This opinion piece has been written on behalf of Pacific Forum by members of their Young Leaders Program, and published in partnership with Southeast Asia Globe as part of a weekly series looking at geopolitical issues impacting the Asia-Pacific.
With Vietnam’s complex and multilayered national interests, navigating relations among the world’s great powers will not be easy in the coming years and decades for leaders seated in Hanoi.
Trade from China continues to grow, but so does the perception of Beijing as the number one threat to its sovereignty. The United States, on the other hand, has become a crucial strategic partner that can effectively deter China, but Hanoi is unwilling to blindly side with Washington and be on the receiving end of Chinese diplomatic wrath. Russia, the often forgotten Asian player, does not have the same ideological and diplomatic sway as it used to, but it maintains a close, seven-decade relationship with Vietnam as its global ambitions and presence grow.
Arguably, this is an enviable position to be in: Hanoi can leverage these great powers against one another and maximise their returns when it comes to arms sales and trade deals. However, in an increasingly divided world, Vietnam’s balancing act, essential if Hanoi wants to protect its integrity and economy, will get ever more challenging.
Vying for Vietnam’s support is nothing new. Vietnam was at the centre of Cold War competition in the 60s and 70s when China and the Soviet Union both courted the support of North Vietnam to boost their claims for the leadership of the communist world movement. The Cultural Revolution then harmed Chinese diplomatic efforts, and Vietnam began leaning towards Moscow. For the Soviets, as it was most infamously for the United States, Vietnam was yet another battleground against the rival super power, a battleground for credibility and prestige.
But Hanoi today, more than most, wants to avoid repeating history and becoming an arena in which giants compete.
Of course, the world has changed since –Vietnam now is a unified state with a booming economy and a 2020 chairmanship of ASEAN. Probably the most significant change is how close the United States and Vietnam have come diplomatically – after a devastating war, the countries developed many overlapping security interests and expanded their relationship in many areas. As espoused by the National Defense Strategy, the United States is keen on strengthening its partnership with Vietnam and other key regional players, and with the lifting of its ban on arms sales to Hanoi, the relationship will continue to grow.
Vietnam and China, on the other hand, still struggle to manage their strained and complicated relationship, despite their shared heritage in terms of socialist one-party rule and a 796-mile land border.
History, perhaps, provides the most pronounced indicator of the countries’ strained relationship. Although Vietnam has been a reluctant tributary to the Middle Kingdom, it adopted many Chinese cultural and religious practices. However, numerous attacks and incursions, especially the month-long 1979 border conflict, cemented in people’s memory the fact that its neighbour to the North will remain a constant threat to its security and sovereignty.
Responding to Beijing’s assertive behaviour on its periphery and in the South China Sea remains an uphill battle for Vietnam. The China Challenge, as pointed by a senior defence official at the CSCAP General Meeting in Hanoi, will not go away, and ASEAN member states need to learn how to live with and manoeuvre through their disagreements with Beijing.
Hanoi has no illusions about confronting the Chinese militarily – China, after all, outmatches Vietnam in every aspect – and wants to avoid all-out war. But China is also capable of hurting Vietnam’s economy if it were to choose to. As a result, Vietnam is forced to perform a delicate dance in which it maintains and expands trade with China, while negotiating South China Sea issues. And using both the United States and Russia as diplomatic leverage, Hanoi pushes back when it must. Yet Vietnam doesn’t want to be dragged into a conflict between the giants.
As Vietnam bolsters its legal case, it also builds and modernises its navy, and improves its maritime reconnaissance capabilities
So the diplomatic dance must continue, and Vietnam wants Russia to join the show. Russia needs it as well – estranged from the EU and the US after the invasion of Crimea in 2014, President Vladamir Putin deepened his country’s pivot to Asia. Russian activities in the region are predictable – hydrocarbon explorations and weapons sale – yet these deals come at odds with Chinese regional designs. Russia-supplied fighter jets, submarines, and, most recently, combat training jets that may alter military and political calculations in Beijing. Relatedly, joint explorations in the South China Sea between Russian and Vietnamese state oil companies undermine Chinese interests and claims.
The trajectory of the Vietnam-China relationship is crucial for another reason: it’s telling of China’s priorities and views on rule-based order and international law. So far, the signs are hardly optimistic. ASEAN member states have relied on norms-building and the UN Convention for the Law of the Sea to settle maritime disputes peacefully. However, Beijing, in order to bolster its claims and territorial position, embarked on a campaign of “power-based coercion, violation of international law, change in the status quo”, among other controversial actions, according to Vietnam’s national defence white paper.
The 2016 ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration refuted Beijing’s claims over the legality of the “nine-dash line” and affirmed, most of all, the Philippine’s claims in the sea. This landmark case, in effect, rejected China’s historic claims and denied its exclusive authority over the waters. However, the ruling has also demonstrated the PRC’s lack of commitment to uphold international law as Beijing has ignored it to date, knowing all too well neither the court nor the Philippines will enforce it.
Hanoi, in turn, learned a lot from Manila’s experience. The main takeaway is that while it’s vindicating to have international law on your side, by itself, it will not suffice in deterring Chinese claims in the sea. As Vietnam bolsters its legal case, it also builds and modernises its navy, and improves its maritime reconnaissance capabilities. More importantly, Hanoi has started pushing back, and its leaders publicly stated that they would not concede on issues of independence and territorial integrity.
According to Do Thanh Hai, a senior fellow at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, Hanoi’s “aim is not escalation, but gradually signaling the right message of resolve to Beijing”. Vietnam has struck the right balance – willingness to continue to meet and talk, while sending a clear message that it’s ready to counter if provoked.
As the great power competition is heating up, Vietnam again became a microcosm of a problematic relationship among three major contestants, the United States, Russia and China. But this time around, Hanoi is in a much better position to navigate this contest, and its leaders are well aware of the task ahead of them.
In this new great game, Vietnam is actively becoming a shaper of the geopolitical events and not a mere prize that others compete for.
Alex Shykov works as an Intelligence Analyst at Concentric Advisors. Previously, he was a resident James A. Kelly Korea Fellow at Pacific Forum and a Research Associate at the Center for Global Security Research (CGSR). He holds a Master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Special thanks to Pacific Forum’s Young Leaders Program for the opportunity to attend the 12th CSCAP General Conference in Hanoi, which inspired this article.
All opinions in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent any organisation.