U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken just finished his three-day visit to Vietnam, a trip that Vietnam watchers considered vital to upgrading the U.S.-Vietnam relationship to the level of a “strategic partnership.” In a press statement, Blinken affirmed the U.S. respect for Vietnam’s political system and its multidirectional foreign policy. In Blinken’s words, a “free and open” Indo-Pacific meant “countries being free to choose their own path and their own partners.”
Shortly before Blinken’s Vietnam visit, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Chernyshenko went to Hanoi to foster bilateral ties, especially to help Russia expand its exports to Vietnam, amid Moscow’s growing isolation over the war in Ukraine. Vietnam’s diplomatic profile is definitely growing, and some scholars have suggested that its increasingly diverse array of diplomatic partnerships affords the country more freedom of action vis-à-vis China.
However, how much agency does Vietnam really have? Can we argue that Vietnam’s agency has increased because of its diplomatic partnerships? If we define agency as the “ability to make mistakes,” Vietnam has little agency when it comes to foreign policy. As a small country next to China, its margin of error is small because of the devastating consequences of Chinese coercive diplomacy on Vietnam’s economy and security. Vietnam cannot afford to make mistakes and it cannot stay on bad terms with China for eternity, a thousand-year-old lesson that past and present Vietnamese leaders well understand. Vietnam’s foreign policy is thus fundamentally about asserting its own autonomy in the shadow of a great power without upsetting said power. Scholars tend to forget the second part when analyzing Vietnam’s assertion of autonomy via its diplomatic partnerships, which gives a distorted impression that these partnerships are an indicator of Hanoi’s growing agency without accounting for the fact that China is the reason for Vietnam’s ability to foster those partnerships in the first place.
It is China, or the state of China-Vietnam relations, not the number of Vietnam’s diplomatic partnerships that ultimately determine how much agency Vietnam really has. When China-Vietnam relations have been good or stable, Vietnam’s agency increased because China tolerated Hanoi’s assertion of its autonomy by increasing diplomatic ties with other extra-regional great powers. China did not see those ties as threats to its security. When China-Vietnam relations have been bad, China has been determined to punish Hanoi in order to force its neutrality because China viewed Vietnam’s diplomatic ties with other powers as security threats. Chinese coercion decreased the number of diplomatic options available to Vietnam and hence undermined its autonomy.
A case in point is Hanoi’s desire for an independent foreign policy after 1975. Although Vietnam leaned to the Soviet side during the closing days of the Vietnam War, it was not inevitable that Vietnam would ally with the Soviet Union after unification, despite Moscow’s desire for an alliance. Vietnam wanted to reap the benefits of playing the Soviet Union and China off against each other to extract the maximum amount of aid for post-war reconstruction. Vietnam refused to join the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance to avoid being dragged into the Sino-Soviet dispute, and it was also open to normalizing ties with the United States to diversify its foreign relations. Vietnam in general was able to explore different diplomatic options not confined to the communist bloc.
However, as China-Vietnam relations deteriorated due to Beijing’s support for Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge against Vietnam and the deadlock over economic aid, Hanoi’s freedom of action shrank. China successfully killed the U.S.-Vietnam normalization process by emphasizing the importance of U.S.-China diplomatic normalization in Washington’s efforts to contain the Soviet Union, thereby depriving Vietnam of a diplomatic option. Moreover, the Chinese military threat was so grave that Vietnam had little choice but to ally with the Soviet Union, which was against its initial wish to maintain its distance from Moscow.
China exploited Vietnam’s alliance with the Soviet Union by framing Vietnam as an “aspiring small hegemon” next to the Soviet “big hegemon” in order to isolate Hanoi internationally. China’s improvements in relations with other Southeast Asian states in the late 1970s also hurt Vietnam’s engagement with the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). It is not an overstatement to say that the poor state of China-Vietnam relations from 1978 to 1991 was the most important factor behind Vietnam’s international pariah status and sacrifice of autonomy for protection in an alliance with Moscow. Vietnam’s few diplomatic options due to China’s containment strategy were an indicator of its declining agency.
When Vietnam gave in to Chinese coercion and announced its respect for China’s periphery policy by staying neutral and not militarily dominating Indochina, it was once again able to adopt an independent foreign policy, which gave it more freedom of action. After China and Vietnam normalized ties in 1991, Vietnam slowly emerged from international isolation and normalized diplomatic relations with several important countries, including the United States in 1995. In 1998, Hanoi formally adopted its “Three Nos” neutral foreign policy of no military alliances, no foreign bases, and no external alignments, in the defense white paper released that year. In 1999 and 2000, Vietnam and China resolved their land border and the Gulf of Tonkin disputes respectively, eliminating a major source of security tension.
In subsequent years, Hanoi has upgraded many of its normal diplomatic relations to partnerships, most notably the establishment of a strategic partnership with Russia in 2001, a comprehensive strategic partnership with China in 2008, and a comprehensive partnership with the United States in 2013. China has tolerated Vietnam’s ongoing defense modernization efforts and its growing security ties with members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue because China-Vietnam relations are in general stable and manageable.
The ongoing talks for an upgrade to a U.S.-Vietnam strategic partnership should be seen as an outcome of Vietnam’s successful management of its relations with China and China’s tolerance of Vietnam’s freedom of action in exchange, not simply a case of Vietnam enlisting U.S. help to increase its agency vis-à-vis China at China’s expense. Had Vietnam been so keen on the latter course, it rather than the U.S. would be the side pushing hardest for the upgrade, which is not the case. Some Vietnam watchers suggested that Communist Party of Vietnam chief Nguyen Phu Trong’s visit to China last year created the necessary conditions for an upgrade in U.S.-Vietnam ties, and this conforms to the logic that a good China-Vietnam relationship is the greatest determinant of Vietnam’s agency. Former U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius has also noted that Vietnam had to gauge Chinese reactions before considering U.S. security initiatives. This is due to one simple reason: Vietnam wants to assure China that its foreign policy choices are not against Chinese interests. Again, Vietnam cannot afford to make mistakes.
While welcoming a stable China-Vietnam relationship, China has not hesitated to warn Vietnam of its lack of agency if China-Vietnam relations again turn sour. In a phone conversation with Vietnam’s Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son in April 2022, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said, “the United States tries to create regional tension and incite antagonism and confrontation by pushing ahead with the ‘Indo-Pacific Strategy’… We can’t let the Cold War mentality resurge in the region and the tragedy of Ukraine be repeated around us.” The moment Vietnam fails to assure China that its diplomatic partnerships are not against Chinese interests, it will suffer great consequences. Other extra-regional great powers may not protect Vietnam when Vietnam needs, but China will certainly punish Vietnam if it believes it must.
It is undeniable that Vietnam’s diplomatic partnerships have been vital to raising Hanoi’s international profile, but it is a bit too far to suggest that these partnerships have increased Vietnam’s agency. Instead, Vietnam’s growing number of partnerships is an indicator of the stability of the China-Vietnam relationship since the end of the Cold War. Vietnam does not have to take sides precisely because China has not forced it to, as was the case in 1978. So long as Vietnam cannot make mistakes without grave consequences from its northern neighbor, it does not enjoy much agency – no matter its number of comprehensive or strategic partners.