Amid Vietnam's domestic volatility, there has been much foreign policy manoeuvring.
In October, an agreement was reached with China to establish a working group on maritime disputes, and earlier this month, Vietnam signed 17 separate agreements on military and economic ties with Russia while President Vladimir Putin was visiting the country.
These moves are all part of a delicate balancing act that Hanoi has had to play not only with former foes (the US and China), but also with its all-weather ally, Russia.
Hanoi is well versed in this balancing act. Indeed, it was the impetus behind Hanoi's 1988 pronouncement that Vietnam should have 'fewer enemies and more friends'. Vietnam's post-war recovery has been built on good foreign relations, allowing for expanding international trade and strong economic growth.
Hanoi is also building stronger relations with its other former foe, China. While trade relations with Beijing resumed in 1991, the relationship has been rocky of late due to renewed antagonism in the South China Sea.The territorial dispute has damaged relations between Vietnam and China. However, Hanoi has been prudent in its balancing of the issue. While other countries in the region have engaged in joint military exercises with the US (most notably the Philippines), Vietnam has thus far remained more distant. Instead, Vietnam has preferenced non-combat naval cooperation with the US in recent years, and looks set to continue this path.
Rather than building military ties with the US, Hanoi has continued its tradition of strong military links with Moscow.
Russia is Vietnam's main supplier of military hardware. In 2009, Vietnam ordered six Kilo-class submarines from Moscow — the first, HQ-183 Hanoi, was handed over to the Vietnam Navy on the 7 November and it is expected that three will be delivered by the end of 2014. Russia will also supply Vietnam with two Gepard class light frigates optimised for anti-submarine warfare, in addition to the delivery of two frigates of the same class in 2011, and a further dozen SU-30MK2s for Vietnam's air fleet.
These military ties build on the 2001 Strategic Partnership, in which Russia became Vietnam's first 'strategic partner'.
In a leaked recording of a speech to Party elites by Colonel Tran Dang Thanh, Associate Professor at Vietnam's Academy of the Ministry of Defense and a senior Party official, he acknowledged that Moscow was seeking greater access to the region, and Vietnam was its entry point. Certainly, joint energy exploration in the South China Sea is attractive to Hanoi, and the possibility of a greater Russian presence in the region, or even a naval presence in Cam Ranh Bay, is similarly attractive for Moscow. The warm relations between Vietnam and its all-weather ally are therefore not surprising.
Vietnam has also boosted ties with India, conducting joint naval exercises in June. The same month, New Delhi also extended a US$100-million credit line to Vietnam to purchase four patrol boats.
In order to maintain friendly relations with such a diverse array of foreign powers, the international experience at the head of the Communist Party has been enhanced. On the 13 November, Vietnam added two new deputy prime ministers to its government apparatus, bringing the number to five. The new appointees included Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, who was born in India, educated in the US and has experience in the UN, and Vu Duc Dam, educated in Belgium. The appointments of relatively young officials — Dam is 50 and Minh is 54 — with international experience will help boost Vietnam's foreign engagement as well as supporting new foreign investment and much needed domestic economic reform.
Vietnam's push for more friends abroad is not inseparable from troubles at home. As Le Hong Hiep, a lecturer at Vietnam National University and a PhD candidate at UNSW's Australian Defence Force Academy, notes in a recent journal article: 'the party tends to pursue policies that help enhance its international legitimacy and consolidate its rule at home.'
The party, Hiep argues, has in the past relied on 'improvement of the country's socioeconomic performance as the single most important source of its political legitimacy.' It is not surprising, then, that at a time of economic and political instability, Vietnam is appointing leaders that are internationally recognised while also fostering new relationships with former foes. However, how this plays at home will be another issue. In a country where many houses are still built facing south with their backs to the 'invading winds of the north,' as one Vietnamese put to me on a recent visit, relations with China will remain a delicate issue for Hanoi to negotiate at home.
Regardless, Vietnam has demonstrated over a quarter of a century that it is competent and pragmatic in maintaining its political and economic relations abroad. Indeed, its policy of 'more friends and fewer enemies' appears to be strong. But there is surely a ceiling on this type of policy. For Hanoi, balancing the competing desires of too many friends may become increasingly difficult.
Photo by Flick user #PACOM.