A Tipping Point in the US-China-Vietnam Triangle

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A Tipping Point in the US-China-Vietnam Triangle

A visit to Washington by Vietnam’s general secretary this week underscores a major shift.

A Tipping Point in the US-China-Vietnam Triangle
Credit: REUTERS/Luong Thai Linh/Pool

From July 6 to July 10, the United States will host the first-ever visit by a Communist Party chief from Vietnam. When President Barack Obama meets with General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong in the White House on July 7, the two leaders will take a major step forward in the quiet yet profound shift that is changing the game both in the U.S.-China-Vietnam triangle and in Vietnam’s domestic politics.

According to Vietnamese sources, the visit is expected to result in a “joint vision statement” that will upgrade Washington and Hanoi’s two-year old “comprehensive partnership” to an “extensive comprehensive partnership.” While this new label falls short of the “strategic partnership” that both sides have been seeking for years, the spirit Trong’s trip conveys and the level of mutual trust it reflects will elevate U.S.-Vietnam ties to a new plateau, one where an informal strategic alliance is not just theoretically imaginable but politically possible.

The significance of Trong’s visit lies more in what it means than in what it says. For the United States, it means that the strategic gains from a close and strong relationship with Vietnam have outweighed the strategic costs of provoking China and the political costs of befriending a communist regime.

For Vietnam, the trip will boost the communist regime’s legitimacy, but at the same time, the friendship with America will have political and strategic ramifications. It will affect the balance of power among the country’s elites in favor of the reformers at the expense of the conservatives, and it will irritate China. Trong’s trip means that the reformers are on the rise and the conservatives in decline. It also means that Hanoi has reached the limits of its engagement with Beijing and is now trying to reach out to Washington to broaden its options.

But these changes in strategic outlook and domestic politics tell only one, albeit large, part of the story. To make Trong’s trip happen, the mutual trust between Hanoi and Washington had to be high enough to allay the fears of risks associated with any new venture – Trong is known to be fairly risk-averse.

The path leading to this tipping point has been far from direct. It reflects a cautious approach in Hanoi’s relations with Washington and a turning point in Hanoi’s relations with Beijing. The story began in July 2012, when then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with General Secretary Trong in Hanoi and invited him to visit the United States. The United States hoped at that time that the trip would be made the next year.

But the Vietnamese had their own way of doing things. An exploratory trip by the head of the Communist Party’s External Relations Department was delayed until December 2012. The next year, as history has it, President Truong Tan Sang came to Washington to launch the U.S.-Vietnam comprehensive partnership with U.S. President Barack Obama.

In the summer of 2014, China’s unilateral deployment of a giant drilling rig into waters Vietnam regards as its EEZ proved to be a litmus test and a game changer. It helped the Vietnamese to see China as a security threat and the United States as a best friend. In fact, during that incident Washington was the most robust in speaking out against China and the strongest in support of Vietnam. After the incident, some members of the Vietnamese National Assembly called China an invader and an enemy, breaking a taboo that had been in place for more than two decades since the renormalization of Sino-Vietnamese relations in 1991.

The oil rig incident both accelerated preparations for Trong’s trip and gave it a new mission. When the rig was in the contested waters, Vietnam decided to dispatch Hanoi City’s Communist Party chief Pham Quang Nghi, a member of the powerful Politburo and a confidant of the general secretary, to the United States. In 2013, Nghi was reportedly nominated by Trong to succeed him at the next Party Congress. Like Trong, Nghi was a party boss without any formal government position. But Vietnam insisted that Nghi would go before Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, who was invited by Secretary of State John Kerry during the oil rig crisis but who was not a Politburo member. Nghi actually traveled on the heels of China’s removal of the oil rig.

Between Nghi’s July 2014 and Trong’s July 2015 journeys, there were two other trips that paved the way for the latter in two different ways. The first was a preparatory trip to the United States by Public Security Minister Tran Dai Quang in March 2015. The second was Trong’s own visit to China in April. While Trong’s trip to China was reportedly done on Beijing’s initiative, Hanoi played the Chinese game very well. Trong’s entourage had four members of the Politburo, a record number. In his previous visit to China, also his first as Party chief, there were three Politburo members to escort the general secretary. (Ironically, but illustratively for the Sino-Vietnamese relationship, this 2011 trip was also a fence-mending one after China’s patrol boats cut the cables of a Vietnamese oil exploration ship and Hanoi allowed 11 anti-China protests to happen afterwards.)

