Vietnam Balances Between The Indo-Pacific Powers – Analysis


By Viet Dung Trinh and Huy Hai Do

Under mounting security pressure caused by China’s muscle flexing in the South China Sea and the possibility of Beijing’s economic coercion, Vietnam has adopted a cautious approach to the Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS).

The 2019 IPS Report under former president Donald Trump mentioned Vietnam 24 times and regarded it as one of three ‘key players’ in Southeast Asia. In the 2022 IPS Report, current President Joe Biden described Vietnam as one of the ‘leading regional partners’ with which the United States aimed to strengthen its relationship with to create ‘collective capacity’ and ‘common action’ in the pursuit of a free and open Indo-Pacific. Vietnam has not yet issued an official statement announcing its support for the US-initiated strategy.

In June 2018, the Shangri-La Dialogue’s focus was on ‘shaping the changing security order in Asia’. Vietnam’s Defence Minister General Ngo Xuan Lich made no reference to the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ in his remarks at the summit.

Hanoi still shows its support for a regional rules-based order, as subtly highlighted in the IPS. In his state visit to India in 2018, Vietnam’s president at the time, Tran Dai Quang, stressed that, living in the Indo-Asian-Pacific Century, regional countries should ensure maritime and commercial freedom, create a common space for coexistence and development, set up effective mechanisms to maintain regional peace, security and stability and address disputes by peaceful measures. In this regard, Quang hinted at common views on a regional rules-based order.

Even though the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ was only mentioned once in the 2019 White Paper, Vietnam favours engaging in defence cooperation with other governments to maintain peace and security in a fast-changing regional order. Addressing the Asia Future Conference in Tokyo in 2019, Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh acclaimed the role of a regional rules-based order in promoting fairness and mutual benefit: ‘a sustainable and effective international order needs to ensure the principle of fairness and equality, be open and balanced between different ideologies, aiming to serve the interests of all peoples and nations’.

In a 2022 interview related to Vietnam’s response to the US-led IPS, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Le Thi Thu Hang stated that: ‘Vietnam welcomes initiatives and joint efforts in the region that contribute to maintaining regional peace and stability’.

Vietnam has been careful in its public statements, while expressing strong interest in a regional rules-based order. This is because the maintenance of a regional rules-based order can contribute to resolving the South China Sea dispute by peaceful solutions, restrict China’s destabilising acts in disputed waters and restrain China from applying punitive economic measures.

Vietnam’s dialectical view of the United States means that Hanoi sees Washington as a ‘partner of cooperation’ because of their common interest in seeking a regional rules-based order and their shared perception of economic and security risks from a rising China. Vietnam also sees the United States as an ‘object of struggle’ due to the threat it poses to Vietnam’s regime survival through ‘peaceful evolution’, including the significance of democratic institutions and governance in the IPS.

This negative perception of the United States was relaxed to pave the way for the elevation of bilateral relations. Speaking at the US Council on Foreign Relations in November 2023, Vietnamese President Vo Van Thuong indicated that Washington and Hanoi have developed mutual trust thanks to their shared commitment to respect each other’s independence, sovereignty and different in political systems.

The countries are deepening political and diplomatic relations, enhancing trade and investment cooperation and strengthening defence ties. In September 2023, the United States and Vietnam officially upgraded their relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership, the highest level in Vietnam’s diplomatic ranking.

China is both a pull and push factor in Vietnam’s careful IPS response. Security threats in the South China Sea and economic coercion from the rise of China have pushed Hanoi and Washington closer in their strategic outlook and shaped the former’s interest in the IPS. On the other hand, Vietnam is unwilling to join any anti-China group. Hanoi has long sought a stable relationship with China. The painful lesson of the 1979 border war with China made Vietnam acutely aware of the consequences of opposing its powerful neighbour.

China negatively views the IPS as ‘a version of NATO’ designed to constrain its rise. Understanding China’s suspicions of the US-led IPS, Vietnam has avoided making any public statement supporting the IPS. Hanoi does not want Beijing to believe that it is aligning with Washington and other countries to counter it.

Despite a four-no defence diplomacy, the 2019 Defence White Paper contained an important caveat: ‘Depending on circumstances and specific conditions, Vietnam will consider developing necessary, appropriate defence and military relations with other countries’. Vietnam partook in the US-led Rim of Pacific military joint exercise for the first time in 2018, signalling a symbolic step forward in bilateral defence cooperation.

After Biden’s visit, Chinese President Xi Jinping also visited Hanoi in December 2023 to strengthen defence cooperation between China and Vietnam. This partly shows how Vietnam has resolved the conundrum of how to engage in defence cooperation with the United States without angering China.

About the authors:

  • Viet Dung Trinh is a PhD Candidate at the University of Queensland.
  • Huy Hai Do is a Student of International Studies at Hanoi University.

Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum

East Asia Forum

East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centred on the Asia Pacific region. It consists of an online publication and a quarterly magazine, East Asia Forum Quarterly, which aim to provide clear and original analysis from the leading minds in the region and beyond.

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