEAN, so is balance of power in the GMS. Ironically, therefore, while the breakdown of the Cold War structure produced a multipolarity which made subregionalism possible, the same events thwart closer regional integration due to a divergence of overall foreign policy goals, which for the time being do not seem to

allow regionalization processes that go beyond the gradual approach of GMS committee governance. The fact that the GMS has been unable to manage conflicts such as the

dam-building issue shows that it is bedevilled by the same fate that limits the influence of other multilateral institutions and denies them an independent capacity: it can only do what member states want it to do. The rambo situation remains in place, and is mitigated only where China has a dominant strategy to cooperate, that is, where cooperation lies in China’s national interest. This is the case for the development of the western provinces, for which Beijing faces the need to develop the GMS as export market and transhipment area of its products to the wider ASEAN region. While an underlying antagonism remains,

[u]nlike Vietnam’s relations with other powers, Vietnam’s relations with China are comprehensive and multifaceted. They go beyond state-to-state relations to also include party-to-party, province-to-province, and people-topeople [in particular through youth exchanges and scholarships] relations. Party leaders tied their two countries together in a web of relationships between governments, parties, and mass organizations, from the central government down to the local level. In the last decade, no other country has sent more top leaders and delegations of all sizes and levels to Vietnam than China, and vice versa.