As China grows more assertive in the South China Sea, Vietnam has started seeing the country as a major threat. Beijing risks pushing Hanoi into America’s orbit if it continues to play hardball.
By Umair Jamal
In 2019, Vietnam published a national defense white paper—its first in a decade—that offers insight into how Hanoi’s thinking is changing regarding China’s strategy in the South China Sea. The document notes that China’s maritime ambitions in the South China Sea have complicated Beijing’s relationship with Vietnam despite other signs that the two governments were growing closer.
As Beijing becomes increasingly assertive in the South China Sea, Vietnam said that it will “promote defense cooperation” with outside powers, including potentially with the United States.
Despite frustration over Beijing’s maritime actions, Vietnam would ideally want to maintain its neutrality with respect to the two major powers.
China’s growing assertiveness, however, presents an opportunity for Washington if it wants to improve its bilateral relationship with Hanoi.
Vietnam-China tensions rise on multiple fronts
Despite a long history of tensions with its northern neighbor, in 2008, Vietnam raised its bilateral relationship with China to the level of a “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership,” the highest title that Vietnam has offered to any major power.
But since then, Vietnam has grown increasingly frustrated as China has become more assertive in the disputed South China Sea. Vietnam is among several Southeast Asian countries that contest all or many parts of the 3.5-million square-kilometer area.
In 2019, tensions mounted between the two counties for months after China sent a geological survey ship into Vietnam’s waters near Vanguard Bank. In 2020, two Chinese vessels sank Vietnamese fishing boats and China’s actions forced Vietnam into cancelling major oil contracts with international companies in the South China Sea, costing Hanoi almost US$1 billion. Vietnam is also suspicious of China’s Belt and Road Initiative as it believes that the project will threaten Vietnam’s economic and military security.
Over the last few years, anti-China sentiment has mounted in Vietnam as protests against the county have become a routine now. China’s building of dams on the Mekong River has threatened the livelihoods of millions and exacerbated the effects of one of the region’s worst droughts in 2016.
Analysts believe that with China’s growing military presence in the region, including in the South China Sea, Beijing’s ability to threaten Vietnam will only grow.
Noting Vietnam’s frustrations in dealing with China, Joshua Kurlantzick writes for the World Politics Review that “Vietnamese leaders are finding it harder to ease bilateral tensions through the usual diplomatic channels, with China simply refusing to respond to Vietnamese entreaties at times.”
Vietnam’s last defense white paper was openly critical of China
In a major defense white paper in 2019, Vietnam warned China that Hanoi might consider deepening its defense ties with foreign countries if Beijing doesn’t stop its maritime aggression in the South China Sea.
In the previous white papers, published in 1998, 2004 and 2009, Vietnam used cautious language around its relationship with China and offered a positive image of Beijing’s role in the region. The latest paper, however, overtly labels tensions with China in the South China Sea as a key security threat and lays out a vision for Vietnam to become a powerful maritime nation.
For some analysts, the paper’s language shows that Vietnam is ready to join any future US military exercises with ASEAN in the South China Sea. “You might want to read it as a very nuanced way of [saying] ‘you push us too far, we’ll go closer to the US’ but it’s not that explicit in there,” said Carl Thayer, a professor with the University of New South Wales in Australia.
One section of the paper indirectly discusses China’s role in the South China Sea, noting that “unilateral actions, power-based coercion, violations of international law, militarization, change in the status quo and infringement upon Vietnam’s sovereignty… have undermined the interests of nations concerned and threatened peace, stability, security, safety and freedom of navigation and overflight in the region.”
Vietnam unlikely to embrace the US to counter China
While Vietnam may not not be happy with China’s military and economic assertiveness, the country is not likely embrace America in order to counter Beijing.
Vietnam’s foreign and defense policies don’t suggest that Hanoi is considering choosing one major power over the other. The 2019 white paper quoted the “three nos” of Vietnam’s approach to defense and foreign policy: no military alliances, no basing of foreign troops in the country and no explicit alliances with one country against another. The paper also notes that Hanoi is against “using force or threatening to use force in international relations.”
However, Vietnam’s recent frustrations indicate that China is pushing it away from this policy of “three nos.” The paper also says that, “depending on circumstances and specific conditions, Vietnam will consider developing necessary, appropriate defense and military relations with other countries.”
“If we read between the lines, we can see the Vietnamese hinting at the possibility that they may deepen cooperation with other powers, but how far they can go they don’t say specifically in the paper,” Nguyen Thanh Trung, director of the Saigon Center for International Studies (SCIS) at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City, told Voice of America.
How will the US respond to Vietnam’s overtures?
Analysts believe that Washington would be more than happy to accept any proposal from Vietnam that offers an opportunity to counter China in the region. The US and Vietnam have deepened ties in recent years despite some differences over the trade issues. Officials in the US regard Vietnam as one of America’s most important military partners. In 2018, a US aircraft carrier visited Vietnam for the first time since the Vietnam War. The visit was an indication that Washington remains ready to assist Vietnam against China’s threats, boosting its maritime security.
Arguably, the current situation offers the new US government an opportunity to actively engage Vietnam. Sending a high-profile delegation to Vietnam and offering cooperation to improve Hanoi’s military capabilities would be a good start. As Vietnam increasingly perceives China as a threat, the US should reassure Vietnam that Washington remains committed to the bilateral relationship. This will give Hanoi “greater confidence to stand up to China when the time comes.”