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Vietnam’s “Four No’s” of defence policy are being tested

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The war in Ukraine has forced Hanoi into a delicate dance between Russia and the United States.

Following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February, there has been ongoing controversy over the response by the Vietnamese government, which has refrained from naming Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war an “invasion”, abstained from the United Nations resolution condemning Russia’s military assault on Ukraine, issued a formal call for restraint from all sides involved, and has recently voted against booting Russia from the Human Rights Council.

Nevertheless, those familiar with Vietnam’s foreign policy may not be surprised by Hanoi’s so-called equivocal response to the Ukraine crisis. Adopting a prudent posture towards international crises so as not to make irreversible mistakes has been a typical feature of Vietnam’s foreign policy. This time, Vietnam has embraced a reluctant stance towards Moscow’s war in Ukraine and strived for a balanced position between Russia – its “comprehensive strategic partner” – and the United States – its increasingly important regional security partner. By neither supporting Russia nor Ukraine, which could eventually denote aligning with the United States, Vietnam has sought to steer clear of engaging in great power politics. It should be noted that, during the Cold War era, Vietnam was the geopolitical victim of the Washington-Moscow-Beijing triangle and bore the costs of leaning towards one side.

Both Russia and the United States are crucially important to Vietnam’s foreign policy and defence calculations. Vietnam needs Russia not only for arms procurement but also for the consolidation of traditional friendships, which proved critical when Vietnam received both diplomatic and military support from the erstwhile Soviet Union. Russia was the first country to establish a “strategic partnership” with Vietnam, in 2001. It also shares “comprehensive strategic partnership” ranking with China and India, and has remained the leading oil and gas exploration partner of Vietnam in the South China Sea.

Meanwhile, Vietnam also values its growing economic and defence ties with Washington, which has repeatedly sought to elevate its relations with Hanoi towards a “strategic partnership” and prioritised security interests over ideological differences. The enhanced bilateral relations that Vietnam has fostered with the United States, especially in the maritime security domain, could serve as a deterrence and send a nuanced message to Chinese leaders in regards to territorial disputes with Hanoi.

Vietnam views both the United States and Russia as important partners when dealing with Beijing’s belligerence in the nation’s surrounding waters. Washington has increasingly offered diplomatic support and security assistance for Hanoi to counter Beijing’s coercion in its disputed seas, while Moscow has quietly backed Hanoi by staying persistent in its oil and gas cooperation with Vietnam in contested waters.

Now Vietnam has sought to maintain and enhance its ties with both old and new partners through the gambit of omni-directional engagement. In seeking to diversify its relations with neighbouring states, traditional diplomatic allies, regional countries and great and middle powers, Vietnam has avoided putting all its eggs in one basket. Adhering to independence, Hanoi has reaffirmed the multilateralism and diversification principles covered within its vision of foreign policy nirvana. Instead of taking sides, Vietnam has further underlined its commitment to “peace, friendship, cooperation and development” in its foreign relations.

Arguably, Vietnam’s particular success in striking a delicate balance between Washington and Moscow has lead to a sense of complacency in Hanoi. Yet Vietnam’s quest for strategic autonomy and its ambiguous position towards Russia’s bloody war in Ukraine cannot last long.

In international security, nations are prone to getting trapped in the dilemma of pursuing pragmatic gains while buttressing international principles. Vietnam’s pragmatic considerations are included in its “Four No’s”: no partaking in military alliances, no siding with one country to act against another, no foreign military bases in the Vietnamese territory or using Vietnam as leverage to counteract other countries, and no using force or threatening to use force in international relations.

As for the Ukraine crisis, Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs underlined the need for all relevant parties to abide by the UN Charter and “basic principles of international law” in “[refraining] from using force” and “[seeking] a peaceful resolution, contributing to the maintenance of peace, security, stability, and cooperation in the region and the world.” All things considered, Vietnam’s official statement hinted at an implicit criticism of Russia’s actions as they violated the principles of the Charter. For the leaders in Hanoi, Vietnam’s official stance has been in line with its foreign policy principles.

But how far could Vietnam walk along the tightrope between Washington and Moscow while protecting its national security interests abroad? The answer depends on Vietnam’s ability to enhance its overarching capacity – which includes a robust economy, a sufficiently strong national defence capability, and expanded international relations as stated in the still classified Vietnam Communist Party’s Resolution 13, issued in 1988.

Vietnam’s proficiency in leveraging its strategic value plays a crucial role in cementing its status among the considerations of great powers. For middle and (especially) small states, allying with one great power against another is not a wise choice, and has the potential to bring no gains but plenty of losses to its national security. Vietnam’s ability to manoeuvre through the ongoing great power politics is being put to the test.

By Huynh Tam Sang – The Interpreter – April 26, 2022

Vietnam’s “Four No’s” of defence policy are being tested
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