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When Kamala Harris landed in Vietnam last week, she had already been upstaged. Only hours before her plane touched down, China’s ambassador to Hanoi met Vietnam’s prime minister to pledge 2m doses of Covid vaccine — a donation double the size Harris was to announce the next day.
Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy is the clearest sign yet of its attempts to slow down the unprecedented rapprochement between Hanoi and Washington.
Almost 50 years after the end of a long and destructive war, Vietnam and the US are entering into an ever deeper security partnership. This has involved American warships visiting Vietnamese ports, their navies exercising together and the US equipping and training Hanoi’s coast guard to better protect its economic interests in the contested South China Sea against Chinese encroachment.
China, which claims the South China Sea almost in its entirety and views the region as its sphere of influence, is pushing back to keep Vietnam neutral. Hanoi has a “Four Noes” policy, whereby it shall have no military alliances, no foreign military bases on its territory, no alignment with any country to counteract another, and no force or threat of using force in international relations. Vietnam’s foreign policy doctrine also states that there is room for co-operation with countries it otherwise struggles with, and that there are contradictory interests even with partners — a concept which calls for balanced relations between China and the US.
But in the face of China’s growing assertiveness, Hanoi has at times been tempted to shift. Tensions started rising in 2014 when China decide to drill for oil in Vietnamese-claimed waters, which led to a violent stand-off at sea. Last year frictions became apparent again when a Vietnamese fishing vessel sank after it was rammed by a Chinese coast guard ship.
“China does not respect a friendly neighbourly relationship and pushes on its claims, so it becomes harder for Vietnam to sustain that very delicate balance,” Huong Le Thu, a senior analyst at ASPI, a think-tank backed by the Australian defence ministry. “There is a limit to the assumption” of Vietnam refraining from alliances in this context, she added.
Hanoi has hinted as much. “Depending on circumstances and specific conditions, Vietnam will consider developing necessary, appropriate defence and military relations with other countries,” the government said in its December 2019 defence white paper.
Beijing has taken note. Chinese diplomats, government officials and analysts frequently stress the potential for co-operation between China and Vietnam, and call on Hanoi to stick to its Four Noes doctrine. In June, China’s trade minister outlined the benefits of strengthening economic exchanges between the two countries.
Beijing also likes to describe Vietnam’s and China’s ruling Communist parties as natural partners sharing ideological values and on the lookout for any US schemes to foment regime change.
The problem for Beijing is the Vietnamese public. Vietnamese are more sceptical of China than any other nation in south-east Asia and their concerns are deepening.
In a survey published earlier this year, 90 per cent of Vietnamese said they were worried about China’s growing economic influence, the highest among all countries in the region, and 92 per cent said they welcomed the US’ influence, again by far the highest among south-east Asian countries. A recent study of Chinese and American public diplomacy efforts found that Vietnamese are much more receptive to US social media narratives than Chinese ones.
But such sentiment is unlikely to carry Vietnam into America’s arms.
“Vietnam is very careful not to allow a complete deterioration in relations with China,” said Lynn Kuok, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore. She believes Vietnam will not upgrade its security relationship with the US to a level it would call ‘strategic’ — the strongest it could be characterised short of an alliance — within the next five years.
The central reason is the economy. Vietnam is more dependent economically on China, its neighbour and largest trading partner, than on the US. Experts say this could change with US re-engagement with TPP, the regional trade deal Donald Trump’s administration withdrew from, as well as efforts to bring more investment to Vietnam as part of a realignment of US supply chains away from China.
“The US has successfully enhanced ties with Vietnam and will continue to be able to do so if it plays its cards right. But there is not much of an economic strategy,” said Kuok. “That weakens the overall US engagement with the region, and they need to fix that.”
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