Vietnam’s Pivot to America Will Continue

Hanoi's Communist leaders still recognize the threat from Beijing.

How Vietnam’s foreign policies will change after January’s 12th Party Congress has been a subject of vibrant debate in recent weeks, especially because the party congress has consolidated the power of party conservatives, led by General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong. Some commentators have espoused the view that the reappointment of Mr. Trong will lead Vietnam to lean more towards China, due to the two countries’ shared Communist ideology and political system. The leadership reshuffle, which also involves the retirement of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, would allow leaders to reemphasize the security of the Communist Party over economic reform and nationalism. According to a recent commentary in the National Interest, this could mean that Vietnam’s pivot to the United States might come to an end under the new leadership, despite positive developments in recent years. The author, Matthew Pennekamp, argues that “Trong has repeatedly placed his thumb on Vietnam’s foreign-policy scales whenever he felt they weighed too much in America’s favor.” While much is still uncertain, the article is overall pessimistic about the future of U.S.-Vietnam relations.

Others argue that major changes in Vietnam’s foreign policies are unlikely, and that it would avoid leaning towards one major power to balance against another. Past lessons, such as China’s hostility towards Vietnam after the latter struck a defense treaty with the Soviet Union in 1978, have taught Vietnamese leaders that a clear balancing policy can be harmful for the country’s security. This argument predicts that Hanoi will continue to cultivate ties with Washington, while mixing the elements of engagement and resolve in its relations with Beijing. Further, it would keep developing stronger ties with other regional actors, including Japan, ASEAN, India and Russia. According to Carl Thayer, even after the 12th Party Congress, Hanoi will continue to pursue a policy of “multi-polar balancing – diversification and multilateralization of relations – rather than a narrower policy of balancing relations between China and the United States.”

Our assessment is that Vietnam’s pivot to America will likely continue into the future, for two key reasons:

1) Mr. Trong’s first term as general secretary coincided with a period of growing Chinese assertiveness. Based on this firsthand experience, he is unlikely to lean towards the northern neighbor, even though his tactics might be more conciliatory;

2) The signing and implementation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership would create incentives for Vietnamese leaders to enhance their cooperation with America. While the foreign policy making process in Vietnam is relatively closed, we find strong evidence to back our arguments in two key documents—the Resolution of the 12th Party Congress (January 28, 2016) and parts of the working agenda of the second meeting of the Central Committee (March 13, 2016). Both have been released publicly by the state media and can provide us with a window into the foreign policy thinking of the new leadership.

 

Even though General Secretary Trong is regarded by foreign observers as a conservative leader, he has accumulated experience dealing with China since his rise to the position in 2011. His first term overlapped with a period during which China adopted more assertive policies towards the South China Sea. Its reclamation and construction projects can significantly expand its naval and air power projection capabilities. With airstrips and likely future military bases, China can easily launch an attack on nearby Vietnamese forces, harass Vietnamese fishing and patrol boats, and even hamper Vietnam’s access to the high seas. In addition, China has imposed annual fishing bans and persuaded international oil companies from conducting business with Vietnam. The oil rig crisis in 2014 was arguably the most serious confrontation between Beijing and Hanoi since the 1979 border war. The Vietnamese Communist Party under Mr. Trong’s leadership has also watched China’s tough policies towards the Philippines, including the Scarborough Shoal standoff in which China forcibly occupied the shoal, as well as China’s denunciation of the Philippines’ case against the nine-dash line.

Analysts often focused on conservative camp’s hesitation to criticize China, as compared to former prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung. However, it is important to emphasize that China’s aggressiveness towards Vietnam happened while Mr. Trong was in power. Experience from the last few years would strongly suggest to the current leadership that China can inflict severe damage to Vietnam, both economically and militarily. This is suggested in the documentary evidence as well. The 12th Party Congress Resolution has highlighted that “increased major power competition on many fronts in the region, as well as complex developments in the East Sea [South China Sea] has negatively impacted our country.”

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