As Vietnam and China celebrate an official "Year of Friendship" marking the
60th anniversary of diplomatic ties, Hanoi is quietly pursuing a balance of
power plan against its neighbor to the north. The contours of the
still-evolving strategy consist of developing a common position vis-a-vis China
within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), engaging the United
States and forging security ties with other key regional powers.
How this approach unfolds, however, will depend as much on domestic Vietnamese
politics as the interests of the individual countries involved. Hanoi has used
its chairmanship of the 10-member ASEAN to put territorial disputes in the
South China Sea
on the grouping's agenda. China and ASEAN signed a non-binding code of conduct
in 2002 and since then Beijing has sought to resolve differences through
bilateral negotiations, where one-on-one it often dominates the other side.
Within ASEAN only Vietnam has a contested land border with China in addition to
ongoing maritime disputes over the Paracels (called Xisha by the Chinese) and
Spratlys (called Nansha by the Chinese), two island chains in the South China
Sea. The Philippines also claims ownership of the Spratlys, while Malaysia and
Brunei have partial claims over the archipelago. Other ASEAN countries have
been happy to let Vietnam bear the brunt of Chinese pressure while they develop
stronger trade and investment ties to Beijing.
So far, cooperation between Vietnam and Malaysia seems to be the most advanced.
Last year, they made a joint submission to the United Nations commission that
administers the Convention on the Law of the Sea. The filing, which delineated
Vietnam's and Malaysia's respective exclusive economic zones in the lower part
of the South China Sea, was quickly rejected as "illegal" by China, which
claims the entire maritime area from Taiwan to Singapore.
China's aggressive behavior has made other ASEAN nations without a direct stake
in the island disputes take notice. When US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
declared at the ASEAN Regional Forum on July 23 that the US had a "national
interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia's maritime commons, and
respect for international law in the South China Sea", Indonesia, Singapore,
Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Vietnam were among the dozen countries
that expressed support for a "collaborative diplomatic process".
By openly wading into the South China Sea dispute, the US has given ASEAN
support to develop a more coherent regional response. Vietnam reportedly urged
the US in private talks to take a stronger stand, and Hanoi would have the most
to gain if ASEAN countries stuck together more consistently when dealing with
Hanoi's poor human-rights record makes it unlikely that the US and Vietnam will
pursue an outright military alliance, but the two former adversaries now hold
annual security talks and periodic military exchanges. In recent years, the US
Navy has made over a dozen visits to Vietnamese ports and on at least two
occasions Vietnamese officers have been flown out to visit US carriers.
While the Communist Party leadership in Hanoi remains deeply ambivalent about
getting too close to Washington, there is a growing realization that the US is
essential to counter-balancing China's rise.
On the other hand, Vietnamese leaders have no qualms about partnering with
Russia, a former Cold War communist ally. A deepening security relationship
with Moscow now provides an additional hedge against China and has helped to
modernize Vietnam's military, which is still largely reliant on Russian
equipment dating from the 1970s.
Hanoi is now among Russia's top arms clients, including recently signed
contracts for six Kilo-class diesel submarines and 20 Sukhoi Su-30 multi-role
fighters. Later this year, Vietnam will take possession of two Russian-made
Gepard-class frigates, and discussions are underway for Russia to build and
help operate a new submarine base in Vietnam, possibly in the strategic Cam
India is another regional player finding common strategic cause with Vietnam.
On July 27, the countries agreed to strengthen their defense cooperation during
a visit by Indian army chief General V K Singh. New Delhi is wary of Beijing's
efforts to extend its reach into the Indian Ocean. China and India also have a
longstanding border dispute, which flared into war in 1962.
New Delhi and Hanoi share China-related strategic concerns and have enjoyed
historically close ties forged from their common anti-colonial struggles. Both
militaries also operate similar Russian equipment.
An ostensibly commercial deal could deepen India-Vietnam strategic ties. BP,
which is raising capital to cover the cleanup costs of its oil spill in the
Gulf of Mexico, has put various of its global assets up for sale, including an
investment in the Nam Con Son basin off the southern coast of Vietnam.
According to press reports, Vietnam's government has given approval to a
consortium of state-owned Indian energy firms and Petro Vietnam to buy out BP's
Significantly, this large-scale natural gas project is located in an area of
the Nam Con Son basin where BP announced in March 2009 that it would cease
exploration in response to pressure from China. By turning to Indian firms less
likely to be intimidated by Beijing, Vietnam is now strongly asserting energy
rights in its 200-mile exclusive economic zone.
Meanwhile, Japan and Vietnam have just announced the establishment of a
bilateral security dialogue involving foreign and defense ministry officials.
The security talks represent a significant evolution in the bilateral
relationship, which until now has concentrated on trade and aid. Japan
currently holds such talks with the US, Australia and India.
It is not surprising that Vietnam is hedging against China's strategic threat.
The two countries have a long history of conflict, including China's seizure of
the Paracels from Vietnam in 1974. The two neighbors also fought a brief border
war in 1979 and fought a short naval battle in the Spratlys in 1988. According
to diplomatic sources, the two sides have also engaged in unreported military
clashes at sea as recently as 2005 and perhaps again in 2008.
To be sure, Vietnam is not in a diplomatic or geographical position to lead an
international coalition against China. Within the Communist Party leadership,
especially among cadres responsible for public security and ideology, there are
many who aim to emulate China's model of liberal economics and closed politics.
A pro-China faction has recently backed a crackdown on bloggers and activists
who have protested against China's encroachment on Vietnam-claimed territories.
For now, however, there appears to be a relative consensus within Vietnam's
leadership to balance China's influence by cultivating relations with other
regional powers, including the US, Russia and India. How that consensus evolves
and strategic ties develop will depend largely on how the balance of power is
struck among Communist Party factions at next year's highly anticipated
National Party Congress.
The Hanoist writes on Vietnam's politics and people.