Feisty and delicate: Vietnam's approach to handling great power rivalry

Vietnam’s domestic and foreign policy structures held up well in 2020 in the face of significant challenges involving Covid-19, chairing ASEAN, and relations with China and the US. Vietnam continued to maintain a delicate balance between China and the US, while at the same time retaining a strategic option to pursue deeper defence and military relations with the US. Its ability to maintain and enhance agency, in particular in its relations with Beijing, offers lessons for other Southeast Asian countries facing the same dilemma.
A man wearing a face mask amid Covid-19 concerns waits on his scooter near a billboard of the late Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi, 4 May 2021. (Manan Vatsyayana/AFP)
A man wearing a face mask amid Covid-19 concerns waits on his scooter near a billboard of the late Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi, 4 May 2021. (Manan Vatsyayana/AFP)

As Sino-US rivalry escalated in recent years, the mantra of “not choosing sides” between China and the US has become the favoured choice for many states in Southeast Asia. The same applies to Vietnam, a frontline state in the dispute with China over the South China Sea. In 2020, Vietnam faced a slew of challenges, ranging from the Covid-19 pandemic, managing Chinese power, disputes in the South China Sea and maintaining ASEAN cohesion as chair of the ten-member organisation.

Remarkably, Vietnam held up well. At home, it managed the Covid-19 pandemic commendably and kept economic growth going at a steady clip. As ASEAN chairman, it steered the grouping through a difficult year of pandemic and great power rivalry. Externally, Vietnam continued to maintain a delicate balance between China and the US, while at the same time retaining a strategic option to pursue deeper defence and military relations with the US.

Vietnam also subscribes to not choosing sides between China and the US, but for Hanoi, the level of complexity is higher. The Sino-Vietnam relationship is troubled by historical baggage and the dispute over the South China Sea. The same complexity applies to Hanoi’s relationship with the US. While bilateral relations have progressed substantially in recent years, a vestigial mistrust of Washington, in particular of the latter’s rhetoric on human rights and democracy, continues. Yet, Vietnam still provides a model for how Southeast Asian countries can respond to China in a time of great geopolitical flux.

If agency in this context is defined as the ability to maximise benefits from both powers while adopting hedging strategies to keep them at arm’s length, Vietnam is a classic showcase of that art, which can be useful for other Southeast Asian nations to replicate.

Fierce streak of independence

Vietnam is no strategic lightweight among ASEAN’s ten-member states. In 2020, it overtook Singapore and Malaysia to be the grouping’s fourth largest economy (after Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines), ranked fourth in defence spending in 2020 (at US$5.7 billion) and boasts the region’s largest active standing military, at 482,000 in personnel size. That said, Vietnam lives in a tough neighbourhood.

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The streets of the Cho Lon district of Ho Chi Minh City during attacks by the Viet Cong during the festive Tet holiday period in Saigon in 1968. Following this battle known as the Tet Offensive, the US public's support for the Vietnam War declined drastically. (AFP)

Historically, the natural geographical separation of its northern and southern cores exacerbated the two regions’ political and social divide, leaving the country vulnerable to invasion by foreign powers — Chinese, French or American. In particular, Vietnam has always been exposed to China’s expansionary tendencies and what one analyst terms the “tyranny of geography” — an old joke puts that the country’s S-shaped bend resembles an “old woman straining under China’s weight”.

Yet, Vietnam has always retained a fierce streak of independence, repelling repeated Chinese invasions throughout history. Significantly, between 1954 and 1979, Vietnam defeated three big powers — the French (by the Viet Minh), the Americans and the Chinese.

Its successful management of the pandemic has had knock-on effects on its economy. It has been reported as likely to have been Asia’s top-performing economy in 2020...

The determination to safeguard Vietnam’s independence through policy flexibility and effective execution continues to this day. This implacable streak of independence is reflected in comments by Ho Chi Minh. In the 1950 and 1960s, when the Sino-Vietnam relationship was termed as close as “lips and teeth”, Ho Chi Minh described the relationship as being “one hundred favours, a thousand loyal affections and ten thousand loves”. Yet when Chinese (Nationalist) forces arrived in northern Vietnam in 1945, Ho said he would rather put up with French rule than endure another Chinese occupation. He reportedly said: “I prefer to sniff French s*** for five years than eat Chinese s*** for the rest of my life.”

