After Vietnam rejected the U.S. proposal to upgrade the bilateral relationship to a strategic partnership during Vice President Kamala Harris’s visit to Hanoi in August 2021, the U.S. tried again during Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent visit, and the recent phone conversation between President Joe Biden and Nguyen Phu Trong, the general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV). In a press statement, Blinken confirmed that the U.S. and Vietnam would be working on the upgrade “in the weeks and months ahead.” Trong was less explicit on the topic of the upgrade in his statement, but he remarked that positive developments could bring U.S.-Vietnam relations to “new heights.”
However, the question of substance was again at the forefront of the discussion of the upgrade. Both the U.S. and Vietnam repeated the argument that the label of the relationship is not that important because U.S.-Vietnam relations are developing in a positive direction and the partnership is already “strategic” in all but name. If the label is not important, why did Vietnam have to reject the U.S. proposal to upgrade the relationship to avoid angering China? What does Vietnam really want from America in the long run? Can the partnership ever become an alliance? Only by studying Vietnam’s strategic thinking in depth can we answer these questions.
Vietnam’s strategic thinking is fundamentally based on its relationship with and only with China. Vietnam has often adopted two distinct strategies in response to the two possibilities of the state of China-Vietnam relations. Because Vietnam lacks agency vis-à-vis China, its option to adopt either of the two strategies depends on China’s behaviors towards Vietnam and is thus essentially reactive. When China-Vietnam relations have been good or stable, Vietnam has preferred to bandwagon with China. This is because it is in Vietnam’s interest to avoid having to fight an unnecessary and costly war with its much larger northern neighbor. Vietnam will thus refrain from accepting other extra-regional great powers’ nudges to upgrade security cooperation in order to maintain its good relationship with Beijing. When China-Vietnam relations have been bad, Vietnam has attempted to balance against China. Vietnam understands that if its deference could not change Chinese behavior, balancing can allow Hanoi to better defend and deter Chinese aggression. In these circumstances, Vietnam has been open to an alliance with another great power, even if that violated Hanoi’s preference for strategic autonomy.
The case of Vietnam allying with the Soviet Union in violation of its earlier policy of equidistance between Beijing and Moscow between 1975 and 1978 should inform us of how Vietnam will treat its relationship with the U.S. in the future. The Soviet Union then and the U.S. now are similar in several aspects. Both great powers seek to contain China by courting countries around China’s periphery. Both are also extra-regional great powers that can potentially provide security for Vietnam, which alone cannot defend itself against China. Finally, both powers must deal with a Vietnam adopting an independent foreign policy and are interested in nudging Vietnam towards their camp at China’s expense.
If Vietnam’s relationship and later alliance with the Soviet Union offers any guide, it is that Hanoi will have different needs and expectations of the U.S-Vietnam relationship depending on the state of China-Vietnam relations, and a specific U.S. policy that seems to be damaging to Vietnam’s interests during one period can be beneficial during another.
On the one hand, when China-Vietnam relations are good or stable, Vietnam needs the U.S. to respect its strategic autonomy. U.S. proposals to upgrade U.S.-Vietnam relations without heeding the state of China-Vietnam relations will hurt Vietnam’s security for those proposals are likely to arouse Chinese suspicion. This is logically similar to the Soviet proposal to open Vietnamese ports in the newly liberated south to the Soviet armed forces in 1975 and Vietnam’s rejection of such a proposal in order to maintain its neutrality in the Sino-Soviet rivalry. Importantly, it is worth noting that even if Vietnam tries to assure China that its move toward the U.S. is not motivated by hostile intentions, it is ultimately up to China to determine the next course of action. This explains why Vietnam prefers the status quo in U.S.-Vietnam relations or its foreign policy in general and rejected the U.S. proposal for a strategic partnership, even if it is just a label, to make sure that it makes as few mistakes as possible.
On the other hand, when China-Vietnam relations are bad, the U.S. should approach Vietnam seriously and be ready to offer it generous military and economic aid to help Hanoi withstand Chinese coercion. Although a common ideology has been an important factor in China-Vietnam relations, it does not mean Vietnam will not stand up to China when its security is under threat. Once Vietnam accepted that there was no other course open to it after its futile attempt to settle differences with China failed in October 1977, it quickly joined the Soviet-led Council for Mutual Economic Assistance in June 1978 and signed an alliance treaty with the Soviet Union in October, opening the door for the stationing of the Soviet navy and air force in Vietnam in exchange for a Soviet security guarantee. During the Chinese invasion of Vietnam in 1979, Soviet military pressure was vital to limiting Chinese military activities along the China-Vietnam border.
