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

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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.

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.

By Nguyen Huu Tuc – East Asia Forum – March 4, 2021

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