Vietnam’s long-awaited defense white paper was finally released late last month. One of the most important official documents on defense and military strategy, it elaborates on the overall principles and guidelines for protecting the Vietnamese homeland for the next 10 years. Given the rapidly evolving security challenges Vietnam has been faced with in the last decade and the difficulty it has had in balancing between the China and the United States, it is worth the effort to decode and interpret this document in order to shed more light on Vietnam’s current and future strategy.

The white paper makes clear that Vietnam considers the Asia-Pacific region, including Southeast Asia, to be not only its own living space, but also “a center for dynamic development” that “occupies an increasingly important geo-economic, geo-politic and geo-strategic” significance. Most importantly, the white paper recognizes the region as a boiling cauldron where great powers compete for influence. China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the U.S. Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy, and India’s Act East policy, among others, are mentioned as mechanisms for those powers to exert control.

For strategic circles in Hanoi, disputes in the South China Sea remain one of the most destabilizing elements that threaten regional stability, peace, and prosperity. More explicitly than ever, the 2019 white paper details what Vietnam has endured on the frontlines of Chinese assertiveness, including “unilateral and power-based coercion, violation of international law, militarization, change in the status-quo and infringement over its sovereignty, sovereignty rights, and jurisdiction.” While it does not call out China by name, it is clear that the white paper reflects fears of Chinese encroachment.

Great power competition is gradually creating a dilemma for Vietnam with regard to its strategic balancing. The new white paper reconfirms and expands upon the principles of this longstanding balancing act. Vietnamese strategists no longer talk about the longstanding “three-nos” policy, but instead a transformed “four-nos and one-depend.” This means no military alliances, no siding with one country against another, no foreign military bases, and no using force or threatening to use force in international relations; but, “depending on circumstances and specific conditions, Vietnam will consider developing necessary, appropriate defense and military relations with other countries.” This new formulation represents the flexibility and resilience long embedded in Vietnam’s foreign policy that was stubbornly put aside by the military apparatus. In theory, “one-depend” officially and significantly expands the spectrum of strategic choices by giving the military more room to maneuver, especially in handling its relationships with Western militaries. Given the inherently cautious and indecisive characteristics of Vietnamese military circles, however, it is unclear how “one-depend” will ultimately be utilized, though it is certainly a positive sign.

The newest “no”—no use or threatening to use force in international relations—reflects another important principle in Vietnam’s overall defense policy: the self-defensive and peaceful characteristics of its defense strategy. The white paper reaffirms the motto of “defending the Homeland from afar,” which includes exhausting all non-military channels to keep the homeland from being threatened in the first place. This is also reflected in its whole-of-nation, or “all-people” defense doctrine, which defines national defense to include “the full spectrum of activities carried out by the Party, the State, and the people, covering political, economic, diplomatic, military, cultural and scientific aspects.” While the armed forces remain “at the core” of this system, the goal of the “all-people” defense doctrine is to use these other capacities to “prevent and push back the risks of war.” The military option is the last line of defense, to be used only when other components of the defense strategy have failed.

The “four-nos and one-depend” will form the foundation of Vietnamese defense and military strategy for the next 10 years. It will also shape Vietnam’s policy toward the South China Sea dispute where the country’s interests are increasingly threatened by China’s “grey zone” tactics. Although Vietnam has stood firm and defended the legitimacy of its claims after recent incidents, it cannot stand alone forever in its struggle against China’s bullying. Giving in to China’s pressure would lead to the country compromising its territorial integrity and sovereignty, which would in turn damage the government’s political legitimacy. Leaning too much toward the United States, however, would anger China, leading to more pressure economically and militarily. Besides, skeptics will say, there is no guarantee that the United States will come to Vietnam’s aid when the situation in the South China Sea goes sour. “Four-nos and one-depend” provides flexibility given a status-quo that is rapidly changing and increasingly unstable.

Regarding the party-military relationship, advocates of military professionalization will  be disappointed to learn that political indoctrination will still be a central part of the armed forces and that the military will continue its economic activities through many of its major economic-defense units. The Communist Party of Vietnam continues to exercise “the absolute, direct, and all-round leadership” over the military and themes highlighted in the white paper such as “men before arms” identify “patriotism…political consciousness and steadfastness” as well as “loyalty to the revolutionary cause of the Communist Party” as essential characteristics of the armed forces. This is reflective of an overall slowdown in military modernization and professionalization due to the rise of conservatives in the Party following General-Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong’s victory in his power struggle with former prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung. Moreover, the white paper suggests the military is highly likely to stick with a Soviet-style organizational structure for the foreseeable future.

Vietnam’s defense white paper is traditionally a very basic guideline regarding military and defense strategy, and is the only guideline the military can deliver publicly. According to several experts who helped form the document, it is part of an effort to make military affairs more transparent in the eyes of the public. Though it is still just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to military strategy, it helps clarify and expand the strategic principles of Vietnam’s defense and military strategy. How to translate that strategic mindset into effective and realistic policies, however, remains an essential question that Vietnam must answer.

About Nguyen The Phuong

Nguyen The Phuong is a research associate at the Centre for International Studies, University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vietnam National University-HCMC and at the South China Sea Chronicle Initiative.