Sign up for myFT Daily Digest to be the first to know about news from Vietnam.
When Kamala Harris landed in Vietnam last week, she had already been eclipsed. Just hours before his plane landed, the Chinese ambassador in Hanoi met with the Vietnamese prime minister to pledge to pledge 2 million doses of the Covid vaccine – a donation double the size Harris was to announce the next day .
Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy is the clearest sign to date of its attempts to slow down the unprecedented rapprochement between Hanoi and Washington.
Almost 50 years after the end of a long and destructive war, Vietnam and the United States are embarking on an increasingly deep security partnership. This involved US warships visiting Vietnamese ports, their navies training together, and the United States equipping and training the Hanoi Coast Guard to better protect their economic interests in the disputed South China Sea from encroachment. Chinese.
China, which claims almost all of the South China Sea and sees the region as its sphere of influence, is stepping back to maintain Vietnam’s neutrality. Hanoi has a “four no’s” policy, according to which it will have no military alliance, no foreign military base in its territory, no alignment with one country to counter another, and no force or threat to use force in them. international relationships. Vietnam’s foreign policy doctrine also states that there is room for cooperation with countries with which it otherwise struggles, and that there are conflicting interests even with partners – a concept that calls for relationships. balanced between China and the United States.
But in the face of growing assertiveness from China, Hanoi has sometimes been tempted to change course. Tensions began to mount in 2014 when China decided to drill for oil in waters claimed by the Vietnamese, which led to a violent standoff at sea. Last year, the friction became evident again when a boat Vietnamese fishing vessel sank after being struck by a Chinese Coast Guard vessel.
“China does not respect a friendly neighborly relationship and asserts its claims, so it becomes more difficult for Vietnam to maintain this very delicate balance,” Huong Le Thu, senior analyst at ASPI, a think tank backed by the Australian Department of Defense. “There is a limit to the hypothesis” that Vietnam refrains from alliances in this context, she added.
Hanoi hinted at it. “Depending on the specific circumstances and conditions, Vietnam will consider developing necessary and appropriate defense and military relations with other countries,” the government said in its December 2019 defense white paper.
Beijing has taken note of this. Chinese diplomats, government officials, and analysts frequently point to the potential for cooperation between China and Vietnam and call on Hanoi to stick to its four no’s doctrine. In June, the Chinese Minister of Commerce highlighted the benefits of strengthening economic exchanges between the two countries.
Beijing also likes to describe the ruling Communist parties in Vietnam and China as natural partners sharing ideological values and on the lookout for any US ploy to foment regime change.
The problem for Beijing is the Vietnamese public. The Vietnamese are more skeptical of China than any other country in Southeast Asia, and their concerns are growing.
In a survey released earlier this year, 90 percent of Vietnamese said they were worried about China’s growing economic influence, the highest of any country in the region, and 92 percent said they praised the influence of the United States, again by far the highest among countries in Southeast Asia. A recent study of Chinese and American public diplomacy efforts found that the Vietnamese are much more receptive to American social media accounts than the Chinese.
But such sentiment is unlikely to bring Vietnam into America’s arms.
“Vietnam is very careful not to allow a complete deterioration of relations with China,” said Lynn Kuok, senior researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore. She believes Vietnam will not improve its security relationship with the United States to a level it would describe as “strategic” – the strongest it can be characterized without an alliance – over the next five years.
The main reason is the economy. Vietnam is more economically dependent on China, its neighbor and main trading partner, than on the United States. Experts say that could change with the US re-engagement with the TPP, the regional trade deal from which Donald Trump’s administration has withdrawn, as well as efforts to attract more investment to Vietnam in the part of a realignment of US supply chains away from China.
“The United States has been successful in strengthening its ties with Vietnam and will continue to be able to do so if it plays its cards right. But there is no real economic strategy, ”said Kuok. “This weakens the overall US engagement in the region, and it needs to fix it.”