Does Vietnam have a formula for China?
Story by Huong Le Thu/photos by the associated press
Sino-Vietnamese relations have gone through multiple cycles of deterioration and normalization. The geographical proximity of China and Vietnam and the long historical record of Chinese invasions and occupation, as well as the states’ current ideological-political affinity, similar development path, economic dependence and ongoing maritime disputes all complicate this inherently asymmetrical relationship.
Yet among Southeast Asian countries, when it comes to facing up to China’s assertiveness in the region, Vietnam appears to be the most strategic country –– perhaps next to Singapore — among Southeast Asian states. Vietnam possesses three key assets that give it leverage: its experience in dealing with China’s aggression; its strategic position at the frontier of China’s southern boundaries; and diplomatic clout that could make China’s expansion efforts politically and strategically costly.
First, Vietnam’s experience with Chinese aggression has been instructive. Historically, Vietnam was an integral part of Imperial China’s plans for southern expansion. Although China dominated Vietnam for 1,000 years until 938 A.D., China failed in the ensuing millennium to incorporate Vietnam into its territory. Vietnam has, through centuries of wars, sustained its national identity and cultivated a strong need to resist China’s dominance. Defeats from the much smaller country led Vietnam to become China’s “southern boundary stone of the notion of itself.” Vietnam has also been punished severely when Hanoi’s politics did not align with Beijing’s will, both in terms of security and economics. Take recent history, for example: After a long and bloody war with the United States and the conflict with the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, Vietnam fell into isolation. Only after the improvement of ties with China, and then also with the United States, did Vietnam come out of its diplomatic isolation and poverty.
The foundation of the current bilateral relationship is based on the normalization of ties with Beijing in 1991, which had been damaged by the short but intense border war in 1979. The improvement of ties did not come without compromise on Hanoi’s side. Since then, the principle of “Three No’s” in Vietnam’s defense policy — no military alliances, no foreign military bases in Vietnam, and no reliance on one country to fight another — has been adopted to bolster Beijing’s confidence that Vietnam will not form alliances against it.
Vietnam’s room for maneuver has been curbed by this principle, leaving Hanoi hoping that Beijing will keep its promise to be a good neighbor and a good friend. Under the motto of “cooperating while struggling,” Hanoi has engaged in a strenuous exercise of accommodating the giant next door while defending its sovereignty. Both governments have laid the foundation for bilateral channels of communication, which range from party-to-party talks and regular defense meetings to the establishment of a hotline to directly connect leaders on the matter of the South China Sea.
Second, Vietnam’s location on China’s southern border, especially in the context of the South China Sea disputes, enhances Vietnam’s strategic position. Although the proximity to its much larger neighbor leaves Vietnam vulnerable to China’s assertiveness, its geographical position also has its advantages. Vietnam has 3,260 kilometers of coastline on the South China Sea — a critical waterway. Since Hu Jintao, former general secretary of the Communist Party of China, articulated a case for making China a maritime power in 2012, China’s urge to dominate in the South China Sea has become more apparent. Vietnam’s geographic position is therefore key to Beijing’s aspirations and many major and middle power efforts to block them. As a result, Vietnam’s maritime dispute with China receives more attention than it would otherwise.
For example, when the China National Offshore Oil Co. deployed the Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil rig to Vietnam’s claimed exclusive economic zone in May 2014, the move threatened to escalate into a conflict. China’s strategic ambitions have been challenged, but at the same time they have been fueled by the growing presence of external powers in the South China Sea. With the signs of drastic changes in the Philippines under Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency, Vietnam’s stance on the South China Sea becomes even more central to regional disputes.
This leads to the third asset: Vietnam’s growing clout in diplomatic and defense partnerships. A balance of power is a small country’s best friend. Perhaps there is no better reminder of the costs that a small country can be forced to bear because of great power competition than Vietnam — a word that was once synonymous with war in the Western world, and not the name of a country. Vietnam now seeks to leverage great power rivalry to maintain peace and protect its sovereignty, rather than getting involved in confrontations with the giants. Since the Haiyang Shiyou 981 incident, Hanoi’s relations with Washington, Tokyo and Delhi have expanded to include military-to-military cooperation with a special focus on maritime security. Vietnam’s remarkable rapprochement with the United States and intensive improvement of ties with other great powers are thought to be the keys to mitigating China’s threat. Then-U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Hanoi in May 2016 and the annulment of the decadeslong arms embargo was truly momentous and set the stage for an optimistic new phase in the relationship. As I have argued elsewhere, the current state of the U.S.-Vietnam relationship is the best in the history of the two countries.
