Why Vietnam’s Foreign Policy Won’t Change After Its Party Congress

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Why Vietnam’s Foreign Policy Won’t Change After Its Party Congress

Exploring myths and misconceptions regarding Vietnam’s approach to China and the United States.

Why Vietnam’s Foreign Policy Won’t Change After Its Party Congress
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Central Committee of the Vietnam Communist Party (VCP) is poised to hold its thirteenth plenary session this month. According to informed insiders, this will be crunch time for selecting candidates for Vietnam’s top leadership posts – party secretary general, state president, prime minister, and chair of the National Assembly.

Once the plenum concludes, preparations for the twelfth national party congress, reportedly scheduled for January 7-9, will go into high gear. There are an unprecedented number of individuals vying for these top posts. Although there is uncertainty as to who will be the next party leader, political insiders predict there will be no major changes in Vietnam’s foreign policy and relations with the major powers.

Two recent reports offer contrasting views of Vietnam’s relations with China and the United States in the coming years. The first report, written by Joshua Kurlantzick for the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, is entitled “A China-Vietnam Military Clash.” This report was summarized in The Diplomat.

The second report was authored by veteran BBC journalist Bill Hayton for the United States Studies Center at the University of Sydney’s Emerging U.S. Security Partnerships in South-East Asia project. It is entitled, “Vietnam and the United States: An Emerging Security Partnership.”

According to Kurlantzick:

The risk of a military confrontation between China and Vietnam is rising… growing sources of friction could lead to a serious military confrontation between the two countries in the next twelve to eighteen months, with potentially serious consequences for the United States.

Hayton, in contrast, notes that although bilateral relations have been frayed by disputes in the South China Sea, leaders in both Vietnam and China have “quarantined” them from their overall relationship. Hayton concludes by noting that in 2015, relations between China and Vietnam were calm, with both sides managing public opinion. In addition “trade continues to boom and tourist arrivals, suspended during the 2014 crisis, are back up.”

Kurlantzick’s study explores three potential scenarios that could lead to a military clash between China and Vietnam  – escalation of tensions in the South China Sea, a shooting incident along the land border, and unintended naval or air interactions arising from military exercises between Vietnam and its new strategic partners.

While the potential for a military clash between China and Vietnam cannot be discounted entirely, the evidence advanced by Kurlantzick is not persuasive.

For example, in his first scenario Kurlantzick points to the deployment of oil drilling platforms in disputed waters, ship ramming incidents, and tit-for-tat “land reclamation” as potential triggers for conflict.

There have been only two major incidents involving the deployment of oil drilling platforms, one in the late 1990s and the other in 2014. Vietnam deployed military vessels during the first incident but both sides quickly defused the situation. The 2014 stand-off demonstrated restraint by both sides. Vietnam let it be known publicly that it would not deploy military vessels and China held its navy ships in reserve.

Hayton opines that if China placed an oil rig or quasi-military structure on Vanguard Bank, “Vietnam would probably be compelled to take dramatic action.” In contrast to Kurlantzick, Hayton concludes that this hypothetical scenario “is highly unlikely to take the form of military confrontation. The object would be to oblige China to retreat without rupturing relations.”

Ship ramming and the use of high-powered water cannons quickly became a stylized form of confrontation that was kept controlled by both sides in 2014. Over the last half-decade there have been a number of reports that Vietnamese civilian maritime law enforcement vessels may have rammed Chinese fishing boats (and vice versa).

The Vietnamese media recently reported several incidents of Chinese harassment of Vietnamese civilian vessels bringing supplies to personnel on Truong Sa and Song Tu Tay islands. The most serious incident took place on November 13 when a Chinese warship unsheathed its 37mm gun and pointed it at the Vietnamese supply vessel while ten uniformed personnel armed with assault rifles took aim. The Vietnamese supply vessel retreated.

A spokesperson for Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared that “Vietnam vehemently opposes the use or threat to use force against its vessels.” Kurlantzick argues that this type of press conference “should be seen as a general sign of rising bilateral tensions.” These incidents, however, have been relatively isolated affairs and statements by Vietnamese officials should be viewed as a ritualized stock response.

Kurlantzick’s assertion that “Vietnam has responded forcefully” to Chinese “land reclamation” by initiating its own “land reclamation” is not accurate. According to Mira Rapp-Hooper, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, Vietnam likely began its land reclamation before China began its own projects last year. Vietnam’s “land reclamation” has been very modest indeed and shows no sign of being part of an action-reaction cycle.

Kurlantzick’s second scenario is similarly questionable. He claims that, “the China-Vietnam land border has become increasingly tense as security forces on both sides have traded fire at least twice in 2014 and 2015.” He quickly admits that “the reasons for these incidents remain unclear.” Precisely. During the May stand-off over China’s deployment of the HD 981 oil platform in disputed waters, long queues formed at the China-Vietnam border as porters carried in-season lychees for sale in Chinese markets. The Sino-Vietnam border is stable and there have been no recent signs of tension of the type suggested by Kurlantzick.

