Vietnam has fought a war with China but it is no friend of the US. Now both are striving to convince Vietnam to “back a winner” and decide the future of the South China Sea.
It’s the only Southeast Asian nation to stand up to Beijing, having stood its ground over everything from Huawei and China’s damming of the Mekong river to fishing and exploration rights off its coast.
And despite a diplomatic “maximum effort” from Washington – including visits by its national security advisor and secretary of state – Hanoi has remained steadfast in its determination to remain “non-aligned”.
But that hasn’t stopped the 97 million-strong Communist nation from becoming a focal point of great-power rivalry.
It is China’s nearest neighbour in the South China Sea – the most hotly contested territory in the world.
And while China’s military might vastly outmatch it, Vietnam has been steadily building up island outpost defences since a short but brutal war in 1979.
That makes Hanoi a regional power.
It makes it a necessary “trip-wire” if Beijing intends to assert its all-encompassing claim militarily.
But if the uneasy neighbours reach some form of “mutually beneficial” accommodation, the balance of power in the region could tip irrevocably in China’s favour.
In April last year, a Chinese coast guard vessel sank a Vietnamese fishing boat near the contested Paracel Islands. A Chinese survey drilling ship was sent into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone. And Beijing self-decreed new administrative areas over fishing grounds Hanoi considers its own.
Then, in January this year, a high-profile tour of ASEAN nations by China’s Foreign Minister pointedly overlooked Vietnam.
Vietnam is no innocent bystander. Like China, it lays claims to “traditional” fishing grounds far from its shores but unlike China, it says it wants such disputes resolved under the International Law of the Sea. But its fishing fleets – like China’s – are struggling.
Vietnamese home waters have been over-exploited. Fishers are travelling further and further afield – crossing into Chinese waters around Hainan Island and pushing deep into Malaysian territory.
Last year, some 141 Vietnam fishermen were detained by Malaysian authorities. Last month, Vietnam and Malaysia agreed on a mutual maritime security agreement to tackle illegal fishing and enhance joint search-and-rescue efforts.
But Vietnam has taken a leaf out of China’s book by establishing its own “fishing militia”, with the goal of “sovereignty protection and economic development”.
In 2019, the commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command visited Vietnam for the first time. Then, as COVID began its relentless march across the world, the USS Theodore Roosevelt and its escorts last year docked at the Vietnamese city of Danang.
It’s not just about thawing relations between Hanoi and Washington in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
As international tensions throughout Southeast Asia approach boiling point, Vietnam’s quietly determined position may hold the key to the balance of power.
The US has been keen to boost military ties.
It has twice invited Vietnam’s small navy to participate in Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) wargames. It has also donated a coast guard cutter to strengthen Hanoi’s policing abilities.
But Vietnam demonstrates little interest in choosing sides.
“While Vietnam’s delicate balancing act is entirely predictable, it is nonetheless disappointing for Washington, and should temper American assessments of the extent to which Hanoi might be willing to play a role in the US Indo-Pacific Strategy to keep the region ‘free and open’ from Chinese coercion,” RAND defence analyst Derek Grossman wrote.
Despite repeated provocations, Vietnam has been consistent in its stance.
It has sent its diplomats to Beijing in protest, voiced opposing opinions through its state-controlled media and has formally raised its concerns through the local council of nations – ASEAN.
Then, in June last year, Vietnam led an ASEAN summit to issue a statement calling for China’s full compliance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
But Western hopes this indicated Vietnam was at last willing to choose sides quickly evaporated.
The three “noes”
When then-US Defence Secretary, James Mattis, visited Vietnam in 2018, he declared the two countries to be “like-minded partners”. But ties have not advanced significantly since then.
This is no surprise, Grossman said. “Since the Soviet Union abandoned its alliance with Vietnam to mend ties with China in 1986, Hanoi has been consistent over decades to avoid repeating the mistake of aligning with one great power against another”.
Vietnam formalised that attitude in 1998 when it embraced a policy of “three noes”: no military alliances, no aligning with one country against another and no foreign military bases on Vietnamese soil.
It’s not an easy policy to enact.
“Recent Chinese assertiveness against Vietnam … have likely forced Vietnamese leaders to review their “struggle” options against China,” Grossman noted.
But it won’t likely involve military or coast guard co-operation, he added.
“Washington should expect Vietnam to continue seeking balance between neighbouring China, which has economic and military superiority over it, and the United States, which can help offset Chinese power. But, to date, Hanoi is fundamentally unwilling to risk ‘co-operation’ with Beijing by forging closer security ties to Washington.”
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel