Why Vietnam Cannot Copy the Philippines’ China Policy

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Why Vietnam Cannot Copy the Philippines’ China Policy

The country’s awkward geographic position with China militates against it adopting a strong pro-U.S. orientation.

Why Vietnam Cannot Copy the Philippines’ China Policy
Credit: Depositphotos

Recent tensions between China and the Philippines over the South China Sea, especially the Chinese blockade of the Philippines-controlled Second Thomas Shoal, have alerted all countries with a stake in the regional disputes to the risk of a possible crisis involving China and its maritime neighbors. To counteract its weakening position at sea vis-à-vis China and Chinese bullying, the Philippines has looked to strengthen its alliance with the United States, which includes securing a pledge from Washington to treat any Chinese attacks against Philippine vessels or aircraft as attacks against the Philippine homeland under the 1951 U.S.-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty, an increase in U.S. naval presence in Philippine ports, and most recently, the initiation of Philippine-U.S. joint naval patrols. Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s hardline policy towards China represents a reversal of his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte’s China-friendly policy, reflecting Manila’s perception that its friendlier policy towards China had failed to stop the bullying.

Like the Philippines, Vietnam is also a target of Chinese bullying in the South China Sea. However, Vietnam has adopted a completely different approach to counteract China. While Hanoi is now open to upgrading its defense cooperation with the U.S., as seen in the visits of the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier to Danang last June and President Joe Biden to Hanoi in September, the Vietnamese government has stuck firm to its “Four Nos” nonaligned foreign policy. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Hanoi in December drives home the point that Vietnam puts its relationship with China above that with the U.S., despite the upgrade of U.S.-Vietnam ties during Biden’s visit to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. Vietnam continues to condemn Chinese bullying at sea while quietly expanding its maritime claims, but its policy is to not let the maritime disputes damage the upward trajectory of China-Vietnam relations.

It is not surprising that Vietnam’s approach has received criticism in the past, because Hanoi, unlike Manila, does not look to establish alliances with outside countries, such as the U.S., to restrain Chinese maritime activities. Vietnam also cannot depend on its traditional partnership with Russia at a time when Russia is increasingly dependent on China because of the war in Ukraine. Marcos’ visit to Hanoi last month, which saw the two sides pledge to strengthen Philippine-Vietnam maritime cooperation, did not receive much fanfare in Vietnam. The pitfall of such a neutral policy is that Vietnam will be on its own in the event of Chinese bullying. Critics of Hanoi’s current China policy suggest, therefore, that Vietnam should learn from the recent reversal in the Philippines’ policy.

Comparisons between the approaches of Vietnam and the Philippines ignore one fundamental difference over their respective geopolitical position. The Philippines is an island country with no land border with China and thus it does not have to worry about a Chinese land invasion. Vietnam is not as lucky. Hanoi is the only South China Sea claimant sharing a land border with China and has been a victim of Chinese bullying by land in the past, in addition to bullying at sea. Throughout the 1980s, China launched skirmishes along the China-Vietnam land border, and in 1988, it attacked and occupied Vietnam-controlled Johnson South Reef. For China, coercing Vietnam can be a multi-domain undertaking. What this difference suggests is that Vietnam’s margin for error in its China policy is much smaller than those of its Southeast Asian neighbors having disputes with China. What the Philippines can do vis-à-vis China, Vietnam cannot do.

Vietnam’s dilemma is unique: while it must protect its maritime claims against Chinese assertiveness at sea, it cannot let the maritime disputes come onshore and destabilize the 1400-kilometer-long China-Vietnam land border. Vietnam’s dilemma vis-à-vis China has translated into two key tenets of Vietnam’s China policy, which include both assurances to China that it will not hurt Chinese national interests in the continental sphere and deterrence against China to prepare for Chinese bullying in the maritime sphere. Vietnam’s conscious attempt to confine and isolate its maritime disputes with China explains why one of Hanoi’s “Four Nos” is to not let any foreign militaries establish bases on Vietnamese soil, which would allow those militaries to come onshore in violation of China’s sphere of influence in continental Asia. Vietnam welcomes the presence of foreign navies in the South China Sea to restrain Chinese bullying, but it will not allow those navies to establish a permanent foothold on the mainland. In a general sense, thanks to its neutrality, Vietnam prevents China from seeing Vietnam through the lens of China’s relations with other extra-regional powers and avoids being a victim of great power rivalry.

Importantly, by confining the maritime disputes offshore, Vietnam can prevent any tensions at sea, such as the 2014 oil rig crisis, from escalating beyond a potential Vietnam-China naval clash. Any outcomes of such a clash must not hurt Vietnam’s security on land because Vietnam’s South China Sea islands are not important to the country’s survival. So far, China and Vietnam seem to be cooperating over the confinement of maritime disputes, as both countries want to maintain a peaceful land border as seen in Communist Party of Vietnam General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong’s and China’s Ambassador to Vietnam Xiong Bo’s visit to the Huu Nghi (Friendship) International Border Gate in Lang Son last August. Unlike the maritime border, both Vietnam and China agree under the 1999 Treaty of Land Border that they have no disputes over the land border.

Such confinement of maritime disputes also explains why China has not criticized Vietnamese activities aimed at asserting its maritime claims as harshly as it has criticized the Philippines. Like Vietnam, China benefits from the confinement of the maritime disputes with Vietnam to the maritime sphere because China does not want to create troubles along its southern border that could give Vietnam the pretext to allow extra-regional powers to establish military bases on Vietnamese soil.

Calling for Vietnam to adopt the Philippines’ China policy would unravel Hanoi’s clear distinction between a continental security policy and a maritime security policy vis-à-vis China; the Philippines, on the other hand, only needs to have a maritime security policy. And even such a policy is not without its risks. By allowing the U.S. to expand its naval presence in the Philippines, Manila could come under pressure to contribute to the U.S. efforts to defend Taiwan if China attacks. Since its costly occupation of Cambodia in the 1980s, Vietnam has had a policy of not officially sending troops abroad, and allowing any extra-regional power to establish bases on its soil or islands would significantly increase Vietnam’s entrapment risks and create differences over issues on which Vietnam and China have already established a consensus, such as the “separation” of Taiwan from China.

Vietnam’s differentiation between the continental and the maritime sphere in its policies vis-à-vis China, with the former driving the latter, demonstrates that it values its security on land more than at sea. Preventing Chinese coercion on land will remain the bedrock of Vietnam’s post-Cold War foreign policy to avoid the repetition of the disastrous 1979 China-Vietnam border war.