After much speculation and delay, Chinese President Xi Jinping finally visited Vietnam this week, to mark the 15th anniversary of the establishment of the Vietnam-China Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) in 2008. Vietnam’s state media called the visit a “historic milestone” that would elevate China-Vietnam inter-party and inter-state relations to a higher level.
Likewise, Xi penned a commentary for Vietnam’s “Nhan Dan” newspaper suggesting that building a China-Vietnam “community of common destiny” would carry strategic meanings across all areas of the bilateral relationship. Vietnam at last endorsed the “community of common destiny” formula despite earlier skepticism, although the Vietnamese-language iteration of the vision translates as “community of shared future.”
Vietnam and China also signed 36 documents on political exchanges, foreign policy, national defense, and maritime cooperation. Vietnam once again reaffirmed its “Four Nos” foreign policy and assured China that its efforts to foster ties with other countries reflect its omnidirectional foreign policy. General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) Nguyen Phu Trong remarked to Xi that Vietnam supported China in building socialism and that developing ties with China was Hanoi’s priority and strategic choice.
Vietnam joining China’s “community of common destiny” might raise some eyebrows elsewhere that Vietnam endorses an anti-U.S. vision, despite the landmark upgrade of its relationship with the United States to a CSP in September. However, such a skepticism ignores the fundamental logic of Vietnam’s China policy. Since Vietnam normalized ties with China in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the settlement of the Cambodian quagmire, Hanoi has explicitly adopted a policy of assurance toward China that (1) it always prioritizes relations with Beijing and (2) that improvements in relations with other countries do not constitute an anti-China policy. Vietnam’s policy of assurance serves only one purpose, which is to deter China from invading or coercing Vietnam via the threat of use of force. Hanoi does not want a repeat of the disastrous clashes of the 1970s and 1980s.
A state has two ways to deter another state from attacking it: either to build up a military force to such an extent that it makes an invasion prohibitively costly, or to assure the target that it has no aggressive intention that warrants an attack in the first place. Vietnam’s foreign policy has progressed along both dimensions, as it continues fostering ties with the United States, Russia, Japan, Australia, and others to shore up its defense capabilities. At the same time, it has assured China that it has no aggressive intention toward it. As a weak state, Vietnam cannot expect that it will ever be strong enough to deter China based on force alone. The Soviet Union gave Vietnam massive military and economic support short of an outright Soviet invasion of China’s northern border, but Hanoi still failed to deter a Chinese invasion in 1979 and coercion throughout the 1980s. The declining U.S. support for its non-ally Ukraine would further convince Vietnam of the fallibility of extra-regional powers’ security commitments.
As such, Vietnam has prioritized deterring China by assurance over deterring China by force. To achieve this goal, Hanoi has relied on its shared communist ideology. Without a doubt, a shared ideology did not prevent China from going to war against Vietnam in 1979; but it would be an exaggeration to claim that ideology does not play a prominent role in the bilateral relationship. Ideology might not have prevented war, but it has proven useful in signaling Vietnam’s peaceful intention toward China to lessen the probability of war. Vietnam has many times leveraged the common ideology to keep Chinese provocations from going too far.
When China moved the HD-981 oil rig into Vietnamese waters in May 2014, triggering the worst crisis in China-Vietnam relations since 1991, Vietnam, in addition to protesting Chinese provocations, evoked the inter-party ties between the CPV and the Chinese Communist Party to assure China that it still attached great importance to the China-Vietnam friendship and that they could solve the crises peacefully.
After China threatened to use force against Vietnam’s drilling activities in the South China Sea in July 2017 and cancelled a meeting with Vietnam’s then-Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh the following month, Vietnam again used the common ideology to assure China that Vietnam supported development of China-Vietnam inter-party and inter-state ties, despite differences at sea, when Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Hanoi in November. Similarly, in July 2019, China moved a survey ship to Vietnamese waters to conduct survey, leading to a tense maritime standoff. Vietnam stuck to the same playbook: it affirmed that the China-Vietnam relationship built on a communist ideology would help them manage differences at sea.
The same pattern was seen again in May of this year, when China sent the research vessel Xiang Yang Hong 10 into Vietnamese waters. A month later, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh again remarked that the China-Vietnam ideological bond would be a basis for Vietnam to work with China to solve the maritime differences. In all cases, the maritime crises ended without either side resorting to the use of force.
Still, it is important to note that in the background of Vietnam’s assurance, it has incrementally improved defense relations with other countries, most notably with the United States since 2014. This is the other means of its deterrence equation, in case its assurance policy fails.
In this respect, Vietnam’s decision to join the “community of common destiny” is simply the latest expression of Vietnam’s policy of assurance toward China. During his meeting with Xi, Trong continued affirming that Vietnam cherished its communist ties with China, and he hoped that both countries could manage their differences at sea peacefully. And by assuring China that Vietnam prioritizes developing relations with it, Hanoi could lessen Chinese skepticism of its burgeoning ties with the United States.
For Vietnam, joining the “community of common destiny” does not mean Hanoi has made any fundamental changes to its foreign policy. Vietnam remains neutral in the great-power competition, and it wants to cultivate closer ties with all countries, including and beyond China and the United States. Importantly, Vietnam’s policy of assurance should not be seen as appeasement. Vietnam remains determined to protect its maritime sovereignty and leaves open the possibility of cooperating with extra-regional powers to balance against China under its “One Depend” principle. Nevertheless, the fundamental logic remains the same: Vietnam’s deterrence against China would only hold when its policy of assurance toward China is working.
China has so far cooperated with Vietnam’s policy of assurance, as Beijing many times evoked its common communist ideology in order to tie Vietnam to a China-led order and to prevent the U.S. from “damaging” China-Vietnam relations by warning Vietnam of the U.S. aggressive intentions toward the CPV’s monopoly on power. It is not a coincidence that Xi compared his relationship with Trong to those of “relatives” and supported Vietnam building socialism. A Vietnam sharing the same ideology with China benefits China as well, as it helps remove a source of instability on its southern border.
The “community of common destiny” will not prevent a future China-Vietnam war, but it will be strong enough for both countries to manage their differences to avoid a total breakdown of relationship, as in 1978. For Vietnam, a closer relationship with China will also give it more leeway to enhance relations with the United States.