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The careful balancing act of Vietnam’s bamboo diplomacy

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The Vietnam–China relationship has not been in good shape in the last decade. So it was a surprise when Nguyen Phu Trong, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, became the first foreign leader to visit China after the historic 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party.

Trong’s visit seemed to disappoint a few keen observers who believe this does not bode well for Hanoi’s apparent pivot to the United States.

Yet from a broader perspective, Trong’s visit is a careful hedging act that reflects the complexity of Vietnam’s internal politics and external geopolitical environment. Given the economic dependency, security concerns and ideological links between Vietnam and China, Hanoi’s attitude towards its big neighbour is more complex than the binary view often held by the West. Vietnam remains somewhere between a frontline state in the Indo-Pacific for the United States and a well-behaved comrade for China.

Like other regional states, it makes a lot of economic sense for Vietnam to maintain a good relationship with China. China is Vietnam’s biggest trade partner and has been a major enabler of its export boom. Even though Hanoi has also greatly benefitted from trading with the West, there are no immediate prospects of Vietnam exiting China’s economic orbit.

While the United States and the European Union remain Vietnam’s biggest export markets, China imports most of the country’s agricultural products. In early 2022, Vietnamese farmers suffered a huge blow when the Chinese border closed due to COVID-19 restrictions. Vietnam is also enmeshed in a China-led production network where its manufacturing sector depends considerably on Chinese inputs and components.

China’s zero-COVID-19 policy is continuing to affect Vietnamese consumer markets and manufacturing industries. Indeed, one of Trong’s key goals during his visit was to guarantee a promise from Beijing of undisrupted supply chains and smooth export routes.

Although the Belt and Road Initiative does not enjoy the same popularity in Vietnam as in other Southeast Asian countries, Chinese investments in different forms contribute significantly to its growing economy. Most of Vietnam’s engineering, procurement and construction projects come from Chinese contractors. Chinese funding accounted for more than half of the total funding to Vietnam’s coal-fired electricity projects before Beijing stopped funding coal power overseas in 2021. China also remains a key player in Vietnam’s renewable energy transition, although Washington has also promised to support Hanoi’s climate change adaptation goals.

Beyond the economic sphere, the two countries share a complex history. China was the first country to recognise communist Vietnam in 1950 and played an instrumental role in Hanoi’s wars of independence against France and the United States. But Vietnam’s most recent war was against China — a brief yet bloody border conflict in 1979.

China currently is the reason for most of Hanoi’s headaches — from conventional military threats on its northern border to maritime disputes in the South China Sea and concerns over Beijing’s push for influence in Cambodia and Laos. Non-conventional threats to the Mekong’s mainstream dams and Hanoi’s economic over-reliance on Beijing also pose concerns.

Being suspicious of China is a major feature of Vietnamese identity. For example, there is only one Confucius Institute in Vietnam, compared with the 14 in Australia and 23 in Thailand. It is also no coincidence that Hanoi’s rapprochement with the West began after the Hai Yang Shi You 981 standoff in 2014 when a giant Chinese oil rig moved into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone.

Yet facing the same threat does not necessarily make Vietnam more Western-friendly, particularly when ideological factors are taken into account. Vietnam’s self-proclaimed socialist-oriented model has no parallel except China. Like Beijing, Hanoi’s worst fear is to be overthrown in a ‘colour revolution’ instigated by foreign powers. The schism within human rights remains the biggest barrier in Vietnam’s relations with Western countries, despite various dialogue attempts.

In the same way Hanoi viewed the Soviet Union as a model in the Cold War, Vietnamese communist rulers have been consistently adopting Chinese-style governance practices. This includes the recent tightening of internet and civil society controls, the persistent ‘blazing furnace’ anti-corruption campaign and the desire to build a strong state-led economy.

Many of these practices contradict Hanoi’s various commitments to developing closer ties with the West. This is where observers need to distinguish the three layers of Vietnamese attitudes towards China. Beijing is simultaneously a ‘big brother’ comrade of the Vietnamese Communist Party, a difficult partner of the Vietnamese state and a hostile nation to the public. The Vietnamese population will not tolerate a China-friendly regime, yet being too distant from Beijing will not do any good for the country in strategic and economic terms.

Hanoi will continue to walk a tightrope between the superpowers, attempting to extract economic benefits from both China and the United States to enlarge and strengthen its network of friends and partners. While the United States is particularly important to counter-balance China’s hegemonic ambitions, Vietnam will also borrow tactics from Beijing’s playbook to hedge off pressures to democratise. But as great power competition intensifies, Vietnam’s bamboo diplomacy will become increasingly difficult to maintain.

By Nguyen Khac Giang  – EastAsiaForum.org – December 23, 2022

The careful balancing act of Vietnam’s bamboo diplomacy
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