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The US-China Contest For Vietnam – Analysis

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Vietnam has become the latest crux in the US-China contest for the hearts and minds of Southeast Asian nations. It makes for fascinating diplomatic theater. But for the U.S. it is probably a quixotic joust. Indeed, Vietnam is China’s to lose. This is possible only because China can be its own worst enemy.

Both the U.S. and China see Vietnam as a key claimant in the South China Sea. If either can stick and carrot it to their side, they think the rest will follow. This makes Vietnam a critical player. But it must play its cards very well lest it anger and alienate both.

In late August, US Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to Singapore and Vietnam to bolster the burgeoning US effort to bring Southeast Asian countries into a US-led coalition against China. Her visit followed one in late July by US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin that was designed to do much of the same. In Singapore she declared that “the United States stands with our allies and partners in the face of [China’s] threat in the South China Sea”. In her meeting with Vietnam’s President Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Harris said  “We need to find ways to _ _ raise the pressure…on Beijing to abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and to challenge, its bullying and excessive maritime claims. Specifically she offered material and training assistance to enhance its maritime security capacity as well as more visits by US warships. The highlight of her visit was a U.S. proposal to elevate the relationship from a comprehensive partnership to a strategic partnership.

Perhaps in an attempt to avoid putting Vietnam in a dangerous situation vis a vis China, the U.S. appears to have enlisted Japan as an intermediary in defense cooperation with Vietnam. Japan and Vietnam have agreed to an arrangement that will supply it with military equipment– including naval vessels. Just last week, Japan’s Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi met Vietnam’s Defense Minister Phan Van Giang in Hanoi. They signed an agreement that according to Kishi elevated their partnership to “a new level” that will include multinational joint exercises. Kishi said Japan and Vietnam “are in the same boat and share the same destiny”.  Apparently what he meant was that Japan’s territorial and maritime disputes in the East China Sea with China –and China’s aggressive behavior there– are similar to China’s aggressive behavior toward Vietnam regarding their territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea.

But the Vietnam-China relationship is much stronger and deeper than that between Japan and Chin or that between Vietnam and its not so long ago mortal enemy– the U.S.. There is no commonality of culture, ideology, political system and worldview—other than the China ‘threat’ –and even that is ‘iffy’ from Vietnam’s standpoint.

Vietnam and China continue to have strong Party to Party and economic relations and seem to have reached a modus vivendi –albeit shaky and tense–regarding their South China Sea disputes.  Once again Vietnam and China have agreed to “manage disagreements [and] avoid complicating situations or expanding disputes”.

While Vietnam’s position may seem at times to be anti-China, this is likely to be ephemeral.  Indeed, it seems doubtful that Vietnam’s leadership will side long term with the U.S. – a declining power – – against China – its permanent neighbor and inexorably rising regional and world – power. 

Vietnam’s leaders well know that China will always be ‘there’– an unpredictable giant on its northern and maritime borders– while the U.S. presence in the region is comparatively fickle and fleeting. Moreover Vietnam is steadfastly non-aligned.  Indeed, its long standing policy is the “three nos” – no participation in military alliances, no foreign military bases on Vietnamese territory, and no reliance on one country to fight against another. Despite US hopes, that is not likely to change in the near future.

The approach of the U.S. and Japan to Vietnam is a superficial realist charade that has no roots and can easily evaporate as the strategic situation evolves.

Kishi and Giang also agreed on the importance of maintaining freedom of navigation and over flight in the Indo-pacific region. This is of course a reference to the US-led construct and mantra of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” that it claims is endangered by China’s policies and actions.

But Vietnam does not share the core tenet of the US version of a  “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” – –   unfettered freedom of navigation for warships. Vietnam has long had restrictions for warships to enter its territorial waters—similar to those of China. In particular, Vietnam has both a territorial sea baseline and a prior notification regime that have been the direct target of U.S. Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) by warships in the recent past.  Moreover, U.S. challenges of prior permission for warships to undertake innocent passage in territorial waters around the Paracels are directed not only at China but also at Vietnam who also claims them.  Further, the U.S. does not recognize Vietnam’s claims to Spratly features that are not above water at high tide and presumably opposes their militarization just as it does those occupied by China.

This is not just a clash of legal interpretations and policies regarding “freedom of navigation”. It is symptomatic of the more fundamental strategic mismatch between the two. 

China has been very aggressive against Vietnam in the South China Sea both historically and recently. Indeed, China prevailed in two violent clashes with Vietnam there. It has tried to intimidate foreign oil companies from operating in Vietnam’s claimed Exclusive Economic Zone and continental shelf and uses physical force or the threat thereof to arrest its fishers around the disputed Paracel Islands. Vietnam has tried to respond but it is generally overwhelmed by China’s numbers. Keeping these incidents from getting out of hand is the fact that Vietnam derives great economic benefits from its relationship with China and the alternative of its giant neighbor as an overall enemy is unacceptable. But China does need to lighten up somewhat to avoid any possibility of forcing Vietnam into the US camp.

Of course both the U.S. and Vietnam want to use each other against China.  Vietnam hopes that enhanced security relations with the U.S. and Japan will deter China from further “bullying”.  The U.S. hopes that U.S. military access to Vietnam’s ports and places to support its effort to militarily deter and contain China and maintain its regional hegemony. That is the essence of their “strategic relations.” 

Although Vietnam wants to use the U.S. to balance China and diversify its economic relations, a US emphasis on security cooperation would be threatening to China and thus put more pressure on Vietnam. So Vietnam will be cautious in how far and how fast it proceeds in security cooperation with the U.S.. Indeed, for Vietnam there are clear limits as to how far it can and is willing to go to ‘balance’ the two.

Indeed, as an indication of how just how quixotic the US effort is, immediately before Harris’ visit, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Pham Minh Chin told China’s ambassador to Vietnam that Vietnam does not take sides in foreign policy. This was a warning sign that the U.S. should not place too much hope in winning over Vietnam in its attempt to build a coalition against China.

Nevertheless China was sufficiently concerned with the US overtures to send its Foreign Minister Wang Yi for a visit. Wang told Vietnam “[We should] not complicate the conditions [or] magnify conflicts through unilateral moves, and [warned that we] should both be alert in resisting interference and incitement from regional outsiders”. Another version had this as “keep alert to external forces’ interventions and attempts to sow discord”.  He was clearly referring to the U.S. and perhaps Japan. Regarding the sensitive South China Sea, both sides agreed to “effectively control divergence”. Wang’s visit was probably meant to caution Vietnam about getting too close to the U.S., and at the same time to demonstrate to the U.S. that Vietnam is firmly and inextricably in the Chinese camp. And that is likely to be where it will stay unless China scores an ‘own goal’ in its relations with Vietnam.

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Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia, is an internationally known maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. He is the author or editor of some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles. He is currently an Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

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