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Can Vietnam help america counter China ?

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In the weeks since U.S. President Joe Biden traveled to Hanoi to announce a “comprehensive strategic partnership” with Vietnam, many commentators have described it as a historic turning point in U.S.-Vietnamese relations.

The partnership is the highest kind that Vietnam recognizes with foreign powers, and it has come at a time when the Biden administration is particularly eager to draw Hanoi into its broader Indo-Pacific strategy to counter China. In this reading, by agreeing to elevate the partnership, the Vietnamese government appears to be aligning itself with, or at least tilting toward, U.S. priorities in the region.

The deal was certainly historic. After all, the United States and the communist government of Vietnam, former foes, did not normalize relations until 1995 and have approached each other warily for much of the time since. But their new partnership coincides with growing concerns in Hanoi about Beijing. In recent years, Vietnam has become apprehensive about growing Chinese assertiveness not only in the South China Sea, where it maintains overlapping sovereignty claims with China, but also along the Mekong River, where Chinese dams upstream have created serious food and resource insecurities downstream in Vietnam.

Still, the geopolitical consequences of the new U.S. partnership should not be overstated. For one thing, Hanoi has had close relations with Beijing dating back to the colonial period, when the Chinese Communist Party helped its Vietnamese counterpart oust the French occupiers. Later, China supported Vietnam’s fight against the Americans. To this day, and in spite of overwhelming anti-Chinese sentiment in the Vietnamese People’s Army (VPA) and among the Vietnamese population—borne out of multiple Chinese invasions over the millennia—the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) continues to maintain friendly relations with Beijing. Indeed, since 2008, China has been a comprehensive strategic partner with Vietnam in its own right. Moreover, Vietnam’s long-standing approach of nonalignment has not changed, and the country will almost certainly maintain deep and expansive ties to China and other countries of concern to Washington, namely Russia.

As a result, it is crucial now for Washington to test the extent to which Vietnam is willing to contribute to the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy to counter China and determine the areas in which it can tangibly bolster Hanoi’s economic and military security against its far larger neighbor. As Hanoi’s balancing makes clear, there are some clear limits to the relationship, but also ways for the U.S. and Vietnam to expand their collaboration.


In the fading afterglow of Biden’s September visit to Vietnam, Washington is likely to soon discover the limits of the new partnership. Hanoi will be hesitant to go much further than it has already gone in joining with the United States in countering China. For Hanoi, the elevation of ties to “comprehensive strategic partnership” is more about signaling to China the strength of U.S.-Vietnamese relations than about creating an actual framework for enhanced security cooperation with Washington. Strategic partnership designations simply denote that Vietnam and the partner country share what Vietnamese policy analysts describe as “long-term mutual interests,” and do not necessarily involve the procurement of new military capabilities or additional forms of joint security cooperation. The largely symbolic nature of the designation holds true with all of Vietnam’s other comprehensive strategic partners, including China, India, Russia, and most recently, South Korea (which earned the status in December 2022).

Moreover, Vietnam’s decision to elevate its partnership with the United States must be viewed through the lens of its self-proclaimed “bamboo diplomacy.” Coined by Vietnam’s leader, General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, in 2016, bamboo diplomacy—a firmly rooted yet flexible and resilient approach to international politics—amounts to a hedging strategy that allows the country to navigate a polarized, great power–dominated world without compromising its sovereignty and independence. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, for example, Hanoi has used bamboo diplomacy to preserve relations with Moscow as well as with Kyiv and the West.

Thus, although Hanoi has opposed or abstained on votes criticizing Moscow at the United Nations, the Vietnamese envoy to the UN has also implicitly chastised Russia’s behavior by highlighting the “obsolete doctrines of power politics, the ambition of domination, and the imposition and the use of force in settling international disputes.” Vietnam has also pledged $500,000 of humanitarian assistance to the Ukrainians. And yet, according to a recent report in the New York Times, Vietnam may be negotiating a secret deal with Russia for additional military arms, possibly in contravention of Washington’s Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. The bottom line is that Vietnam’s foreign policy certainly can and does play both sides of international issues to secure its interests.

Bamboo diplomacy has its origins in the failure of Vietnam’s de facto alliance with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. After Hanoi inked the treaty in 1979, the Soviet Union assisted Vietnam in its invasion of neighboring Cambodia to oust the China-supported Khmer Rouge. When Moscow and Beijing in the 1980s began to revitalize their bilateral relations, however, the Soviet Union concurrently reduced its support to Vietnam. After getting burned by their ties with the Kremlin, Vietnamese leaders vowed never to align with any foreign government again. Perhaps the clearest manifestation of this approach is Vietnam’s defense policy, known as Four Nos and One Depend. In its original formulation in 1998, the policy consisted of three things the government prohibited itself from doing: no alliances, no foreign basing on Vietnamese territory, and no alignment with a second country against a third. Then, in November 2019, a fourth prohibition was added: no “using force or threatening to use force in international relations.”

These nos give some sense of the strict limitations that the United States will face in enlisting Vietnam to counter China. The policy’s one depend does allow the government to bend or break the nos, but only if “circumstances and specific conditions” compel it to do so. In other words, taken in the aggregate, Vietnam’s position is clear: it will not align with, threaten, or attack any other country unless its own security is in serious jeopardy. These principles play directly into Hanoi’s dealings with China: the Vietnamese government has always attempted to handle its disputes cordially and productively with Beijing and pledged that it will never be the first to escalate tensions.

Over the past few years, China has increasingly tested Vietnam’s patience. It has menaced Vietnamese fishers in the South China Sea and may be seeking to deploy military forces at a new naval base that China is building at Ream in Cambodia. And it has reduced water flow along the Mekong River through upstream dam construction in China, Cambodia, and Laos. Nonetheless, Vietnam’s leaders have maintained high-level dialogues with Beijing in an attempt to resolve these differences rather than resort to escalatory measures.


