Vietnam’s Need to Become a Proactive Middle Power

The most frequently-asked question from U.S. scholars and experts visiting Vietnam these days is, “What does Vietnam want from the United States when it comes to the South China Sea?” Given the rapid improvement of the U.S.-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership, especially in defense and security cooperation, this question comes as a surprise to some Vietnamese strategists. But those who are more deeply involved in the process understand both the frustration behind the question and the obstacles in strategic thinking that Vietnam faces in trying to calibrate its position on the South China Sea. It is essential that Vietnam pushes to overcome these obstacles and maximize both its relationship with the United States and its own potential as a proactive middle power if it hopes to ever achieve a winning strategy to safeguard its maritime interests.

Chinese activity within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) near Vanguard Bank has shown that Vietnam’s previous approach to dissuading China’s assertive behavior was unsuccessful, but also that Hanoi seems to have shifted gears in an encouraging direction. When news of the standoff broke, several observers quickly reached the conclusion that the Vietnamese leadership was “paralyzed” and “disoriented” in formulating a response, but these assessments overlooked the quiet resolve within what has clearly been a calculated response on Hanoi’s part. Vietnam started its own oil exploration in Block 06-01 five months ago, and has sustained the project ever since. Despite facing enormous pressure from Beijing, both on the diplomatic front and on a tactical level at sea, Hanoi has chosen not to back down, to continue issuing diplomatic protests, and to keep confrontation running as long as possible without escalating the situation to a breaking point.

This approach is different from in previous cases such as the 2014 standoff over China’s deployment of the Haiyan Shiyou-981 deepwater drilling rig, and it may prove more effective. Hanoi’s strategy rests on the idea that China may, in fact, find itself bogged down in the South China Sea—if Hanoi simply endures, Beijing cannot easily withdraw and declare victory. Earlier this month, China withdrew its survey vessel from Vietnamese waters after the drilling rig operating in Vietnam’s Block 06-01 near Vanguard Bank also left. It is still unclear whether the rig was forced to cease operations, or if it completed its work despite Chinese pressure. If the latter, then the standoff will have proven a costly and face-losing adventure for China. But Hanoi also understands that Vietnam cannot stand alone if it wants to protect its maritime rights and interests, and by drawing out the incident it has created time for sentiment to build against China and for regional and international actors to respond.

Unfortunately, the standoff near Vanguard Bank has thus far been regarded as a regional problem rather than a global one. The loneliness of Vietnam in its maritime dispute with China reflects the reality that its rebalancing strategy has not been as effective as expected, and that international support for its position is, and will continue to be, hard to come by. ASEAN states seem both weak individually and fractured as a group, while outside powers such as Japan, Australia, and India prefer to manage their own complicated relationships with Beijing without the added risk that might come from supporting ASEAN claimants in the South China Sea. The established power of the region, the United States, considers China to be its main strategic competitor, but continues to struggle internally to articulate a strategy to deal with China’s rise and its carefully administered coercive gradualism.

These dynamics underscore the need for Hanoi to adopt a bolder strategy if it ever hopes to tip the balance in the South China Sea. Recent discussions among many Vietnamese observers suggest that Hanoi should adjust its “three nos” policy by getting proactive about increasing military cooperation with other countries in the region. It is significant that these discussions have sprung up before the announcement of the Fourth National Defense White Paper at the end of this year. Whether or not the Vietnamese leadership will readjust the current approach on maritime security remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: they need to be more proactive, confident, and forward-thinking. In other words, Vietnam needs to behave like a true middle power.

Vietnamese leaders have been too cautious and indecisive to expand cooperation with the United States, fearing that deeper connection with Washington will make relations with Beijing more complicated. Economic interdependence and political alignment are always cited as excuses for avoiding what is deemed “excessive risk.” This indecisiveness has frustrated the decision-making process, which in turn has slowed down other major security initiatives such as naval modernization as well as the development of potential legal options to confront China’s claims. The relationships between civilian leaders and military advisors, and between government departments, lack cohesion and focus.

The conservatism of the military apparatus exacerbates the problem. Though many Vietnamese officers have been abroad to study new fighting tactics and strategies, several veteran officials have indicated in private conversations that these have not been adopted or integrated into combat training or strategic doctrine in any meaningful way. The structure of both the military and the defense industry are still based on the inefficient Soviet model in a new era where rapid modernization is required. Finally, it remains the prevailing assumption within the military that the West, and the United States in particular, is still engaging in “peaceful revolution” to topple the Communist Party. This strain of thought continues to be harmful to Vietnamese interests and limits the potential of the U.S.-Vietnam relationship.

The United States, for its part, must recognize that the “three nos” defense policy and the mentality of seeing both the United States and China as “Partners of Cooperation and Objects of Struggle” remain core principles of Vietnam’s foreign and defense policies. What can be done at the moment would be to assure Vietnamese leaders that the United States is a reliable and trusted partner, and to reduce the uncertainty in its policies toward the region and its foreign policy in general. The sudden withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and the unpredictability of the Trump administration’s foreign policy are only reinforcing the concerns Vietnamese conservatives have about investing in a deeper relationship with the United States.

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.