During the 1980s, the Soviet Union provided Vietnam approximately $2.5 billion in military and economic aid annually, making up more than 10 percent of Vietnam’s GDP. The Vietnamese leadership noted that the Soviet military assistance was the most important factor behind Vietnam’s ability to fight modern wars. Only when the Soviet Union decided to improve relations with China in 1986 and adopted a policy of retrenchment did Vietnam have to reluctantly give in to Chinese coercion on Chinese terms in 1991. Vietnam would likely have continued its resistance had the Soviet Union remained a capable great power. If China-Vietnam relations were to deteriorate sharply in the future, Vietnam would likely demand at least as many commitments from the United States. U.S. arms sales alone are not enough because the China-Vietnam military balance is deeply titled in China’s favor, and more so at sea. Vietnam will want a U.S. security guarantee like the one the Soviets granted before adopting a policy of balancing against China.
While the possibility of a U.S.-Vietnam alliance is not nil, the next question is whether the U.S. can live up to the role that the Soviet Union played as Vietnam’s security guarantor. At the moment, the U.S. lack both the capability and the will to protect Vietnam. First, different from the Soviet Union, the U.S. is a maritime power. As such, it cannot exert direct military pressure on China to deter it from launching a massive invasion of Vietnam like the Soviet Union did in 1979 and the years after. Second, the U.S. abhors a land war in Asia, which is likely to limit the U.S. security guarantee to Vietnam to the maritime domain. It is no coincidence that none of Washington’s Asian allies share a land border with China. And current U.S.-Vietnam security cooperation has mostly focused on enhancing Vietnam’s naval capacity.
On the other hand, China poses a comprehensive threat to Vietnam both on land and at sea. China can with much ease test a U.S.-Vietnam alliance by launching several incursions along the China-Vietnam border like it did in 1979, 1980, 1981, or 1984. And even at sea, China has successfully shown Vietnam that despite the growing U.S.-Vietnam security cooperation, Vietnam is essentially alone whenever China bullies it, as it was the case in 2014, 2017, 2018, and 2019. China’s 1988 attack on Vietnam’s Johnson South Reef is a reminder of the fallibility of any great power’s security commitment to Hanoi. And Chinese coercion would not be restricted to either the continental or the maritime domain as its behavior towards Vietnam in the 1980s demonstrated.
If the U.S. wants to enlist Vietnam in an anti-China coalition, it will have to meet Vietnam’s needs by making a credible and long-term commitment to Vietnam’s security strong enough to withstand Chinese coercion. First, the U.S. would need to reaffirm its respect for Vietnam’s political system, which it has already done with some degree of success. Second, the U.S. would need to demonstrate to Vietnam that it could protect Vietnam’s security, both on land and at sea. Vietnam was willing to open its facilities to the Soviet armed forces once it committed to balancing against China, so U.S. access to Vietnamese bases would not be a problem. The U.S. would need to station a large enough number of troops on Vietnamese soil to shore up Vietnam’s defense and serve as a tripwire. Third, the U.S. would need to demonstrate that it had the resolve to carry out a long-term containment of China. Following the Soviet Union’s policy shift in 1986, Vietnam has a natural fear of being abandoned by a great power. The U.S. commitment to Vietnam should not wax and wane based on short-term developments in U.S. domestic politics. The U.S. can withdraw from a conflict once exhaustion kicks in, but Vietnam will have to live with China for eternity.
Managing expectations is the most effective way to add substance to the U.S.-Vietnam relationship beyond the question of labels. If the U.S. can demonstrate to Vietnam that it has Vietnam’s back if the China-Vietnam relationship deteriorates, it does not matter whether the U.S. is a “comprehensive” or “strategic” partner. If Washington cannot commit to Vietnam’s land security, it had better not raise the expectations of its commitment to Vietnam in order to avoid Chinese suspicion. From Vietnam’s perspective, if it were to ally with the U.S. to protect its maritime interests, it would inadvertently justify Chinese punishments on land and unnecessarily widen China-Vietnam maritime disputes due to the workings of the security dilemma. Because of the “tyranny of geography,” Vietnam is, and will always be, focused more on putting out the nearby fire (China) than relying on the distant water (America). The U.S. needs to demonstrate that it can cross the distant water to help Vietnam when necessary.