That said, U.S. President Donald Trump’s election generated uncertainty as to whether the newfound momentum in Hanoi-Washington ties can be sustained. One of Trump’s first decisions after assuming office was withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multilateral trade deal from which Vietnam expected to benefit. Despite the initial disappointment, Hanoi proactively sought engagement with Trump’s Washington. In May 2017, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc visited the White House, the first by a Southeast Asian leader, and only the third by an Asian leader after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping. The visit resulted in trade deals, but more important, mutual reassurance of each side’s intention to cooperate.
Southeast Asia has always been prone to great power politics, and in recent years, the alignment of governments in the region has occasionally fluctuated. Given how different the current geopolitical considerations and national interests are among the Southeast Asian countries, Vietnam’s example cannot serve as a formula for dealing with China. Any formula would have a relatively short shelf life, as political constellations in Southeast Asia evolve relatively dynamically, reflecting the volatile shifts in power. Vietnam can, however, serve as a reference point, given its track record in resisting China’s dominance. While there is no one formula for dealing with China, at a minimum there are three things that Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries need to do.
First, recognize that not all Chinese economic engagement is a golden ticket and could become a debt trap. Many of China’s investment strategies bring short-term and tangible gains, but in the longer run build up leverage for Beijing and in many cases undermine local interests. The majority of Southeast Asian countries are preoccupied with domestic politics and therefore tend to be inward-looking. For some Southeast Asian countries, the attractiveness of China as an economic opportunity seems to be stronger than its perceived threat. Finding a balance between opportunity and threat is a challenge common to all Southeast Asian states. Vietnam stands at the frontier of the group that feels the “China threat.” In fact, it is the China threat that has pushed Vietnam to take more forward-thinking decisions in defense, diplomacy and trade policies. The current structural changes in geopolitics remind Hanoi of a historically coercive and expansive China. It is important that other Southeast Asian nations realize that economic inducements come with larger, longer-term costs. Asymmetric relationships require that smaller countries remain strategically savvy. Continental Southeast Asia lies just over China’s border and consequently is exposed to the effects of the infrastructure investments that link the region to China. The Mekong subregion, for example, while the recipient of improvements from Chinese infrastructure investments, has also experienced the severe repercussions of China’s hydroelectric dams along the Mekong River, which have affected water distribution and agricultural output.
Second, Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries need to constantly reinvent strategies to keep up with Beijing’s growing capabilities on all frontiers. Understanding China’s strategic culture and historical background has been beneficial to Vietnamese leaders, but they cannot afford to be complacent. Modern warfare is comprehensive, making resistance to China’s coercion much more complex and difficult than it once was. Economic, ecological, diplomatic, psychological and information warfare loom even larger than the threat of traditional war on the battlefield. China has invested in leadership in all forms of power, be it military, economic, energy or technology. China is maximizing its leverage in all forms of coercion — punishment or inducement — turning them into political tools.
Finally, to be effective, neither Vietnam nor any other country can work alone in dealing with the China threat. It is important that Southeast Asian countries work together and in conjunction with the international community and in accordance with the rule of law. Ensuring a strong bond with its Southeast Asian counterparts and reinforcing Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members’ commitment to the regional agenda is a necessity. Hanoi needs to redouble its advocacy of ASEAN unity and coordinate its efforts with Singapore, which is also eager to safeguard ASEAN’s relevance, to keep its neighbors aware of the links between national and regional security interests.
Dr. Huong Le Thu is a visiting fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University and an associate fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore. This article was excerpted from the Lowy Institute report, “Southeast Asian Perspectives on U.S.-China Competition,” published in August 2017 and edited to fit FORUM’s format.