Published daily by the Lowy Institute

China’s double wedge against efforts to foster Vietnam-US relations

Just as Beijing seeks to coerce Hanoi in the South China Sea, it warns about Washington’s intentions closer to home.

The United States should eschew a democracy-versus-autocracy narrative to avoid alienating security partners that don’t share its liberal ideology (Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP via Getty Images)
The United States should eschew a democracy-versus-autocracy narrative to avoid alienating security partners that don’t share its liberal ideology (Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP via Getty Images)

The USS Ronald Reagan sailed into Vietnam this week, only the third visit by an American aircraft carrier since the Vietnam war ended in 1975. The visit marks the growing strength of the Vietnam-US security partnership as China continues to assert its sovereignty in the South China Sea at Vietnam’s expense.

However, it would be a mistake to look at Vietnam-US relations without taking into account developments in Vietnam-China relations. On the day the Ronald Reagan arrived, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh visited China for the first time during his term. Chinh’s visit was another example of Vietnam’s balancing act between the two great powers. Twin anniversaries this year underscore this effort – Vietnam this year celebrates ten years since the establishment of a “Comprehensive Partnership” with the United States, as well as 15 years since its “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of Cooperation” with China.

As a relatively small country, Vietnam lacks agency when it comes to managing relations with the great powers, especially China. And China’s actions also have consequences for Vietnam in its relations with the United States. In a recent journal article in Journal of Contemporary China, I detailed how China has leveraged its military and economic power as well as its political ideology to drive a wedge into the Vietnam-US partnership.

The United States should recognise that Vietnam cares as much about its internal security as its external security.

My research shows that since 2013, China has adopted a dual-pronged approach to undermine Vietnam-US security cooperation. Most obviously, China has sought to coerce Vietnam in the realm of international security by issuing threats warning it not to cooperate with the United States against China. But China has also used political and economic cooperation with Vietnam in a bid to convince Hanoi the benefits of a good bilateral relationship and the dangers of a US-backed “colour revolution” to Vietnam’s internal security.

So far, China has succeeded in keeping Vietnam neutral and impeded the upgrade of the Vietnam-US relationship from a “comprehensive” to a “strategic” partnership despite China’s assertive behaviour at sea and a relentless US push for an upgrade.

Captain Daryle Cardone, commanding officer of the  USS Ronald Reagan, greets sailors from the Vietnam People’s Navy in Da Nang, Vietnam, 25 June (Keyly Santizo/US Navy)
Captain Daryle Cardone, commanding officer of the  USS Ronald Reagan, greets sailors from the Vietnam People’s Navy in Da Nang, Vietnam, 25 June (Keyly Santizo/US Navy)

My findings have several implications for how the United States should manage its relations with Vietnam.

First, the United States should recognise that Vietnam cares as much about its internal security as its external security. There is no doubt that China’s assertiveness has been the driving force of improvements in relations between Hanoi and Washington, but so long as Vietnam is sceptical about US intentions to meddle in its internal affairs, relations cannot move forward. Vietnamese state media repeatedly warned that the West should not exploit the growing relationship with Hanoi to incite political opposition against the government.

China understands Vietnam’s reservation and so has hyped up the ideological differences between Hanoi and Washington to keep the country from moving closer to the United States. The United States thus should eschew a democracy-versus-autocracy narrative to avoid alienating security partners that don’t share its liberal ideology. Although the United States has shown it is willing to work with Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) officials so long as they support a “rules-based order”, respect for the CPV’s authority is a must to improve Vietnam-US relations.

Second, the United States needs to make clear to Vietnam the extent of its commitment to the region. The tyranny of distance means that China can more credibly threaten to punish Vietnam than the United States can promise protection. When Russia invaded Ukraine last year, China’s then foreign minister Wang Yi had a phone conversation with the Vietnamese counterpart Bui Thanh Son, warning Vietnam not to cooperate with the United States to oppose China and that both countries “can’t let the Cold War mentality resurge in the region and the tragedy of Ukraine be repeated”.

China has also sought to deliberately exploit Vietnam’s uncertainty about the US promise to preserve a free and open South China Sea. Bitter experience along the 1400-kilometere China-Vietnam land border in the 1970s and 1980s is a reminder for Vietnam about the risks of moving closer to Washington. Only when Vietnam is confident that the United States is a reliable security option will it move closer to Washington to oppose Chinese coercion.

With talk of efforts to update the Vietnam-US partnership, the “China factor” will determine the extent of security cooperation – both ways. China will keep driving a wedge to keep Vietnam and the United States apart, so a strategy to blunt this tactic is needed.




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