Vietnam Broadens Ties to Hedge Against an Assertive China

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    Feb 16, 2009
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    WPR Article | Vietnam Broadens Ties to Hedge Against an Assertive China

    A look at Vietnam’s recent diplomatic moves shows Hanoi increasingly diversifying and intensifying its relations with major powers, a pattern that should be seen as an effort by Hanoi to deal with a more forceful China.

    Like many countries in the region, Vietnam is increasingly dependent on either direct or indirect economic links with fast-growing China. Furthermore, Vietnam’s political and economic system is similar to -- if not modeled after -- China’s. Maintaining a friendly relationship with their big neighbor is therefore the top priority of Vietnam’s leaders.

    Both sides have officially pledged to build a comprehensive partnership, guided by the spirit of “good neighbors, good friends, good comrades and good partners.” Official statements notwithstanding, relations between these two communist comrades are not always smooth, as illustrated by the increased tensions that followed an incident in May when a Chinese Maritime Administration ship cut the cable of a Vietnamese vessel exploring energy resources in the South China Sea.

    Nearly five months after the clash, on Oct. 11, Vietnam’s Communist Party leader, Nguyen Phu Trong, made his first official visit to China as the party’s general secretary. During the visit, Vietnam and China reached a six-point agreement to guide the settlement of their disputes. While the trip and agreement did ease tensions, they neither settled all bilateral disputes nor removed Vietnam’s long-lasting concern about China. Thus, while continuing its efforts to improve relations with Beijing, Hanoi is seeking to court other major powers, especially those that are competing with China for regional influence or that have territorial disputes with Beijing.

    So, for instance, on the day Nguyen Phu Trong began his visit to China, Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang embarked on a four-day trip to India. The most significant outcome of the visit was a bilateral agreement concluded to invite India’s ONGC, a state-owned oil and gas company, to explore on Vietnam’s continental shelf, which is also claimed by China. While Vietnam has no interest in provoking China, the concurrent visits and the decision to invite India to explore for energy in the South China Sea, despite China’s opposition, was a strong signal from Hanoi of the importance it places on deepening economic, strategic and security ties with New Delhi.

    Japan also features prominently in Hanoi’s strategic calculations. On Oct. 30, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung began a four-day official visit to Japan, which also has unresolved territorial disputes with China. During the visit, Vietnam and Japan issued a joint statement in which both sides confirmed that “the peace and stability of the South China Sea is a common interest of the international community” and stressed the importance of the freedom of navigation in the area.

    Besides the region’s major powers, Vietnam also places great significance on strengthening its ties with other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), because the regional organization and its members increase Hanoi’s leverage in its dealings with Beijing.

    Since being elected president in July, Truong Tan Sang has toured several ASEAN countries, including Malaysia and the Philippines, which both have unsolved territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea as well. Vietnam’s recent effort to strengthen its relations with Myanmar is also noteworthy. On Nov. 14, Hanoi welcomed Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar’s new commander-in-chief of defense, who himself chose Vietnam for his first official trip abroad instead of China, as his predecessors used to do. This visit bears symbolic importance for Vietnam: China was formerly a strong ally of Myanmar, and the visit took place in the aftermath of Myanmar’s decision to unilaterally suspend the $3.6 billion Chinese-funded Myitsone Dam project.

    However, the key power to which Vietnam -- like others in the region -- turns for strategic reassurance is, without a doubt, the United States. Despite divergences over Hanoi’s human rights record, U.S.-Vietnam bilateral relations have been extensively strengthened in recent years.

    In March 2010, Vietnam and the U.S. signed an agreement to cooperate in the nuclear energy field. Later, in July 2010, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Vietnam to attend the 17th ASEAN Regional Forum, during which she insisted that the South China Sea was of strategic importance to the U.S. and backed Hanoi’s position that called for establishing an international legal process to solve territorial disputes in this sea. Then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates also attended the inaugural ASEAN+8 Defense Ministers Meeting, held in Hanoi in October 2010. U.S. President Barack Obama mentioned the United States’ “closer cooperation with Vietnam” in his speech to the Australian Parliament last month. For his part, Truong Tan Sang told an audience at the East-West Center in Honolulu, where he attended the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit a week prior to Obama’s Australian address, that Vietnam regarded the U.S. as “a very important partner” and thanked the U.S. for its attention to contentious issues in the South China Sea when speaking. He also said that both sides wanted to take the relationship “to the next level and move forward on this strategic partnership.”

    In seeking to advance strategic cooperation with major powers, Hanoi is conscious that Beijing wants the U.S. to stay out of the South China Sea disputes. Yet, Vietnam is in a perpetually weak bargaining position if it seeks to resolve disputes on a bilateral basis. For this reason, while aiming to keep relations with Beijing amiable, Hanoi continues to pursue close ties with regional and global players in its quest to build external support as a hedge against its assertive neighbor.

    Loc Doan is a research associate in the Asia Program at the Global Policy Institute. He is currently completing a doctoral thesis on interregionalism and the EU-ASEAN relationship at Aston University.

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