By Ngo Di Lan
In the end, Vietnam’s 12th National Party Congress did not turn out to be the watershed moment some anticipated. Incumbent general secretary Nguyen Phu Trong retained his post and nothing seemed to have fallen out of line. However, there is every reason to believe that Vietnam’s foreign policy would largely continue in the same direction had the reformist prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung won the general secretary post.
During the Cold War, Vietnam’s foreign policy was heavily influenced by ideology and domestic politics. The collective mindset of Vietnamese political elites underwent a significant shift only after the collapse of communism in Europe and the subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union, as they were forced to grapple with a very different strategic landscape. Around this time, economic reform geared toward a socialist-oriented market economy (Doi Moi) was born, and with it a new and much less ideological foreign policy that emphasized a multi-directional foreign policy and multilateralization of relations.
Since then, Vietnam’s foreign policy has pursued these twin goals quite consistently despite changes in the top leadership. This is unsurprising, since the Politburo makes decisions collectively, thereby preventing any single leader to impose his will on the rest. As a consequence, continuity in Vietnam’s foreign policy is the norm and not the exception.
There are other strong reasons to believe why Vietnam will continue on the current course. First, even if Trong wanted to move closer to China, it would be almost impossible for him to do so after the oil rig crisis in May 2014. Second, Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh not only retained his post as the foreign minister, but also gained a seat in the Politburo. This will undoubtedly contribute to a strong sense of continuity in Vietnam’s foreign policy. More importantly, the current multi-directional foreign policy, which revolves around hedging and balancing between the United States and China, is still the most sensible way for Vietnam to navigate its way as the situation in the South China Sea becomes ever more challenging.
First of all, the current policy gives Vietnam the most diplomatic flexibility in dealing with both superpowers. If Vietnam is locked into one camp, the chance of resolving the territorial dispute in the South China Sea would be effectively zero, since reasonable and productive dialogue on such a sensitive issue is almost impossible between two overt rivals. This diplomatic flexibility also allows Vietnam to continue benefiting from its ties with China for the time being while reducing the risk of abandonment for Vietnam in the event that the United States and China could somehow cut a deal in the future. Although it seems unlikely for Washington and Beijing to agree on a “power-sharing” agreement in the Asia Pacific for the time being, this remains a distinct possibility as long as overt hostility has not broken out between the two. Vietnamese leaders have to be mindful of this possibility.
Second, the current strategy allows Vietnam to inch closer to the United States and avoid provoking China at the same time. After all, balancing does not mean Vietnam has to be exactly halfway between the two superpowers. It only means that Vietnam does not actively lean to either side. For the time being, this seems tolerable to Beijing, which is important because it gives Hanoi some breathing room to maneuver.
Lastly, the current policy gives Vietnam the most leverage in dealing with both superpowers because it adds a layer of uncertainty to the calculus of the superpowers. If Vietnam sides with the United States against China, it would be completely dependent on Washington for its security, therefore losing all its bargaining chips. Ironically, since China knows for certain Vietnam will not join the U.S. camp, it will not shy away from putting more intense pressure on Vietnam in the South China Sea.
Continuing this balancing act will be Vietnam’s diplomatic centerpiece for the foreseeable future. Vietnam should deepen its partnership with the United States and consider joining U.S.-led multilateral military exercises such as the annual Cobra Gold and biannual Rim of the Pacific in the future, yet it should maintain its “three no’s” defense policy (These are: no foreign troops on Vietnamese soil, no allying with one country to counter another, and no military alliances with foreign powers) and avoid contemplating any potential alliances with the United States
Meanwhile, Hanoi will continue to lobby Washington to fully remove the four-decade-old lethal arms embargo to boost its maritime defense capabilities. In addition, expect Vietnam to try to manage its relations with China as delicately as possible, defusing crises peacefully as soon as they arise while maintaining a firm line against any overt act of Chinese aggression.
At the same time, Vietnam has been taking actions to escape China’s regional economic orbit. Joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an agreement strongly endorsed by the 14th Plenum of the Central Committee, is among the many steps that Hanoi has taken to lessen its economic dependency on China. In 2015, Vietnam had also concluded a landmark free trade agreement with the European Union that is also expected to render Hanoi less economically and politically independent on China.
There is no doubt Vietnam will continue enhancing its regional partnerships with Japan, and the Philippines and India—players with strong stakes in the region’s maritime territorial dispute—more comprehensively. Last but not least, Vietnam will find it in its interest to take active measures to ensure that ASEAN, which is now an economic community, will play a more active role in maintaining regional stability and promoting economic prosperity.
Overall, the current course in Vietnam’s foreign policy is still the most logical and sensible as long as Hanoi’s top priority remains to avoid unnecessarily alienating China while hedging against other major powers to protect Vietnam’s strategic autonomy.
Mr. Ngo Di Lan is a PhD student at Brandeis University, where he focuses on U.S. foreign policy and U.S.-China relations. He is also a research associate at the Center for International Studies (SCIS) at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.