Deference or Balancing Act: Whither Vietnam’s Foreign Policy Tilt?

By Truong-Minh Vu & Nguyen Thanh Trung

General Martin Dempsey meets with Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung on August 14, 2014 in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung of Vietnam meets with General Martin Dempsey, U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on August 14, 2014 in Hanoi. Source: TheJointStaff’s flickr photostream, U.S. Government Work.

Communist Party of Vietnam official Le Hong Anh recently wrapped up his two-day visit to China as a special envoy of the party chief in an effort to mend ties after the oil rig deployment incident in May. Vietnam’s official media reported the trip’s primary motive as restoring and improving the relationship between two communist parties and countries. Anh, ranked fifth in the Politburo, met with numerous high-ranking Chinese officials, including President Xi Jinping.

Vietnamese and Chinese news agencies announced that a three-point agreement was reached during the visit:

1. Leaders of two communist parties and states will further enhance their direct guidance on the development of their bilateral relations;

2. Intraparty communications will be strengthened;

3. Prior consensus between two parties and countries will be kept up to maintain the overall situation of the Sino-Vietnamese relationship and peace and stability in the South China Sea.

Anh’s trip stirred heated debates among Vietnam watchers. The visit took place at a time when bilateral relations had reached their lowest point in two decades after China moved its off-shore drilling rig into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone. The tension was defused only when China unilaterally withdrew its oil rig on July 16, announcing the mission was complete. The 10-week dustup prompted Vietnam to begin to reassess its foreign policy.

Vietnam’s domestic debate in a variety of seminars and forums has seen a burgeoning discussion on how to “escape China” (thoát Trung), whether to “bring the South China Sea disputes to an international court,” and ways to “reduce reliance on China.” These talks, with or without state sponsorship, drew participation from all circles of Vietnamese society. Most participants considered China as an imminent threat to Vietnam, As result, many government critics have seen Hanoi’s attempt to smooth tensions with Beijing as “a concession” or a form of “subservience.”

However, the trip should be understood in a broader context: Vietnam must handle relationships with great powers delicately, especially with a rising China next door. Vietnam’s foreign relations strategies are not a simple function, but actually a combination of different tactics with multiple variables that need to be taken into consideration. Vietnamese political elites are now exploring three strategic approaches to re-establish a balancing position between great powers in the region. These include a balancing act, “omni-enmeshment” (meaning creating complex relations, bilaterally and multilaterally in many different sectors), and deference.

Recent developments in Vietnam’s defense policy are an example of maintaining a balancing act. During his two-day visit to Vietnam in early August, Japanese foreign minister Fumio Kushida said Tokyo would provide Hanoi with six used patrol vessels as part of an aid package to improve Vietnam’s coast guard capacity. On August 14, U.S. General Martin Dempsey became the first chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to visit Vietnam in more than four decades. A week earlier, U.S. senators John McCain and Sheldon Whitehouse visited and spoke publicly about lifting the U.S. ban on lethal arms sales to Vietnam.

On August 25, Indian foreign affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj arrived after Vietnam renewed India’s lease of two oil blocks in the South China Sea. In addition, Indian president Pranab Mukherjee is scheduled to visit Vietnam in September. Press reports suggest that India and Vietnam are likely to sign a defense agreement in which India will help train Vietnamese pilots to operate Russian-built Sukhoi jet fighters and consider selling BrahMos missiles to Vietnam. These rapid diplomatic moves have allowed Vietnam to forge closer relations with three large competitors of China.

On the trade and diplomacy front, Hanoi has adopted a long-term strategy of increasing its network of regional organizations and free trade agreements (FTAs) with a series of major powers. Labeled as “omni-enmeshment,” this strategy helps to create overlapping spheres of influence, through which Hanoi might better anticipate and help shape great powers’ decisions. Vietnam’s goal is to diversify its foreign trade, which will help to reduce both its asymmetrical economic dependence on China and the potential political influence that Beijing can exert.

For instance, Vietnam’s elite and scholars consider simultaneously joining the negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economy Partnership (RCEP) as both a “soft balancing” strategy against China’s growing assertiveness and as a way of “taming” China through regional institutions.

The tyranny of geography and power asymmetry have forced Vietnam to be prudent with its much bigger neighbor to avoid snubbing it. Anh’s trip was a signal from Vietnam to show that it did not want to confront China. This, in turn, was also considered a diplomatic success for Beijing in making sure that Hanoi still complies with a bilateral mechanism to resolve disputes. During his talk with President Xi, Anh said that Vietnam would do its utmost to enhance mutual understanding and trust, and consolidate a comprehensive strategic partnership with China.

The outcome was a temporary accord, spelled out on paper between the two parties, yet the agreement has uncertain durability. While agreements between the Vietnamese and Chinese Communist parties have sometimes served as a tool to manage the bilateral relationship, Vietnam’s policy flexibility toward China faces some major restraints: the gap between the promises and actual actions of China, and Vietnam’s domestic resistance to any compromise beneficial to China both constrain Hanoi’s options.

With only 18 months until Vietnam’s Communist Party’s next congress, open advocacy of a more assertive policy towards China will be popular among reformers engaged in the quiet but fierce contest for key positions in Vietnam’s political system. Nonetheless, the price for them may be costly if those seeking accommodation with China win back the upper hand in the foreign policy debate.

Mr. Truong-Minh Vu is a lecturer at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Mr. Nguyen Thanh Trung is a PhD candidate at the Hong Kong Baptist University in Hong Kong. The opinions expressed in this article are the authors’ own. 


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