Managing external relations

As the Indonesian dictum goes, national resilience breeds regional resilience, and regional resilience enhances national resilience. Vietnam’s ability to keep the number of Covid-19 cases low augurs well for the country. Its successful management of the pandemic has had knock-on effects on its economy. It has been reported as likely to have been Asia’s top-performing economy in 2020 — a feat achieved without a single quarter of contraction. Vietnam reported 2020 GDP growth at 2.9%, thanks to robust exports of electronics and other consumer products. In recent decades, GDP growth averaged 7%, thus doubling GDP to US$262 billion in the decade ending 2019. Vietnam was already benefiting from the Sino-US trade war, as China-based foreign firms moved to the country.

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Workers in a factory in Hai Phong City, Vietnam, 22 April. (Thanh Hue/Reuters)

Since 1986, when Vietnam embarked on its doi moi policy, four themes have shaped its diplomacy: diversification and multilateralisation of external relations; defending the national interest through cooperation and struggle; active international integration; and the maintenance of independence, sovereignty and strategic autonomy. Through the three decades from 1986 and 2016, one way Hanoi did this was by sustaining “strategic” and “comprehensive” partnerships with middle powers, such as Australia, India, Japan and South Korea — a move that Beijing tends to be less sensitive to compared to Hanoi’s relations with the US.

Despite the growing number of such relationships, Vietnam remains non-aligned and stays clear of formal alliances, in part to avoid provoking Beijing. Like other Southeast Asian states, Vietnam has sought to avoid making stark choices between China and the US — and enjoying the “blessedness of not making choices”.

In recent years, Vietnam has seen significant upgrades in its relationships with other powers. In 2014, the Japan-Vietnam relationship was upgraded from a “strategic partnership” to an “extensive strategic partnership”. In 2016, the India-Vietnam relationship was upgraded from a “strategic partnership” to a “comprehensive strategic partnership”. In November 2020, Australia expressed a desire for bilateral ties with Vietnam to be upgraded from a strategic partnership to a “comprehensive strategic partnership”. It is worth noting that Australia, Japan and India are part of the Quadrilateral Security Grouping, or “Quad” together with the US. This is an informal grouping of democracies seeking to uphold a regional, rules-based order premised on principles such as freedom of navigation, free and open societies and the importance of international law.

Hanoi’s highest foreign policy priority is to insulate the two countries’ economic (and overall) relationship from the dispute, while at the same time building as many security ties with as many powers as possible. - on China-Vietnam relationship

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Morning commuters wearing face masks ride past in Hanoi on 4 May 2021. (Manan Vatsyayana/ AFP)

The biggest challenge for Vietnam, however, remains the triangle involving itself, China and the US. Thus far, Vietnam has been able to maintain a delicate balance in the triangle. With China, the relationship is multi-faceted. Vietnam’s economy has become increasingly interlinked with China, and the two countries’ Marxist-Leninist political systems are similar. Beijing also has the rare accolade of being the only country which is a “comprehensive strategic cooperative partner” of Vietnam. Still, historical animosity to Chinese domination and the lingering dispute with China over the South China Sea has constrained the China-Vietnam relationship.

In the eyes of a senior Vietnamese diplomat, Vietnam’s most serious problems lie with China, given Beijing’s attempt to gain control of the South China Sea, its growing strength and its “more aggressive” behaviour. As such, Vietnam’s sophisticated management of the bilateral relationship cautiously avoids provoking Beijing. Hanoi’s highest foreign policy priority is to insulate the two countries’ economic (and overall) relationship from the dispute, while at the same time building as many security ties with as many powers as possible.

Similarly, the Vietnam-US relationship has also developed apace. Relations between the two erstwhile enemies have come a long way since diplomatic normalisation in 1995, such that they are reportedly considering upgrading their “comprehensive relationship” to a “strategic partnership”. The relationship has been buoyed by a shared perception of the China threat, and coincides with Vietnam’s generally supportive view of US-led regional and global orders, such as the Trump administration’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) strategy.

In 2018, Vietnam participated for the first time in the US-led Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise, the world’s biggest multilateral naval exercise; the US has also provided the Vietnamese Coast Guard with patrol boats and training facilities. Two US Navy Nimitz-class carriers visited Vietnam in 2018 and 2020 — marking a historic advance in the relationship.

However, the relationship is also constrained by multiple factors — Vietnam officials’ suspicions about Washington’s long-term goal of “peaceful evolution” to depose the Vietnamese Communist Party; American concerns about Hanoi’s human rights record, and more importantly, the implications of an improved bilateral relationship on China.