Although both China and Vietnam have tried to repair their damaged relationship, Sino-Vietnamese relations have passed the point of no return. According to reports by the Vietnamese media, Trong and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed during the April visit that the two countries’ behavior in the South China Sea had substantially undermined their strategic trust and that both countries need to match their words with deeds.

In the wake of this agreement to disagree, Vietnam’s perceptions of friends and foes have changed decisively. Vietnam and the United States now trust each other far more than either trusts China. According to Vietnam’s chief defense diplomat, Gen. Nguyen Chi Vinh, the United States and Vietnam no longer see the other side as an enemy and are committed to respect each other’s strategic interests. He also believes that the United States will not bring war to Vietnam. This represents an enormous shift in the Vietnamese military’s perceptions of threats and of the United States. Less than three years ago, in December 2012, Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh and the military’s chief political commissar Ngo Xuan Lich still warned about American intentions, claiming that “when the opportunity arises, they will be ready to launch an invasion war using high-tech weapons.”

As I have argued in The Diplomat previously, recent years have seen a gradual but immense transformation in the nature of the U.S.-Vietnam relationship. Trong’s visit to the United States will underscore just how far this transformation has come. According to Vietnamese sources, Trong will travel with two other Politburo members, Ho Chi Minh City Communist Party boss Le Thanh Hai and National Assembly Vice Chairwoman Tong Thi Phong. This number speaks volumes about the new U.S.-Vietnam partnership. Trong’s past trips to Vietnam’s closest friends Laos, Cuba, and Russia had only one Politburo member in the general secretary’s entourage.

While the HD-981 oil rig crisis was a game changer in Sino-Vietnamese relations, the shift that it caused had been fed constantly since the late 2000s by China’s increasingly assertive actions in the South China Sea. Should the oil rig not have been moved to Vietnam’s EEZ, another event would have caused the turning point in Vietnamese foreign policy. China’s artificial island building, which started in the same year, is one candidate.

The new tendency is not only pushing Vietnam away from the Chinese orbit; it is also moving Hanoi to a position of equidistance between Beijing and Washington. And it is opening up the possibility that Vietnam will continue to veer closer to the United States. This has been unthinkable until now.

China has already responded to this shift. In its new approach, cooperative elements are highlighted while the coercive elements are more refined. In April, Beijing gave Trong a lavish welcome that went beyond the reception the Vietnamese can expect to receive in the United States. Tapping Vietnamese deference to China and hunger for finance, Beijing offered a large package of projects that would tighten Vietnam’s economic dependence on China. In May, China initiated an unprecedented meeting of the two ministers of defense right at the land border. At the same time, Beijing continued to raise the stakes in the South China Sea by speeding up its building program in the Spratly Islands. About a week before Trong’s trip to the United States, China also moved the same drilling rig that triggered the 2014 crisis to a sensitive area near the Vietnamese coast, probably to remind the Vietnamese of its power and proximity.

The new coziness between Hanoi and Washington will also change the political atmosphere in Vietnam. It will broaden the freedom of action available to modernizers both within and outside the ruling elites. Anti-Westerners, who dominated Vietnamese politics until 2006, will now be in decline. The effects of the new developments on the third camp of elites in Vietnamese politics, the rent-seekers, are mixed. On the one hand, the turn to the West and the United States will put pressure on Hanoi to further liberalize the economy and society. This will make life for rent-seekers harder than before. On the other hand, the increased assistance and capital flows from Japan, South Korea, and the United States are loosening the safety valve on the crisis-prone Vietnamese economy, making life easier for rent-seekers, who are the largest group in the ruling elites.

Otto von Bismarck has once remarked, “Politics is the art of the possible.” But ambition can also bring the impossible into play. Beijing’s ambition to turn the South China Sea into a Chinese lake has taken some things that once seemed impossible and made them appear possible. Once archenemies, Vietnam and the United States are now poised to become informal strategic allies. This in turn is creating an entirely new dynamic in the triangular U.S.-China-Vietnam relationship, and will have a lasting impact on the future of Vietnam.

Alexander L. Vuving is an Associate Professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect those of the Asia-Pacific Center, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.