The challenge for Washington will be to find ways to work within Vietnamese constraints to make the elevated partnership effective in countering China. As one of several maritime nations opposed to China’s expansive sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, Vietnam could offer the United States ideal geographic proximity to a potential future conflict with Beijing. But any notion that Hanoi would allow the U.S. military to establish bases in Vietnam, as the United States has done with formal allies Australia, Japan, and South Korea, is a nonstarter. It is highly unlikely that the Vietnamese government would even allow the rotational deployment of U.S. troops to its soil—a practice that is routine in the Philippines, a longtime U.S. ally. American defense and military planners will also find it difficult to convince the VPA to engage in joint exercises, whether in the South China Sea or elsewhere, due to Hanoi’s doctrine prohibiting cooperation with one country against another—or giving the perception that it is doing so.

Despite these constraints, the new U.S.-Vietnamese partnership still offers opportunities to deepen and expand ongoing security cooperation. For example, Washington has already been working with Hanoi for years to enhance Vietnam’s maritime domain awareness capabilities to better detect and monitor Chinese activities in the South China Sea. The United States will probably sell more advanced surveillance drones and possibly collaborate on outer space technologies that can provide enhanced awareness of what is happening in the region. When U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin visited Vietnam in July 2021, the two nations quietly signed an agreement to enable limited intelligence and military information sharing. Following the new partnership, this agreement is likely to encompass more information sharing related to China. Other forms of security cooperation, whether in arms sales, aircraft carrier visits, or coast guard trainings, are all likely to grow as trust continues to build between the United States and Vietnam. According to one report, Washington is now considering a major arms sale to Hanoi, to include, for the first time, F-16s.

In their joint announcement of the new comprehensive strategic partnership, Biden and Trong also stressed the need to support the “rapid development” of Vietnam’s chip industry and to strengthen the country’s position in the global semiconductor supply chain. The mention of semiconductors strongly suggests that Washington hopes to enlist Hanoi in its ongoing efforts to redirect this critical global supply chain away from China. In return, the United States has offered Vietnam deeper collaboration on innovative technologies as well as additional investment in strategic sectors like renewable energy.

For now, however, despite these promising economic and technological initiatives, the upgraded relationship offers few, if any, new collaborative opportunities in the security realm. Perhaps new initiatives will emerge over time, or perhaps they have been agreed to in secret, given Vietnamese sensitivities surrounding China. But so far, it looks like the security cooperation between Hanoi and Washington on China may have already gone as far as Vietnam is willing to take it. Indeed, many Vietnamese interlocutors routinely highlight that the United States and Vietnam were already operating at a strategic level when their partnership officially was only at the comprehensive level.

More worrisome, Vietnam over the last few months has seemingly devalued the comprehensive strategic partnership distinction by seeking to add several other countries to the same level all at once. In the past, it took Hanoi years to decide on the elevation of a single country to this form of partnership, and it kept the circle of such partners very small. But along with the United States in September, it added South Korea last year, and has said that it is considering Australia, Indonesia, and Singapore next. Elevating five new countries within such a short period of time would nearly triple the previous number through 2016 of just three such partners (China, India, and Russia). Vietnam may have shifted its process to intentionally downplay the significance of the U.S. upgrade in Beijing’s eyes, or it could be signaling that the comprehensive strategic partnerships are simply not that significant anymore. Either way, the rapid expansion would seem to discount the idea that the new partnership will significantly enhance Hanoi’s commitments to the United States.


Although the United States certainly should not count on Vietnam to help counter China, the fact that Hanoi chose to elevate the partnership is a strong indication of its growing concerns about Beijing’s rising assertiveness. If China becomes more aggressive, it could create new opportunities for Hanoi to strengthen the U.S. relationship. In the South China Sea, for example, Beijing could use its new military bases in the Paracel and Spratly Islands to deploy navy, coast guard, and fishing militia to bully Vietnam into submission. In such a scenario, the Vietnamese could trigger the one depend caveat of their defense policy, which allows Vietnam to align with other nations in order to protect its independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. But unless that happens, the United States will continue to find a cautious and nonaligned Vietnam.

In the meantime, the most important thing the Biden administration can do is continue to build trust with Hanoi. Some members of the VCP continue to harbor lingering suspicions about U.S. intentions, especially party elders who were affected by the Vietnam War. They continue to worry that the United States and its partners in the West could support “peaceful evolution”—a secret process of fomenting democracy in Vietnam and ending the one-party state. Hanoi is also wary of U.S. meddling in its domestic affairs, as, for example, in response to Washington raising concerns, whether publicly or privately, about the more than 160 political prisoners held by Vietnam, or the government’s curbs on freedom of the press, expression, and assembly. Hence, when criticizing Vietnam’s human rights record, it will be especially important for the United States to also continue to voice clearly its respect for Vietnam’s political system—a recognition that serves as the foundation of modern U.S.-Vietnamese relations.

The new partnership can also serve one especially crucial goal: strengthening people-to-people ties between the two countries. For example, Washington is addressing the human legacy of the Vietnam War, namely by removing unexploded ordinance and completing efforts to remediate Agent Orange contamination in the Vietnamese countryside. The United States is investing in projects that will improve the lives of ordinary Vietnamese, such as expanding agricultural trade and sustainability. And it is further boosting bilateral tourism. These are especially welcome steps because over time they will genuinely bring the United States and Vietnam closer together—closer than any official bilateral designation could possibly do. That is what China truly fears.

By Derek Grossman – Foreign Affairs – October 6, 2023

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