Xi’s Visit to Hanoi Reflects Vietnam’s Greatest Foreign Policy Challenge

Xi’s Visit to Hanoi Reflects Vietnam’s Greatest Foreign Policy Challenge

In terms of foreign policy, Vietnam, like other small powers, faces a systemic dilemma between autonomy and influence.

During Chinese president Xi Jinping’s visit to Vietnam on December 12-13, China and Vietnam agreed to “build a community with a shared future that carries a strategic significance.” Before the trip, Xi’s article was exclusively published in the Nhan Dan newspaper, which represents the voice of the party, state, and people of Vietnam. In the article, Xi repeatedly mentioned the concept of a “China-Vietnam community with a shared future” based on “deepening the comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership between the two sides.” The two states then signed thirty-six agreements on foreign policy, political exchanges, national defense, and maritime cooperation.

These developments in the China-Vietnam bilateral relationship came after Vietnam strengthened its ties with the United States, referring to Hanoi’s attempt to stay on good terms with both great powers. While some analysts argue that Hanoi is actively signaling its assurance to China after its leapfrogging toward the United States in September, the visit also reflects Vietnam’s foreign policy dilemma amid the escalating superpower rivalry.

Vietnam’s foreign policy dilemma

Great powers are destined to determine the course of international politics, and small powers can thus do little but comply with the formers’ decisions. From a great power’s perspective, small powers move around their competition for dominance over other great powers. The international system leaves small powers less room for choice in the decisionmaking process. Put differently, small powers have a narrow margin of policy error. Consequently, the behavior of small powers indicates their struggle “in the web of great power diplomacy to preserve independence and to save themselves from becoming battlegrounds for great powers.” Vietnam is no exception in that it is caught between the United States and China as their rivalry heats up.

In terms of foreign policy, Vietnam, like other small powers, faces a systemic dilemma between autonomy and influence. Vietnam furthers its security interests with extra-regional partners such as the United States, South Korea, Japan, and India to keep them in balance with China, particularly in the South China Sea, to preserve its autonomy while influencing the actions of great powers on which its security and survival ultimately rely. Vietnam is seeking to stay neutral in the superpower rivalry to establish itself as a buffer state, alarming both great powers that their vulnerabilities would increase if they keep playing as power manipulators.

For instance, the increasing tensions in the South China Sea owing to China’s maritime expansionism encouraged Vietnam to reinforce its strategic cooperation with the United States, signaling to Chinese leaders that Vietnam was countering China’s pressure in the South China Sea. However, Vietnam continues to be open to economic cooperation with China, provided that Hanoi does not join forces with the United States. In this way, Vietnam’s success in resisting the demands of China or the United States is a test of its power position. Accordingly, Hanoi’s capacity to hold out against great power demands is more important than determining its power status.

Which ways to get out?

Vietnam’s bamboo diplomacy is an effective strategy to weather the superpower rivalry. Alternatively, Vietnam’s foreign policy could be described as a balanced approach, allowing it to move easily between the United States and China. Yet the deeper Hanoi interacts with two great powers, the more political autonomy it might lose. How can Vietnam get out of this dilemma?

Some analysts argue that Hanoi’s network of high-level partnerships is devalued as it directly elevated the U.S.-Vietnam partnership into a comprehensive strategic partnership, skipped the strategic partnership, and then added Japan as a sixth comprehensive strategic partner to its foreign policy. However, this ranking does not necessarily represent the countries with which Vietnam wishes to strengthen relations under its omnidirectional foreign policy. Instead, it is a technique to bind the hands of the middle and great powers regarding Hanoi’s foreign policy conduct. Vietnam’s comprehensive strategic partnerships with the United States and China are also unstable. For example, the Vietnam-China bilateral relationship might undergo hardship as Hanoi fails to convince China that the U.S.-Vietnam bilateral partnership is not a threat to China.

Despite the instability in the bilateral relationships with great powers––particularly China, Vietnam can seek ways to get out of foreign policy predicaments. The key external source of Vietnam’s strength in coping with great powers is the knowledge continuously built up in Hanoi’s simultaneous interactions with both parties. Vietnam, like other small states, might not be important in defining the distribution of power among superpowers. However, Vietnamese leaders may indirectly modify the decisions of great powers by influencing their expectations in competition involving Hanoi. In this manner, Hanoi may be said to have influence.

Hanoi’s success may heavily depend on convincing two great powers that it continues to stay neutral. Vietnam must make it clear to China that it does not intend to join an anti-China bloc, thereby threatening Chinese security. In other words, the great powers’ beliefs about its intentions determine Vietnam’s success in the competition. Hanoi may know how great powers will interpret its acts. Thus, it can act strategically to shape great powers’ perception of its intentions, which can be defined as the goals Vietnam hopes to reach and the actions Vietnam will take under given circumstances.

To affect great powers’ perceptions of Vietnam, Hanoi may seek to lead them to believe it would behave in a certain way to maintain its neutrality. Vietnam must convince both sides that it does not intend to join a bloc against either side. Accordingly, Vietnam needs to see how the great powers interpret its messages. Hanoi can further try to determine how the target state responds and how the other side interprets this. For instance, Hanoi’s agreement with China to “build a community with a shared future” does not mean that Vietnam decided to join the China-led international order. Instead, that is Hanoi’s signal that it is receptive to China’s offer and that Vietnam does not intend to join an anti-China bloc or threaten Chinese security. Similarly, the United States should not interpret Vietnam’s agreement on China’s proposal as Hanoi’s acquiescence to China. Rather, Hanoi’s behavior should be understood as a delicate move to continue to stay neutral between the United States and China.

Events that have occurred recently are more appropriate to shape superpowers’ current perceptions of Vietnam rather than the past. Therefore, Vietnam can indirectly modify the decisions of great powers by affecting their expectations in the competition to resolve its policy dilemma.

Thi Mai Anh Nguyen holds a Master of International Relations from the University of Massachusetts Boston. She studies Vietnam’s foreign policy, U.S.-China relations in Southeast Asia, and Non-Western IR Theories. Follow her Twitter for more analyses.

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