The first Australia-Vietnam Joint Foreign Affairs Defense Strategic Dialogue, held in Canberra late last month, underscored the degree to which Vietnam is seeking to establish a closer relationship with Australia, especially in the area of military affairs.
This is a strategically meaningful move for Vietnam against a backdrop of increasing tensions in the South China Sea, where China has become more aggressive in asserting its claims. Faced with a far more powerful neighbor, Vietnam has faced a dilemma – it can’t afford a hostile relationship with Beijing, but it also won’t sacrifice national sovereignty and territorial integrity in exchange for a “good” relationship with China. As a result, Vietnam has been reaching out to foreign powers in an attempt to at least deter Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, if not balance against its broader regional dominance.
The United States is undoubtedly one of Vietnam’s preferred foreign partners, and despite past hostilities, it has been keen on fostering stronger ties with the United States in all fields. Indeed, Vietnam has even indicated its desire to acquire U.S. weapons and military equipment, although its human rights record is seen as a sticking point in Washington. Still, with the United States pivoting to the Asia-Pacific, a stronger U.S.-Vietnam relationship would most likely put unwanted strain on Vietnam’s already tense relations with China.
And tensions with China are nothing new. Around this time in 1979, then-U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski reportedly remarked after his meeting with Deng Xiaoping that “China said they will teach Vietnam a lesson. I say it will be an entire curriculum.” It was a prediction that ended up coming true. Aside from maintaining incessant shelling and other armed harassment as part of a “phony war” along the Sino-Vietnamese border in the 1980s, China also pursued a policy of isolating Vietnam diplomatically and providing aid to the Khmer Rouge’s efforts to “bleed Vietnam white.” Vietnam’s attempts to break out of its diplomatic isolation and pursue domestic development during the 1980s were also largely unsuccessful due to Chinese obstruction.
China initially claimed that it decided to teach Vietnam a lesson because Vietnam had earlier intervened militarily in Cambodia. However, it later turned out that it was Vietnam’s entry into an alliance with the Soviet Union that was the most important reason behind China’s decision to invade Vietnam. Things have changed since then, of course, and a Chinese invasion of Vietnam seems unlikely – it’s simply not in China’s interests to try this. But China may take a “my enemy’s friend is my enemy” approach to Vietnam if it is seen cozying up too closely to the United States.
This is why it is understandable that Vietnam is instead emphasizing promoting relations with middle powers like Australia. For a start, Beijing tends to be less sensitive to changes in Vietnam’s relationship with countries like Australia than is the case over relations with the United States. In addition, there are genuine benefits for Vietnam in developing such relations. For example, Australia, India and Japan have all voiced their support for freedom of navigation and the peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea, indirectly repudiating China’s sweeping claims. And while the United States may be unwilling to approve arms sales to Vietnam, there is talk of Hanoi approaching India for missile sales. Australia, meanwhile, has also been providing training programs for Vietnamese military staff.
As a middle power that is seeking to enhance its role in the Asia-Pacific region, Australia is a particularly useful partner for Vietnam, and Canberra’s interests apparently dovetail nicely with Vietnam’s judging by its recent agreement to host more U.S. troops. Indeed, that move indicated that Australia might be able to play a significant role in constraining China’s ambitions in the region.
Stronger and friendlier ties with Australia, a longstanding ally of the United States, also have the potential to lay the groundwork for closer military ties between the U.S. and Vietnam. In the meantime, though, there are still numerous areas for cooperation that the two countries can explore, such as intensifying strategic study and intelligence exchange, promoting humanitarian aid, disaster rescue, or exchanging experiences in peacekeeping and maritime security.
Given the current state of Sino-U.S. relations, now seems the right time for Vietnam to take the opportunity to further foster relations with Australia and other regional middle powers to provide an alternative option for managing China’s rise.
Le Hong Hiep is a lecturer at the Faculty of International Relations, College of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vietnam National University – Ho Chi Minh City.