Agency in the midst of enmity

In the face of China’s growing assertiveness, Vietnam has demonstrated much agency by employing several avenues: contributing to regional and global security; internationalising the South China Sea issue, threatening legal action against Beijing; and participating in regional mechanisms such as the Quad to counteract Chinese assertiveness.

Contributing to regional peace and security

Since the late 1980s, Vietnam has maintained the principle that it will be a “friend and reliable partner of all countries”, such that it will actively participate in “international and regional cooperation processes”. In 2020, Vietnam enjoyed a successful year as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). It also served as the president of the UNSC, which conducted an open debate on upholding the UN Charter. The debate saw a record 111 speakers from 106 states, and the adoption of the first UNSC President statement calling for compliance to the Charter.

Hanoi is also planning to expand its UN peacekeeping operations, which has helped promote cooperation between Vietnam and its partners, and enhanced its position in the regional and global arena. Between June 2014 and December 2020, Vietnam sent 179 officers and soldiers to peacekeeping missions in South Sudan, the Central Africa Republic and the UN Peace Operation Department at UN Headquarters.

Vietnam has displayed ingenuity and boldness in championing its interests on the South China Sea issue each time it played the role of ASEAN chair.

Vietnam was chosen as the venue for the second Trump-Kim summit in 2019 for various reasons, such as its relatively close relations with the three involved powers in the Korean nuclear issue (the US, North Korea and South Korea) and Vietnam’s relative proximity to North Korea. By far, however, the most important benefit for Hanoi was the chance to showcase its diplomatic skill of handling such a crucial event on a global stage. The same applied to Hanoi’s successful hosting of the 2017 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting. The meeting demonstrated its diplomatic finesse at balancing between China and the US. During the meeting, Vietnam issued two important joint statements. The one with Washington affirmed their Comprehensive Partnership and sought to promote trade and investment and deepen security cooperation. In its joint statement with China, Vietnam welcomed and supported China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Both sides agreed to enhance cooperation on economy and trade, industrial capacity, investment and infrastructure.

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North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un (left) and then US President Donald Trump meet during the second US-North Korea summit in Hanoi, 2019. (Internet)

Internationalising the South China Sea issue

Vietnam has displayed ingenuity and boldness in championing its interests on the South China Sea issue each time it played the role of ASEAN chair. In 2010, when Vietnam was ASEAN chair, then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — reportedly with Vietnamese instigation — stressed at an ASEAN security forum in Hanoi that the US had an interest in freedom of navigation in the disputed South China Sea. This helped to internationalise the issue, and understandably riled China.

In 2020, Vietnam, as ASEAN chair again, strengthened the group’s discourse on the South China Sea issue, focusing on the primacy of international law. Its chairman’s statement at the 36th ASEAN Summit in June 2020 affirmed UNCLOS as the basis for “determining maritime entitlements, sovereign rights, jurisdiction and legitimate interests over maritime zones”. The same statement had six mentions of “UNCLOS” — three times more than the 35th ASEAN Summit’s chairman’s statement. Vietnam’s chairman’s statement had five mentions of “international law” compared to three in the 2019 chairman’s statement.

Using its prerogative as ASEAN chair, Vietnam used similar language in chairman statements of ASEAN’s ministerial meetings with Canada, Japan, New Zealand, the US and the European Union. Again, this helped to internationalise the issue, by striking resonance with countries that place an emphasis on the value of international law in the controversial dispute. Intriguingly, Vietnam’s use of strong language saw no adverse public reaction from China.

Deterring China and the threat of legal action

Vietnam has become quite adroit at sending deterrent messages to Beijing not to cross red lines in its interactions with its smaller neighbour. In the 2014 oil-rig standoff between China and Vietnam in the Paracels, China withdrew the rig after about two months. Vietnam’s successful defence of its interests was due to a slew of factors, including Hanoi’s threat of legal action against Beijing.

While on a visit to Manila, Vietnam’s then-Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said that Hanoi was considering “various defence options”. This would include legal actions in accordance with international law to defend its South China Sea claims. At the 2014 Shangri-La Dialogue, then Defence Minister Phung Quang Thanh said that Hanoi was prepared for “other solutions”, including taking China to court. The minister said that the solutions must be “peaceful” should bilateral means fail. While Beijing stressed that the withdrawal had “nothing to do with any external factor”. Vietnamese leaders hailed the retreat as a victory. The incident has been called the “clearest case of major coercive failure” for China.

In 2019, the two countries were embroiled in another standoff near Vanguard Bank in the South China Sea. China took tougher action to disrupt Vietnam’s new oil and gas mining operations, but Vietnam showed no signs of backing down. At the 52nd ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (AMM) in 2019, Vietnam secured, in an AMM Joint Communique, tougher language in an indirect reference to Chinese actions. It also secured support from extra-regional parties such as Australia, the European Union and the US. While there was no official declaration that Hanoi would consider taking China to arbitration, there have been suggestions for Vietnam to take the dispute to an arbitral tribunal – the same approach taken by the Philippines against China in 2013.

...by using the “Indo-Pacific” term, Hanoi is suggesting that it might contemplate, as a last resort, an upgrade in relations with the US and potentially other countries in the Indo-Pacific.

Extra-regional dialogue mechanisms

The ace in the deck which exemplifies Vietnam’s agency is the refining of its defence posture in its 2019 defence white paper. Traditionally, this posture has been premised on “Three Nos” — that is, no military alliances, no alignment with one country against another, and no using of Vietnam’s territory to carry out military activities against another country. The 2019 paper introduced a new “no” (no use or threat of force) and a “depend” — that Vietnam will consider developing “necessary, appropriate defence and military relations with other countries” in the Indo-Pacific region. The new language is indicative of Vietnam’s increasing receptiveness of the US-led FOIP strategy, in particular, the emphasis on freedom of navigation and the upholding of international law, particularly as applied to China’s nine-dashed line claim in the South China Sea.

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People sit on their boats as they wait for customers at Cai Rang floating market on Mekong river in Can Tho, Vietnam, 5 May 2021. (Thanh Hue/Reuters)

In addition, by using the “Indo-Pacific” term, Hanoi is suggesting that it might contemplate, as a last resort, an upgrade in relations with the US and potentially other countries in the Indo-Pacific. In effect, this serves as a deterrent signal to China as it affords Vietnam room to step up its ties with not only individual members of the Quad but also with the four-nation grouping as a whole. Most recently, Vietnam participated in a Quad-Plus meeting involving the four members of the Quad, New Zealand and South Korea. Although the 2020 meeting discussed joint responses to the common scourge of Covid-19, the message would not be lost on China that Hanoi might consider cooperating with the Quad on defence and military-related topics should it feel a need to do so.

Lending credibility to the desire of other like-minded partners to exercise agency, Mike Pompeo, the former US Secretary of State, welcomed the institutionalisation of the Quad and for other countries to be part of this arrangement at some future point. The Biden administration appears to have placed equal, if not more emphasis on this front with its hosting of the first Quad Summit in March 2021. Furthermore, in its interim national security strategic guidance issued in the same month, the administration said it was open to working with “Vietnam, and other Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states” to advance shared objectives. In toto, this gives Hanoi more leverage in its pursuit of options vis-à-vis China.

Waltzing among the duelling pachyderms

Vietnam has pursued both diplomatic and defensive options to pre-empt further pressure from Beijing. It has taken part in three major multilateral trade agreements of note — the 11-member Comprehensive and Progressive Partnership for Trans-Pacific Partnership, the 15-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, and the European Union-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement. Such FTAs internationalise Vietnam’s economy and reduce its reliance on any particular country.

In the South China Sea, Vietnam is making “modest improvements” to the features it occupies in the Spratlys, including anti-air and coastal defences on Vietnam-occupied features such as Spratly Island, Pearson Reef and Sand Cay. This in itself suggests Vietnam’s development of an anti-access, area denial strategy (A2AD) that replicates China’s own A2AD strategy in the area. This would serve to blunt, but not eradicate, Chinese advantages if conflicts arise in the area.

Vietnam’s favoured choice of “not taking sides” between China and the US has been portrayed as a decision not to choose a certain outcome, yet retaining the freedom to manoeuvre amid complexity and multipolarity. This involves a country knowing its own interests, taking a position accordingly so as not to allow others to define its national interests. As David Shambaugh argues, ASEAN states still retain agency and can mitigate the region’s tilt towards China, based on America’s strategic weight in the region, Chinese diplomatic missteps and the help of other middle powers. As Vietnam has shown, they can still navigate and waltz among the duelling pachyderms if they employ some creative thinking.

This article was first published as ISEAS Perspective 2021/62 “Vietnam and the Great Powers: Agency Amid Amity and Enmity” by William Choong.

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