U.S. President Joe Biden is visiting Southeast Asia this week to participate in the U.S.-ASEAN Summit in Cambodia and later the G20 Leaders’ Summit in Indonesia, in a move to demonstrate U.S. renewed commitment to the region in the shadow of China. What is missing from Biden’s agenda is a visit to Vietnam, despite Hanoi pushing for one during U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman’s visit to the country in June. Biden will however hold a phone call with Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) chief Nguyen Phu Trong at a later date. It is worth noting that this past summer, Secretary of State Antony Blinken also canceled his visit to Hanoi, and the U.S. aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan did not dock in Danang as planned. The lack of major visits this year stands in contrast with last year’s two high-profile visits from Vice President Kamala Harris and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
The stall in U.S.-Vietnam relations this year also contrasted with the revival in China-Vietnam relations with Trong’s recent visit to China. This was the first time that Trong and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping had met since November 2017, and also broke an informal rule that the first foreign visit of the VCP leader after election or re-election should be to Laos.
During Trong’s stay in China, Vietnam and China committed to “never let anyone interfere with our progress or let any force shake the institutional foundation of our development,” an implicit reference to the United States. Some watchers viewed Trong’s trip as Hanoi’s acceptance of the Chinese order at Vietnam’s peril, which further explained the major cancellations in U.S.-Vietnam ties this year.
But does a stall in relations with the U.S. have to be bad for Vietnam? Vietnam watchers often assume that Hanoi needs a security assurance from the U.S. or a major upgrade in bilateral relations to be safe from Chinese aggression, but such a view represents a narrow understanding of how the balance of power works. It is often taken for granted that Vietnam will balance against China to protect itself, and balancing includes both internal military modernizations and external improvements in relations with the United States. However, there is a catch: big powers balance and small powers bandwagon. As a small power relative to China, it is not inevitable that Hanoi will always balance against China, let alone see an alliance with the U.S. as vital to its security.
For Vietnam, the goal has always been to increase its net security in service of domestic economic growth, and net security can be achieved in two ways. First, Hanoi can directly remain on good terms with China to avoid war, a move that Vietnamese leaders have been too familiar with since Vietnam regained its independence from China in 938. Even the staunchest anti-China leaders would send tributaries to China shortly after defeating it to affirm Vietnam’s deference to the Celestial Empire. To be clear, Vietnam’s deference does not mean that its leaders want to compromise the country’s security. On the contrary, only when China-Vietnam relations are amicable can Hanoi manage its territorial disputes with Beijing peacefully and avoid unnecessary conflict.
And over the past 600 years of Vietnamese history, good China-Vietnam relations, under which Vietnam accepted Chinese customs and rules to pacify its northern border, were the backbone that allowed Vietnamese kings to expand southward and quell domestic uprisings. And to reward Vietnam for its deference, China would often send the Vietnamese delegation home with more gifts and political benefits. This pattern of deference to China in Asian international politics explains why Hanoi prioritizes its ties with China over the U.S. in terms of its diplomatic rankings. It also explains why scholars adopting a balancing-only perspective cannot comprehend Hanoi’s decision to not upgrade its ties with the U.S. to a strategic partnership. Bandwagoning with China does not mean capitulation. States can bandwagon for profits as well.
Only when Vietnam can’t manage its differences with China does it have to search for external support to make up for the loss in net security, and this is where balancing comes into play. However, such a search does not mean that Hanoi actively downgrades its relationship with Beijing. Good relations with China have been important in allowing Hanoi to buy time and prepare itself for an invasion.
In the three years after unification in 1975, Vietnam did not immediately ally itself with the Soviet Union for fear that such a move would hurt its relations with China despite the Soviet push for such an alliance, the deteriorating relations with Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge government, and the growing deadlock over Chinese economic aid. Vietnamese leaders maintained dialogue with China to try to settle their territorial disputes peacefully and to probe the extent of Beijing’s support for the Khmer Rouge, while in the background they inked a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with Laos in July 1977 and expanded cooperation with the Soviet Union short of a formal alliance in response to the Khmer Rouge’s attacks on its southwestern border in April and May 1977.
Hanoi wanted Beijing to help Vietnam and the Khmer Rouge resolve their differences as late as October 1977, to no avail. Only in late 1977, after Vietnam was certain that China was backing the Khmer Rouge’s aggressive behaviors did it begin to see China as an enemy. Consequently, it tilted towards Moscow by signing an alliance treaty in November 1978 as insurance against a Chinese invasion. Vietnam would not defer to China if deference did not increase its net security. In this case, maintaining good relations with China did not help restrain the Khmer Rouge and Hanoi had no other choice but to balance against the China-Khmer Rouge alliance via internal mobilizations and external military cooperation.
Vietnam resisting the Soviet call for an alliance before the breakdown in China-Vietnam relations then is logically similar to it declining to upgrade its relations with the U.S. to a strategic partnership now. Vietnam’s calculation of its net security means that while upgrading the relationship with the U.S. offers it some degree of safety, such an upgrade provokes China more than it protects Vietnam. The net loss in security is certain because “China’s policy towards a country is a result of that country’s policy towards China’s principal enemy.” China will punish Vietnam as it did when Hanoi tilted towards the Soviet Union in 1978.
It is unclear the degree of support the U.S. would offer Vietnam were its diplomatic status upgraded to a comprehensive strategic partnership, but it is guaranteed that China would punish Vietnam, as seen in Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s warning in April to not “let… the tragedy of Ukraine be repeated around us.” From this perspective, the U.S. is actually doing Vietnam a favor by not pushing the relationship too far too soon. And the U.S. being too eager to upgrade ties with Vietnam could arouse unnecessary suspicion about Vietnam’s intentions in Beijing. Moreover, Vietnam needs more leeway between the U.S. and China following the Russian quagmire in Ukraine, and any pressure to force Vietnam to choose sides is harmful to its security. Only when Hanoi decides that it is no longer reaping any benefits from a good China-Vietnam relationship will it seriously consider a closer security relationship with the U.S., as it did with the Soviet Union.
Again, Trong’s visit to China does not mean Hanoi has compromised its security in any aspect. Contrarily, it is a smart move by Hanoi to guarantee that a domestically secured Xi Jinping will not lash out against it. It is also worth noting that the Vietnamese account of the meeting did not include Trong’s remarks that Vietnam would not host any foreign military bases or to join forces with any country against another, as seen in the Chinese account. Importantly, Vietnam’s maintained some degree of flexibility with respect to its “Three Nos” by keeping its choices of allies open pending major changes in the strategic environment. In the grand scheme of things, it is always better for Vietnam to benefit from the rise of China rather than to become its target. And the logic of net security means Vietnam should not pursue an alliance with the U.S. for the sake of an alliance itself. As has been the case throughout Vietnam’s existence, the road to its security runs through Beijing, not through other places.