Vietnam has become the latest focus in the U.S.-China contest for the hearts and minds of Southeast Asian nations.
Now U.S. ally Japan has joined the fray by offering defense cooperation with Vietnam. But this effort is unlikely to go far or deep in drawing Vietnam to the allies’ side. Indeed, Vietnam is China’s to lose.
Both the U.S. and China see Vietnam as a key claimant in the South China Sea. If either can stick and carrot it to their side, they think the rest will follow. This makes Vietnam a critical player.
In late July, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin traveled to Vietnam to bolster the U.S. effort to bring it into a U.S.-led coalition against China.
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit in late August was designed to do much of the same. In her meeting with Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Harris said, “We need to find ways to… raise the pressure… on Beijing to abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and to challenge, its bullying and excessive maritime claims.” She also offered “material and training assistance to enhance its maritime security capacity as well as more visits with U.S. warships.” The highlight of her visit was a U.S. proposal to elevate the relationship from a comprehensive partnership to a strategic partnership. Vietnam has so far demurred.
Harris’ visit was followed by one from Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi. He met with Vietnamese Defense Minister Phan Van Giang and they agreed to an arrangement that Japan will supply Vietnam with military equipment — including naval vessels.
Moreover, they signed an agreement that, according to Kishi, elevated their partnership to “a new level” that will include multinational joint exercises. In his speech in Hanoi, Kishi said Japan and Vietnam “are in the same boat and share the same destiny.” Apparently what he meant was that Japan’s territorial and maritime disputes in the East China Sea with China — and China’s aggressive behavior there — are similar to China’s aggressive behavior toward Vietnam regarding their territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea.
But this is only a superficial similarity. The Vietnam-China relationship is much stronger and deeper than that between Japan and China or that between Vietnam and its not so long ago mortal enemy: the United States. There is little or no commonality of culture, ideology, political system and worldview — other than the China threat — and even that is ephemeral from Vietnam’s standpoint.
Vietnam and China continue to have strong party to party and economic relations and seem to have reached a modus vivendi — albeit shaky and tense — regarding their South China Sea disputes. Moreover, they have recently reaffirmed their agreement to “manage disagreements (and) avoid complicating situations or expanding disputes.”
China has historically and recently been very aggressive against Vietnam in the South China Sea. Indeed, China prevailed in two violent clashes with Vietnam there. It has tried to intimidate foreign oil companies from operating in Vietnam’s claimed Exclusive Economic Zone and continental shelf and uses physical force or the threat thereof to arrest its fishermen around the Paracel Islands that China occupies but Vietnam claims.
Vietnam has tried to respond but it is generally overwhelmed by China’s numbers. Keeping these incidents from getting out of hand is the fact that Vietnam derives great economic benefits from its relationship with China and it will go to the extreme to avoid making its giant neighbor as an across-the-board, long-term enemy.
Indeed, while Vietnam’s position may seem at times to be anti-China, this is likely to be flexible. Indeed, it seems doubtful that Vietnam’s leadership will side long term with the U.S. and its allies. Since the debacle in Afghanistan, the U.S. is increasingly viewed as a declining and unreliable partner. China on the other hand is its permanent neighbor and an inexorably rising regional and world power.
Vietnam’s leaders know well that China will always be there — an unpredictable giant on its northern and maritime borders — while the U.S. and its allies’ presence in the region is comparatively fickle and fleeting.
Moreover, Vietnam is steadfastly nonaligned. Indeed, its long-standing policy is the “three nos” — no participation in military alliances, no foreign military bases on Vietnamese territory and no reliance on one country to fight against another. Despite U.S. — and perhaps Japan’s — hopes, that is not likely to change in the near future. Indeed, the military cooperation approach of the U.S. and Japan to Vietnam is a superficial realist charade that has no roots and can easily change as the strategic situation evolves.
As an example, Kishi and Giang also agreed on the importance of maintaining freedom of navigation and overflight in the Indo-Pacific region. This is of course a reference to the U.S.-led and Japan-supported construct of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” that they claim is endangered by China’s policies and actions.
But Vietnam does not share the core tenet of the U.S. version of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific — unfettered freedom of navigation for warships. Vietnam has long had restrictions for warships to enter its territorial waters — similar to those of China.
In particular, Vietnam has both a territorial sea baseline and a prior notification regime that have been the direct target of U.S. freedom of navigation operations by warships in the recent past. This is not just a clash of legal interpretations and policies regarding “freedom of navigation.” It is symptomatic of the more fundamental strategic mismatch between Vietnam and the U.S. and Japan.
Of course, both the U.S. (and Japan) and Vietnam want to use each other against China. Vietnam hopes that enhanced security relations with the U.S. and Japan will deter China from further “bullying.” The U.S. hopes that its military access to Vietnam’s ports will help support its effort to militarily deter and contain China and maintain its regional hegemony. That is the essence of their “strategic relations.”
But for Vietnam there are clear limits as to how far it can and is willing to go to balance the two. Indeed, as an indication of just how quixotic the U.S.-Japan effort is, immediately before Harris’ visit, Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chin told China’s ambassador to Vietnam that Hanoi does not take sides in foreign policy. This was a warning sign that the U.S. and Japan should not place too much hope in winning over Vietnam in its attempt to build a coalition against China.
Moreover, China has already issued a warning to Vietnam. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told its neighbor “(We should) keep alert to external forces’ interventions and attempts to sow discord.” The timing of Wang’s visit on the heels of that of the U.S. and Japanese envoys suggests it was meant to caution Vietnam about getting too close to the U.S. or Japan, and at the same time to demonstrate to them that Vietnam is firmly and inextricably in the Chinese camp. And that is likely to be where it will stay unless China scores an own goal in its relations with Vietnam.
Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Haikou, China.
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