Kurlantzick’s third scenario — unintended interactions involving military exercises between Vietnam and its new strategic partners — misrepresents actual developments. Vietnam has not and is unlikely to engage in military exercises — strictly defined an as exchange of combat skills — with its strategic partners.

Kurlantzick’s use of the term “strategic partners” skews its meaning well beyond what Vietnam and its strategic partners understand by this term.

Kurlantzick also includes Vietnam’s strategic partnerships among his four strategic early warning indicators of likely conflict. For example, he states that Vietnam’s announcement of a strategic partnership with another Asian nation “should be seen as a potential sign of rising tensions between Beijing and Hanoi.”

Vietnam’s strategic partnerships are not defense or military agreements. They are comprehensive, multifaceted documents that include political, diplomatic, economic, science and technology, cultural, and people-to-people cooperation. They all include a brief paragraph on defense and security cooperation involving high-level visits, information exchanges, port visits, and the like.

Both China and Vietnam have concluded strategic partnership agreements with the same countries. Indonesia is a prime example.

Vietnam conducts naval engagement activities – as opposed to military exercises – with the United States, such as executing the voluntary Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea. Vietnam also conducts low-level search and rescue exercises with foreign states. At the same time, Vietnam and China conduct joint naval patrols in the Gulf of Tonkin every six months. These have included search and rescue drills.

Hayton’s monograph provides a useful condensed summary of Vietnam-China military-to-military cooperation. Hayton quotes Colonel Tran Dang Thanh, an instructor at Vietnam’s Ministry of Defense Political Academy, as arguing that that the only way to preserve peace and stability with China “was to avoid confrontation and preserve feelings of solidarity between the people of Vietnam and China.”

In summary, the balance of historical evidence suggests that China and Vietnam have been extremely careful to mitigate the risk of accidental clashes between their military forces. China and Vietnam have and will continue to manage potential flashpoints. Indeed, it is instructive to refer to data in Bill Hayton’s monograph that provides details on 15 meetings and exchanges between Chinese and Vietnamese military officials since the 2014 oil rig crisis.

Hayton also addresses the issues of strategic partnerships in his analysis of U.S.-Vietnam relations. But here too several misunderstandings have crept in. For example, Hayton states that “a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’ is “the highest level in Vietnam’s diplomatic lexicon” and Vietnam has accorded that status only to China and Russia. In fact, relations with China are designated a “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership” – the highest level in Vietnam’s diplomatic vocabulary. Russia remains a comprehensive strategic partner.

Hayton also notes that both Australia and the United States are at the bottom of the hierarchy as comprehensive partners. In fact it was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who first proposed a strategic partnership to Vietnam. This implied closer military and defense ties than Vietnam was willing to accept. In 2013 both sides stepped back from discussions on a strategic partnership and agreed to become comprehensive partners instead.

Prior to this, Australia’s former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd rejected Vietnam’s offer of a strategic partnership on the grounds that it was mainly symbolic and that defense ties with Vietnam lacked the intimacy of Australia’s defense relations with other “strategic partners.”

Hayton concludes his analysis with a belated consideration of Vietnam’s other strategic partners – India, Japan and Russia – and implies that Vietnam’s policy of diversifying its external relations is a recent development.

In June 1991, the seventh national congress of the VCP endorsed a policy of diversifying and multilateralizing Vietnam’s economic relations with all countries and said that “Vietnam wants to become the friend of all countries in the world community… regardless of different socio-political systems.” Vietnam gave priority to relations with the Soviet Union, Laos, Cambodia, China, Cuba and (significantly) “new friends” – Southeast Asia, Western Europe, Japan, and the United States.

A decade later, in April 2001, Vietnam’s ninth national party congress affirmed that “Vietnam wants to be a friend and a reliable partner to all nations” by diversifying and multilateralilzing its international relations. Over the last decade and a half Vietnam has pursued this objective as its bedrock strategic foreign policy framework.

Kurlantzick ends his study with seven recommendations on how the United States could mitigate the threat of armed conflict between China and Vietnam. Hayton concludes by suggesting that the United States could prompt Vietnam to be a more active strategic partner by paying greater respect to its one-party political system. Both authors fail to grasp the larger multilateral framework of Vietnam’s foreign policy that includes, in addition to China and the United States, Russia, India, Japan, Europe, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

In summary, Vietnam will continue to pursue a policy of multi-polar balancing – diversification and multilateralization of relations – rather than a narrower policy of balancing relations between China and the United States in the years following the twelfth party congress.