Vietnam: A New Strategic Priority for the United States and China
During the summer of 2014, Sino-Vietnamese relations teetered on the edge of utter collapse as Hanoi reacted strongly to the placement of a Chinese oil rig and an accompanying naval escort in waters claimed by Vietnam. Tensions escalated as naval and civilian vessels from both countries repeatedly sought to hamper each other, sparking fears over a possible maritime skirmish.
Following anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam and the later withdrawal of the Chinese oil rig, relations between Hanoi and Beijing have remained cool. In recent weeks there has been an increased emphasis, primarily by the Chinese government, to improve its relations with Vietnam. China wants to prevent undue conflict in the South China Sea over the myriad islands, reefs, and outcroppings which are claimed by various countries.
China sent its top envoy, state councillor Yang Jiechi to Vietnam on Monday October 27th to talk with his Vietnamese counterpart, Phnom Binh Minh. In comparison to Yang’s previous Vietnam visit in June, when he accused Hanoi of ‘hyping up’ the oil rig dispute and undermining bilateral relations, Yang’s trip was an effort by China to ease tensions over the South China Sea and to move forward on creating a jointly agreed upon code of conduct for state actions in the area. Yang’s visit comes after earlier bilateral meetings in October which were held in Beijing. On October 17th Defence Minister Chang Wanquan and his Vietnamese counterpart Phung Quang Thanh agreed to resolve maritime disputes responsibly and to resume military ties. On the same day, Chinese vice-president Li Yuanchao met with a high-ranking, sixteen-member Vietnamese military delegation.
An important element in smoothing over relations is the recent agreement on a Memorandum of Understanding which seeks to establish direct technical communication lines (hot lines) between both countries’ defence ministries. This is important because during the 2014 summer oil rig crisis, Vietnam sought to establish a hotline in order to manage the situation, yet was unsuccessful. In light of events this summer, both sides have acknowledged that a miscalculation or accident in the South China Sea could quickly get out of hand. Moreover, in contrast to previous statements by Vietnam, General Thanh downplayed existing territorial disputes, likening war of words to a family spat, and emphasizing the recent improvement in bilateral relations.
It is important to note that Vietnam still has serious reservations about Chinese actions in the South China Sea, specifically with the Paracel and Spratly Islands which both countries claim. While Beijing appears to be making an effort to repair relations in the wake of the oil rig crisis, the government continues to pursue an extensive construction program in the region. China is utilizing dredging vessels to reclaim land in an effort to build outposts, fuel depots, and even sophisticated air bases.
In response, foreign ministry spokesperson Pham Thu Hang stated that China’s move to build a military airstrip in the Spratly’s was “illegal and void without Vietnam’s permission.” Furthermore, this month saw the completion of the Paracel’s largest airport by China. In addition to this newly constructed outpost, Beijing has seven other construction projects in the region, five of which have been initiated by the new Xi government.
China’s recent emphasis on neighbourliness comes on the heels of expanding ties between Vietnam and the United States, as well as with other regional powers such as India and Japan, both of which have stepped up their military relationships with Hanoi. Beijing has sought to dissuade Vietnam from looking afar for partners, with China’s Central Military Commission vice-chairman Fan Changlong stating that “It’s impossible for neighbouring countries to move…It is in the interest of both China and Vietnam to get along with each other and to handle differences appropriately.” The key factor which seems to have spurred China’s new charm offensive is the partial lifting of the United States’ forty year arms embargo on Vietnam, as well as other American efforts to create an “implicit military partnership.”
For decades the Vietnamese government has followed a policy known as the “Three Nos” (no military alliances, no foreign bases in Vietnam, and no reliance on others when fighting other countries) with respect to defence planning. In recent years this doctrine has been undermined as the rise of China has seen that country pull far ahead in terms of defence spending, procurement and technological sophistication. Hanoi is now seriously reconsidering the “Three Nos”as it comes to recognize that recent Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea can only be checked by the U.S naval power. In order to preserve the status quo, Vietnam needs to forge close ties with Washington, especially with regard to maritime defence and joint patrolling of the South China Sea.
Vietnam remains a one-party state, a fact which has given pause to Washington when reconsidering bilateral military ties, yet a friendly Vietnam – along the lines of Thailand or the Philippines – is increasingly a strategic priority. The irony is palpable, as Vietnam is increasingly drawn to Washington, its former enemy, to counter China, Hanoi’s former patron during the Vietnam War. Despite the legacy of Vietnam War-era cooperation, Vietnam has historically viewed China as a colonial power, having fought a series of wars against successive Chinese dynasties throughout ancient history. Vietnam’s last clash with China came during the Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979 following the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. The three-week war resulted in almost 100,000 causalities.
Both the United States and China have a bloody legacy in Vietnam, and this makes considerations of alignment more complicated for the Vietnamese government. Geographical proximity and cultural similarities could see Vietnam follow a path akin to that of Belarus and Russia. On the other hand, fears over living next to an emerging superpower could see Vietnam and the United States move towards greater military cooperation in order to check China. This process could take a similar path to that of American cooperation with Poland, Romania and other ex-Soviet satellite states in countering Russian influence in Eastern Europe.