By Truong-Minh Vu & Richard Javad Heydarian
After considerable preparation, Nguyen Phu Trong, the Vietnamese Communist Party’s general secretary, is expected to embark on an important visit to the United States later this summer. Within the ambit of the U.S.-Vietnam-China triangular relationship, the high-profile visit of Vietnam’s party leader is expected to stir some controversy, raising critical questions over the evolving dynamic of Vietnam’s long-standing balancing strategy vis-à-vis great powers.
The exact date of Trong’s visit to the United States has yet to be confirmed, but Trong has already conducted a high-level visit to Beijing, where, together with President Xi Jinping, he has emphasized the importance of maintaining stable bilateral relations. Some analysts have interpreted this as a sign that Hanoi continues to place greater emphasis on maintaining stable, if not cordial, ties with its giant neighbor, despite their intensified jostling in the South China Sea. Upon closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that the trip to Beijing is largely designed as a “shock absorber” to offset the strategic fallout of Trong’s visit to Washington.
At the 10th Plenum of the 11th Party Congress earlier this year, Trong, faced with the age-old question of whether China is a friend or foe of Vietnam, said that the answer could be found in the Party Documents and Resolution of the Central Committee. Put simply, the document emphasizes that forces that support Vietnam’s policies and development are considered as (strategic) partners. In contrast, those who disrupt and harm Vietnam are considered as adversaries, necessitating appropriate counter-maneuvers and, if possible, elimination.
From the above Vietnamese rubric, China is difficult to categorize; in many ways, China could be considered as both a partner, primarily in economic terms, and a threat, especially in light of the deepening territorial disputes in the South China Sea. This means Vietnam will have to adopt a dualistic strategy, which, on one hand, preserves stable economic relations with China, while simultaneously exploring other necessary means and tactics to keep Chinese maritime ambitions within Vietnamese-claimed waters in check. And this is where the United States is of paramount importance. Bilateral ties with the United States have made huge strides in recent years, with Hanoi and Washington exploring various mechanisms to deepen their trade relations as well as maritime cooperation.
Vietnam’s strategy stands in direct contrast to another South China Sea claimant country, the Philippines, which has expanded already robust military ties with the United States, its long-term ally, at the expense of developing institutionalized engagement with China. If anything, as Philippine-China territorial disputes intensified, there has been a total breakdown in high-level dialogue between the two countries. Philippine President Benigno Aquino has yet to conduct a single formal dialogue with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, while their foreign secretaries Albert Del Rosario and Wang Yi have not visited each other’s countries. In contrast to Japan and Vietnam, which have established various forms of confidence-building measures (CBMs) with China, Manila and Beijing have yet to negotiate a single hotline or any form of CBMs to manage their territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
But the Philippines is not as economically dependent on China as is Vietnam. While China has become the biggest trading partner of almost all East Asian countries, the Philippines, which continues to count Japan and the United States as its top trade and investment partners, stands as a notable exception. Astonishingly, the Philippines in recent years has made more investments in China than the other way around, despite the fact that Beijing has emerged as a leading investor across Southeast Asia and the developing world.
By and large, the Philippines has primarily relied on its alliance with the United States and its ongoing legal arbitration at The Hague to rein in Chinese maritime adventurism. The Philippines has also embraced Japan as a key strategic partner and a counterweight to China, especially as the Shinzo Abe administration ramps up its efforts to consolidate Tokyo’s foreign and defense policy.
As U.S. ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius said recently, “Nothing is impossible” in Vietnam-U.S. relations. Nonetheless, Vietnamese policy-makers have shied away from exploring any direct military commitment — in effect a de facto alliance — with Washington. There are a number of reasons for such hesitation.
First of all, Vietnam is concerned about China’s response. There is a tremendous asymmetry in their economic interdependence. Vietnam is highly dependent on Chinese input for its export-led manufacturing sector. If China closes its southern border with Vietnam, both countries will be hurt economically, but Vietnam’s smaller economy will disproportionately suffer. According to some Vietnamese estimates, the economic costs of the standoff over Beijing’s decision in mid-2014 to unilaterally deploy an offshore drilling rig into waters claimed by Vietnam amounted to as much as $1.5 billion.
Secondly, Vietnam does not want to undermine its autonomy and room for maneuvering by siding with one power against the other. A full-fledged alliance with the United States would directly contradict Vietnam’s “three no’s” defense policy. A related concern is the possibility of getting caught in the whirlpool of a prospective great power rivalry and compromise between Beijing and Washington.
Since the early-1990s normalization of Vietnam-China ties, Hanoi has assiduously pursued a strategy of hedging its bets vis-à-vis China. On one hand, Vietnam has undertaken measures to increase economic engagement between the two countries as well as deepen party-to-party relations On the other hand, Vietnam has sought to diversify its external strategic relations by reaching out to other powers (i.e., Russia, India, and the United States) in order to hedge against Chinese territorial adventurism.
As great powers, the United States and China have considerable luxury in choosing between conflict and cooperation. The strategic options for smaller powers, however, are limited. But the clear contrast between the Vietnamese and Philippine strategies toward great powers shows that smaller powers still have a diverse menu of strategic options to choose from, depending on what is most effective in meeting their short-term and long-term needs.
Dr. Truong-Minh Vu is Director of Center for International Studies, University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Ho Chi Minh City (SCIS). He is co-editor of the book “Regional Power Shift in the Making? The Rise of China and the South China Sea Disputes” (Springer, forthcoming in 2015).
Mr. Richard Javad Heydarian is an Assistant Professor in political science at De La Salle University, Manila, and author of “Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China and the Struggle for the Western Pacific”. He can be reached at email@example.com.
The opinions expressed in this article are the authors’ own.