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Is Vietnam open to Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy?

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A Vietnamese naval soldier stands quard at Thuyen Chai island in the Spratly archipelago, 17 January 2013 (Photo: Reuters/Quang Le).

In Brief

As soon as he took office in 2017, former US president Donald Trump adopted the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy to maintain US influence and presence in the region and restrain China. Trump’s then US secretary of defense James Mattis was instrumental in crafting the strategy.


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In his remarks at APEC in November 2017, Trump affirmed that Vietnam was ‘in the very heart of the Indo-Pacific’. Although Vietnam is yet to officially announce it part of the US-initiated strategy, Hanoi welcomes Washington’s presence in the region as long as it contributes to regional peace and security. Vietnam hosted two visits by US aircraft carriers during the Trump administration.

The Biden administration is likely to keep the FOIP strategy and there are fewer than 150 days until the administration submits its National Security Strategy to Congress. Washington has clearly identified China as its main strategic competitor and emphasised freedom of navigation. There are soundings about upgrading the Quadrilateral Strategic Dialogue (Quad) — an informal group that consists of Japan, Australia, India and the United States — and expanding its membership.

The key question is how Vietnam can engage with Washington’s regional strategy while maintaining a constructive strategic partnership with China, especially since US–China competition remains tense and complex.

Vietnam has the opportunity to enhance its position by upgrading Vietnam–US relations from a comprehensive partnership to a full strategic partnership. Hanoi could be expected to receive more technical support from the United States to enhance its defence capabilities — especially in defence procurement, intelligence sharing, law enforcement and joint military exercises. Washington has already sold Vietnam two Hamilton-class cutters, the second largest ships in the US Coast Guard, as well as other minor US military equipment and technology.

Contents of the FOIP — such as building a rules-based regional order, promoting freedom of navigation, building open infrastructure, and securing open trade and investment — are all compatible with the strategic interests of Vietnam and other ASEAN member states.

Hanoi is interested in maintaining a rules-based regional order and a regional security architecture free from domination by any single major power. Besides, participating in Washington’s initiative alongside US allies such as Japan, Australia and India will strengthen Vietnam’s negotiating position with China, especially in the South China Sea.

But Vietnam may also face challenges going down this path. The first is the dilemma posed by tense relations between the United States and China. In promoting FOIP, Washington will entice Vietnam into the ranks of its anti-China coalition, forcing Vietnam to risk taking sides. If not handled carefully, this might offend China, a neighbouring power with a long history of relations with Vietnam.

Second, the deployment of US military assets and the increased presence of US military personnel might lead to a new regional arms race. China has already increased its military presence in the disputed waters in the South China Sea, most notably through the militarisation of artificial islands. Beijing recently passed the Coast Guard Law, authorising the use of armed force and the destruction of foreign structures in the South China Sea in waters ‘under China’s jurisdiction’.

Military confrontation between China and the United States presents a critical threat to regional security because, like many other Southeast Asian states, Vietnam is sandwiched between the two competing powers. Neither Vietnam nor its neighbours are interested in taking sides, so Vietnam must be cautious and avoid officially participating in Washington’s FOIP — doing so might violate Hanoi’s core principle of not aligning with one country against the other. But there are four ways Vietnam can still prudently participate in the strategy.

First, Hanoi could proactively engage with Quad members to better understand their intentions and concrete action plans so that Vietnam and other ASEAN member states can carve out their own roles. ASEAN’s own version of the FOIP called the ‘ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific‘, delivered in 2019, reinforces its strategic autonomy.

Second, Vietnam could actively take advantage of the FOIP’s economic, commercial and investment interests by participating in infrastructure development projects. The United States, Japan and Australia have already initiated a quality infrastructure strategy, rolling out various projects in the region.

Third, Hanoi could take advantage of capacity building projects in defence-security cooperation. These include defence equipment procurement, intelligence sharing, cyber security cooperation, defence industry collaboration, the exchange of military medicines and the pooling of law enforcement capacity at sea.

Fourth, Vietnam could actively promote the rules-based international order, freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, as well as strengthen multilateral forums to achieve common strategic interests, especially with regard to maintaining good order at sea.

Although Vietnam wants to avoid taking sides in the growing strategic competition between the United States and China, there are prudent ways in which it can engage with Washington’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy without undermining its own geopolitical interests.

Lt Col Nguyen Huu Tuc is a PhD candidate at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vietnam National University, Hanoi, and a researcher at the Institute for Defence International Relations, Ministry of Defence of Vietnam.

All views expressed in this article are entirely the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of any institution or organisation.

2 responses to “Is Vietnam open to Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy?”

  1. This piece perpetuates the myth that Vietnam supports the core tenet of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”—unfettered freedom of navigation. 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) with 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 naturally above water at high tide and presumably opposes their militarization just as it does those occupied by China. This clash of legal interpretations and policies regarding “freedom of navigation” is symptomatic of the more fundamental strategic mismatch between the two.

    Of course both want to use each other against China. That is the end all and be all of their “strategic relations”. Vietnam supports the presence of the U.S. Navy “as long as it contributes to peace and stability” – meaning as long as it deters China from ‘bullying’ it.

    Vietnam is simply being opportunistic. Its warming to its former enemy is driven by self-interest and will last just as long as it is needed. There is no alignment of fundamental interests with the U.S.—other than to contain China– and really very little coincidence of values between its Communist authoritarian system and that of the liberal democratic U.S. 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. That is not likely to change significantly.

    Vietnam’s pandering to a mortal enemy that has yet to fully atone for what many consider its racially motivated atrocities during the war, is disingenuous, distasteful and unworthy. It demonstrates a lack of understanding of US strategy for the region as well as disrespect for the millions of Vietnamese who suffered and died to reject and eject US ideological and political influence. As Vietnam’s leaders should well know, 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.

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

    Mark J. Valencia
    National Institute for South China Sea Studies
    Haikou, China

  2. For decades, ASEAN leaders and other Western and Asian nations have tried diplomacy, bilateral negotiation, multilateral negotiation, the United Nations and Article 88 of UNCLOS, international arbitration courts, and rule of law to try to reason with China.

    While the world has talked, China has acted. They staked out, then built artificial islands in seas that do not belong to it. They then militarized these islands with fighter jets and cruise missiles. And they have now sent their navy, coast guard and militias to control these waters.

    They have done all this after their Xi and their leaders have said “China does not intend to pursue militarization” or China would not “target or impact any country” or China does not believe in “escalation of tensions”.

    In other words, the Chinese Government has pursued a course that is the exact opposite of its public statements. China now controls the fisheries and oil resources in territory that belongs to Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and others. These countries cannot share these resources because China has unilaterally, and with force, taken them.

    The world has tried reason, diplomacy and rule of law. China has ignored all of it.

    It is now time for:
    1) International naval and aerial blockade of illegal Chinese outposts
    2) International naval blockade of Chinese militia boats, fishing boats and coast guard that are illegally patrolling and threatening other vessels in international waters.
    3) If these steps fail to alter China policy, military action and destruction of the illegal outposts.

    These are terrible options that will likely result in loss of life, conflict and temporary instability. It would be far preferable if China would show itself to be a strong and capable global leader through its respect of international law, diplomacy, and neighboring nations.

    Sadly , it appears China’s actions and statements leave little room for any other course of action. Just as in 1979 in its failed attempt to invade Vietnam, force may be the only way for China to understand that it can push only so far before the world of nations pushes back.

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