Vietnamese foreign policy is facing a series of unprecedented challenges. Developments in the international affairs of Southeast Asia are generating considerable uncertainty and doubt among regional players. Hanoi faces a serious dilemma on how to deal with more and more clearly pronounced external challenges.

The ruling by an international tribunal in The Hague on July 12 that declared China’s extensive maritime claims illegal sparked excitement among Southeast Asian claimants, including Vietnam. The court’s ruling seems likely to benefit Vietnam. But contrary to expectations of a newly proactive approach to the South China Sea dispute, Vietnam has chosen a moderate and balanced approach. One clear indication of this tactical restraint is the manner in which Vietnam responded to the court’s judgment. The Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ brief statement that merely indicated Vietnam’s welcome of the arbitration decision demonstrated Hanoi’s prudence. The statement promised a more detailed comment on the contents of the ruling at a later time, but so far no such statement has appeared.

Travel by top Vietnamese leaders in the wake of the ruling also demonstrated that prudence. Vietnamese prime minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc’s official visit to China from September 10 to 15, his first since assuming office in April, covered bilateral trade, political and security cooperation, and the South China Sea, among other topics. No dramatic breakthrough was made during the visit, but the trip reassured China of the value that Vietnam places on the bilateral relationship. Earlier, addressing the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies’ 38th Singapore Lecture in August, Vietnamese president Tran Dai Quang called for a united ASEAN to tackle serious challenges, including the South China Sea disputes. He even hinted at another formula to replace the consensus principle for decision-making in ASEAN.

To some extent, reforming a regional balance after the arbitration and also helping its giant northern neighbor avoid losing face is a wise choice by Vietnamese leaders looking to handle an asymmetric relationship with tact. Looking at the greater international context of recent and upcoming leadership transitions, this could help stave off tensions and potential conflict in the last few months of 2016. Vietnamese policymakers have been grappling with a United States distracted from Asian affairs by its divisive presidential election. Antipathy toward the Trans-Pacific Partnership on the campaign trail and continuing resistance in Congress have demonstrated an at-best lukewarm attitude toward the trade agreement, and considerable doubt remains over a potential lame-duck push for ratification. “Wait and see” might best characterize Vietnam’s mindset for dealing with the current U.S. political landscape. At times when U.S. action seems less certain and less valuable, Vietnam must turn to other great powers for help.

But Vietnam’s foreign policy is challenged by ongoing regional developments, especially in Cambodia and the Philippines. Cambodia and China have drawn closer together recently, as reflected in a number of deals on trade, investment, and official development assistance. Cambodia’s repeated obstruction of discussions or joint statements on the South China Sea disputes within ASEAN-led forums are no longer a new phenomenon. Hanoi pays close attention to the relationship between China and Cambodia because it directly affects Vietnam’s core interests.

In addition, recent statements on the Cambodia-Vietnam border from both Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party have caught the attention of the Vietnamese government. Ongoing issues of Cambodian nationalism incited by local political parties and maltreatment of ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia drive Vietnamese worries about its southwestern neighbor. In the eyes of Vietnamese leaders, Cambodia is one of the three “special” countries with which Vietnam should never cease cultivating a relationship because of shared traditions and national interests. The others are Laos and Cuba. Yet strategists in Hanoi continue to grapple with how special Cambodia is to Vietnam, and how this special factor influences the bilateral relationship in the current regional context.

The rapid transformation of Philippine foreign policy under its new outspoken president, Rodrigo Duterte, also creates anxiety for Vietnam. It is a sweeping simplification to conclude that Duterte is entirely in favor of China and will ditch the United States. This superficial judgement should be replaced by a more nuanced evaluation. It is assumed that Duterte used the Philippines’ resounding victory before the arbitral tribunal as a bargaining chip in bilateral negotiations with China. His trip to China in October illustrated his commitment to that bargain. Duterte announced his “separation” from the United States in economics as well as military affairs. Economics played a central role in Duterte’s trip, with $13.5 billion in deals reached. Engaging China might reduce Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea as well as draw more investment to the Philippines, but the impact of snubbing the United States requires more careful examination.

Vietnam therefore finds itself in a dilemma. It cannot compete with China in financial assistance to Cambodia, nor in filling Cambodian leaders’ bank accounts.  Meanwhile Duterte’s visit to Beijing and the resulting warmer relationship between China and the Philippines will likely put the Vietnamese government in a more difficult position. If Manila cooperates with Beijing on resolving the South China Sea disputes, Hanoi, left out of negotiations, will be presented with a fait accompli. Vietnam, as an outspoken claimant to the disputed areas, is sensitive to any possible agreement on maritime resource exploitation between China and the Philippines. This angst is not without precedent. In 2004, the Philippines under President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, signed the three-year Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) with China. Vietnam felt compelled to enter the JMSU one year later, but as a latecomer. The JMSU was blocked after questions of constitutionality arose in the Philippines, but many believe a new version of the JMSU is likely to arise under Duterte.

It is clear that passivity does not sit well with Vietnam. A series of recent top-level visits seems designed to fight that position. One such was the trip of the standing secretary of the Central Committee Secretariat of the Communist Party of Vietnam, Dinh The Huynh, to China for three days from October 19 to 21. Immediately after, he visited the United States from October 23 to 31, double the length of his trip to China. The speculation is that Hanoi wants to lessen the effects of negative external challenges, and more importantly, proactively exert some influence over ongoing regional political developments. Seeking a delicate balance between great powers, and among other regional states, is a necessity to keep Vietnam’s national interests and relationships with other countries undamaged.

About Nguyen Thanh Trung

Dr. Nguyen Thanh Trung is the director of Saigon Center for International Studies (SCIS) at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. His areas of interest include security issues, political economy, comparative politics, and international relations. He is fluent in both English and Chinese.

About Truong Minh Vu

Truong-Minh Vu is a director of the Center for International Studies (SCIS) and Vice Dean of the Faculty of International Relations at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City. His research interests encompass international and strategic relations of Southeast Asia. His scholarly articles and analyses have been published on The National Interest, The Asan Forum, Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional, Global Asia, East Asia Policy, ASIEN, The German Journal on Contemporary Asia, and RSIS Commentaries. He is co-editor of the book Power Politics in Asia’s Contested Waters: Territorial Disputes in the South China Sea (Springer, 2016).