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Skidmore College

Publication Date

Spring 2017

Program Name

Vietnam: Culture, Social Change, and Development


Connecting the entirety of Southeast Asia to the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the South China Sea is among the world’s most vital commercial and strategic arenas. Robust shipping lanes funnel several trillion dollars in trade through the South China Sea annually; and lucrative fisheries and potentially vast hydrocarbon resources fill its waters. The South China Sea also hosts a tremendously complex geopolitical puzzle which hinges on overlapping maritime sovereignty claims made by Vietnam, China, Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei. The ensuing multilateral dispute has escalated tensions in the region, leading to intense militarization, diplomatic gridlock, and trivialization of international law. The entire coastline of Vietnam is enveloped by the South China Sea; access to the South China Sea’s resources and shipping routes is paramount to Vietnam’s economic development. Thus, If Vietnam loses access to the South China Sea, the economic consequences would be potentially cataclysmic. However, to characterize Vietnam’s position on the South China Sea dispute as simply competition for resources and territory would be myopic. In a regional dispute where museums and universities are just as, if not more important than, naval bases and warships, “history is itself a part of the conflict.” (Tonnesson 2001) Through conversations with Vietnamese historians, professors of international relations, government officials, villagers, and fishermen -- as well as review of primary and secondary sources -- this paper seeks to investigate what the South China Sea dispute means for Vietnam in historical, diplomatic, and domestic terms. It is argued that Vietnam’s sovereignty claims in the South China Sea go far beyond securing fish, oil, gas, and shipping; arguably, Vietnam is seeking to balance the burdens of historical, diplomatic, and domestic pressures.

Accordingly, this paper is split up into four main parts: 1) an introduction to the geography, resources, and economic and strategic importance of the South China Sea, 2) an in-depth investigation of the role of history in the South China Sea dispute, 3) a description of the contemporary diplomatic aspects of the South China Sea dispute, with a focus on Vietnam’s diplomatic intentions and strategies, and 4) a review of the ways in which the South China Sea has impacted domestic affairs in Vietnam. Parts 2, 3, and 4 feature findings gathered from interviews as well as literature provided by the Vietnamese National Boundary Commission. This paper concludes with a discussion of the ways in which historical, diplomatic, and domestic factors are closely interrelated.


International Business | International Law | Operations and Supply Chain Management | Place and Environment | Work, Economy and Organizations


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