Infos Viêt Nam

Vietnam’s rising stature : Chinese palpable nervousness

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The year 2020 has witnessed substantial raise in the Vietnamese stature in the region and also at the international platform. Vietnam witnessed high level visits recently. Japanese PM Suga’s first foreign visit after taking over was to Vietnam.

His predecessor Abe also made his first foreign trip to Vietnam. Recently US Secretary of State Pompeo wrapped up his South East Asian tour in Vietnam.

Japanese PM’s visit was of strategic importance. During his visit, 12 cooperation documents between ministries, branches and enterprises of the two countries in many fields such as infrastructure, energy and digital with a total value of about $ 4 billion. Both nations agreed to promote cooperation in the fields of defence, security, trade and prevention of COVID-19. This would significantly help in building Vietnam’s defence capabilities and industrial development. Earlier the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) had signed with the Vietnam Government an agreement to provide Japanese ODA loans of $347 million for the project to help Vietnam increase maritime security and safety capacity. Within this framework, the Vietnam Coast Guard will be financially supported to build 6 patrol vessels to strengthen its maritime security agency.

Vietnam is emerging as a favourite destination for the Japanese manufacturing firms, who intend to shift their operations from China. In August the then Japanese PM Abe, observing that half of the Japanese businesses that receive support from the Government in expanding supply chains had chosen Vietnam, assured Vietnam of his government’s assistance to such firms for diversifying supply chains.

Crucially both Japanese PM Suga and Vietnamese PM Phuc reaffirmed the importance of ensuring peace, security, safety and maritime and aviation freedom in the East Sea (SCS); promoting the settlement of disputes by peaceful measures; and strictly complying with international laws, especially the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in activities at sea.

The purpose of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit was to boost the US-Vietnamese cooperation, especially in trade and security in the SCS and more broadly in the Indo-Pacific region. He underscored support for the sovereignty of Southeast Asian nations, international law, and a free and open Indo-Pacific. The State Department issued a statement on the day of Pompeo’s visit, “the US respects Vietnam’s rights and interests and seek to preserve peace and uphold freedom of the seas in a manner consistent with international law and that US stands with our Indo-Pacific allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources in the South China Sea, consistent with their rights and obligations under international law”.
In essence, both the visits not only indicated the deepening of relations of Japan and US with Vietnam but also suggested that Vietnam is going to play an important part in shaping the world order by supporting the free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific. It was also an acknowledgement that Vietnamese leadership can carry with it the ASEAN and can be invaluable in containing the Chinese bullying approach. There is no doubt, if the strategic balance is to be maintained based on multipolarity and rule of law, Vietnam’s centrality is imperative.

There are a number of factors responsible for Vietnam’s emergence as an important nation. First, Vietnam has firmly faced the Chinese belligerence for decades. It fought with China though a small country with limited resources as compared to China. It is the strongest challenger of the Chinese claim over the nine-dashed-line in the SCS. It stiffly resists the Chinese encroachment in its EEZ. These have earned admiration of not only regional countries but also of external powers. Without Vietnam’s strong opposition to the Chinese claim in the SCS, China would have succeeded to a great extent in turning it into its lake. Second, its economic development has been impressive. Even during the pandemic period, it registered economic growth and its economic growth in 2021 is expected to be 6.8%. Third, Vietnam has served remarkably as the ASEAN chair and demonstrated its strong and constructive leadership. Despite the Chinese attempts to keep ASEAN divided, this year as Vietnam as the ASEAN chair succeeded in issuing a Joint Statement, without the use of terms like “some leaders” and “some ministers” to express the concerns over the Chinese aggressive activities like in the past.

Fourth, Vietnam’s role as the Non-Permanent Member of UNSC has also been impressive. As the President in the first month, it presided a number of important meetings to discuss security issues in the Middle East, Syria, Colombia, the Central African Republic and West Africa. Vietnam as the President successfully hosted two important meetings on the observance of the UN Charter and cooperation between the UN/UN Security Council and ASEAN. Vietnam chaired a ministerial-level open debate on January 10, 2020 themed “Maintenance of international peace and security: upholding the UN Charter”. In the meeting, Vietnam emphasised the importance of the UN Charter, international law and fundamental principles of respecting national sovereignty and territorial integrity of countries, preventing the use or threat to the use of force and settling disputes by peaceful means. The second meeting initiated a process of consultations between UNSC and ASEAN.

Fifth, Vietnam took a number of steps to deal with the pandemic both domestically and abroad. It admirably dealt with the pandemic in the country resulting in negligible fatalities. It drew attention to the risks of this virus and called for regional and international cooperation early in February. In April, Vietnam organised the online Special ASEAN+3 Summit on the COVID-19 response. The countries agreed to exchange experience and support each other with medical supplies. Vietnam participated in several international virtual meetings and shared its experience and proposed measures to deal with the pandemic. Vietnam also supplied the much-needed medical equipment and protective gears not only in the region but beyond in Asia, Europe, US and South America. It emerged as an effective disease control model.

The rise in Vietnam’s stature is also due to its ability to engage different poles while protecting its sovereignty and economic interests. It has maintained excellent relations within the region as also out of the region. It has close relations with India, Russia. EU and US. It has also maintained close relations with China while resisting its aggressive acts.

Vietnam’s rising stature has caused nervousness in China as reflected in the Global Times. Quoting Qian Feng, the director of the research department at the National Strategy Institute of Tsinghua University in Beijing it said that Pompeo’s Vietnam tour suggested that Washington hoped to win the country to its side to encircle China in the SCS. It further said that Vietnam hoped to use US momentum as a bargaining chip to support itself in the SCS. Reflecting the discomfort, the article said that Vietnam’s discordant voice is no substitute for ASEAN as a whole. It reflects China’s growing worry over Vietnam’s likelihood of joining the Quad to form a stronger “global anti-China alliance”. China views every development through the prism of China-US rivalry, ignoring the global opposition of its hegemonic policy.

Given the Chinese expansionist approach, Vietnam would continue to face serious challenges. To deal with them, Vietnam would have to take suitable measures along with other countries. A well-coordinated strategy should be worked out for early implementation of free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific to have a rule-based order. The Quad nations are interested in having Vietnam with them. They perceive that such a step would act as a force multiplier to contain China and actualisation of the Indo-Pacific strategy. Alongside, the implementation of the PCA Ruling should be pressed as most nations support it.

By SD Pradhan – The Times of India – November 4, 2020

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