Since July, China’s Haiyang Dizhi 8 survey ship and a coast guard escort have spent large amounts of time in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea. The region of the dispute, around three Vietnam-occupied islets at Vanguard Bank, is closer to Vietnam than any other country and is claimed by Vietnam as within its EEZ. China’s claim to the area as a historical territory is based on its so-called nine-dash line, which was ruled without a legal basis by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague in 2016. Vietnam is particularly endangered by this latest incursion and resulting standoff, having defended itself on numerous occasions and with great loss of life against China in the Battle of the Paracel Islands (1974), the Sino-Vietnamese War (1979), and the South Johnson Reef Skirmish (1988). In each instance, China initiated the aggression, and Vietnam lost lives and territory. Vietnam could greatly improve its security if it allied with the United States, the world’s only country still capable of defeating China alone. The United States, too, would benefit from the alliance by strengthening regional containment of China.
But despite an abundance of reasons for an alliance and improved friendship over the past decade, both countries are subject to fallacies that stymie strategic thinking on their key overlapping interest: the South China Sea. Vietnam has the “three nos”, which boil down to no alliances and no foreign bases on its soil. The United States’ strategy in the South China Sea has a narrow focus on freedom of navigation (FoN). It should, in addition, seek to degrade China’s relative economic and military power, including through denial of Chinese access to new sources of oil, gas, and fishing that will strengthen its economy and thereby empower its military against the United States. These resources within non-Chinese EEZs are, according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the sole property not of China through its legally invalidated nine-dash line, but of countries with coastal borders near them, including Vietnam’s long coastline.
China is sensitive to any hints of strategic containment, but as its power, influence, and territorial aggression grow, containment becomes increasingly apparent as a necessary counter-strategy of countries. Containment is not a throw-back to the Cold War, but a timeless and defensive strategic principle that extends back at least to ancient Greece. Containment of China would be assisted through public and material support by the United States for the territorial claims of China’s neighbors, including Vietnam. It would also be assisted through Vietnam’s jettisoning its policy of the three nos, explicitly allying with the United States against China, and welcoming U.S. military bases as tripwire forces, as in South Korea, to deter its aggressive neighbor to the north. While a return of U.S. military bases to Vietnam, at its invitation, would be admittedly controversial given the history of conflict between the two nations, the time is now to let bygones be bygones. We have a new joint enemy in China and we should make our new-found friendship crystal clear so as to maximize deterrence.
Whether or not such tough actions occur will depend largely on whether China continues its controversial territorial expansion, and if so, whether it can continue to rally its significant political influence in both the United States and Vietnam to effectively oppose closer United States-Vietnam relations. In particular, China will have to mobilize business interests in both the United States and Vietnam that prefer appeasement of China, to the risk of military conflict. Those business interests are busy attempting to tip United States’ and Vietnam’s strategy away from containment and towards continued engagement, which is to say, prioritizing business and trade over national security, and thereby allowing relative power relations to continue evolving in China’s favor.
If China is successful in claiming the South China Sea as territory through its nine-dash line, as it made clear in its 2009 note verbale to all United Nations member states, then Vietnam along with other claimants will lose very valuable fishing and hydrocarbon rights within their EEZs. Vietnam would become legally landlocked as China continues its incrementalist tactics to seek to control maritime access to the country.
Elements of a new strategy for Vietnam should include: 1) allying with countries that can deter China at the upper nuclear reaches of the escalation ladder, for example, the United States, France, and Britain; 2) allying with countries that can project sufficient conventional military force to deter China, for example, the United States; 3) translating Vietnam’s new economic growth into military spending to deter China locally, for example through the purchase of submarines, anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles; and 4) democratization and human rights improvements that will encourage closer economic and military alliance with countries that are least influenced by China.
India, Russia, and Australia, to whom Vietnam has appealed for assistance, would be useful strategic partners but are insufficient as core alliance partners because they lack the power necessary to defeat China alone. While Russia has a United Nations Security Council seat, and both Russia and India are nuclear powers with significant capabilities to project conventional military power into China, neither is sufficiently powerful economically or militarily to confront China alone. Both are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is de facto lead by China, demonstrating the strength of Chinese influence under which these countries operate. Neither, therefore, are reliable core allies for Vietnam.
Australia is a potentially reliable ally, but it does not have the conventional or nuclear deterrent necessary to confront China, it is not particularly powerful diplomatically, its conventional military is lacking compared to China, and it is subject to more Chinese political influence than is the United States, France or the United Kingdom. Approximately 40.8 percent of Australian exports are to China (including Hong Kong), explaining the immense influence China has with the Australian businesses that influence Australian politics. Conversely, the United States, France and Britain have fewer exports to China as a percent of their GDPs, so they are subject to less political influence from China. They also have the benefit of permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council.
International organizations offer Vietnam a level of protection next to nil. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been little help to Vietnam, as member countries progressively fall under greater influence of Beijing, and veto any real criticism of China, much less prepare for and execute plans for the military and economic consequences necessary to deter continued Chinese incrementalism in the South China Sea. After China ignored a UNCLOS ruling against it in a case brought by the Philippines at the Hague, for example, the Philippines, an ASEAN member, was the latest country to come under China’s influence. Now Vietnam is the most intrepid of the ASEAN countries in attempting to maintain its independence from China, which is not saying much given extensive Chinese influence in the upper reaches of Vietnam’s power structure, and the country’s massive trade with China, some of it illicit transshipment to evade United States tariffs. The United Nations Security Council, with a Chinese veto, is totally inadequate for guaranteeing Vietnam’s territorial integrity. All of this to say, an alliance or even deeper United States-Vietnam relations would go far towards stiffening Vietnam’s spine against China domestically and give the country an improved deterrent through a powerful friend should a military conflict arise.
Only the United States has all of the necessary conditions for a reliable and sufficient core ally against China: a foreign policy independent of Chinese influence (compared to ASEAN members and Russia), economic power necessary to sanction China, diplomatic power necessary to veto China’s United Nations Security Council resolutions, military capabilities necessary to project conventional military power into China, and a nuclear deterrent necessary to protect itself from potential nuclear retaliation by China. Without the United States to counterbalance China, Vietnam’s security cannot be guaranteed. United States participation is the sine qua non of any effective alliance against China by any country in the world given the current military balance. But the United States privileges those allies with similar values in terms of democracy and human rights. So, to acquire not only an alliance with the United States, but also a United States willingness to sacrifice for Vietnam through increased risk against a nuclear power, would require that Vietnam make at least gradual but steady improvements on democracy and human rights.
United States’ Position
A United States-Vietnam alliance would not only be in Vietnam’s interests but in the interest of the United States. As China’s economic and military power outstrips that of the U.S. by some measures, including absolute GDP by purchasing power parity, GDP growth, military spending growth, the range of anti-ship missiles, military-age population, number of new naval ships, artificial intelligence, and supercomputing, the United States and the rest of the world should consider very carefully how to contain China’s power and influence before it overcomes other existing power structures as fundamental as nationalism, the United Nations, and the G-7. China’s global political influence is powered by its economic wealth, which is growing and in part distributed to foreign elites, including United States elites, for political favors.