Vietnam following its chairmanship in ASEAN in 2020 as well as the ongoing membership as a permanent member of the UN Security Council has provided the country with more maturity and adept outlook in addressing both security concerns as well as political manoeuvring in Southeast Asia. Vietnam has been very cautious of the fact that it cannot court the US as a guarantor of its stakes in South China Sea while at the same time could not annoy China to the verge of having a military dispute with a large communist country.
The well-deserved third term for the General Secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party Nguyễn Phú Trọng has provided that foundation for Vietnam to embark on managing its relationship with the two major powers- the US and China in the Indo-Pacific. Vietnam has not subscribed to the US policy towards Indo-Pacific and has been carefully weighing its strategic and economic options. The tensions between US and China in South China Sea (SCS)and Chinese assertive posture on Taiwan has created unique predicament for Vietnam where it sees that in order to keep the two countries at a safe distance and maintain neutrality so that it does not impact security interest of Vietnam.
In order to not to rely on either the US or China for its security needs, it has been quietly working on upgrading its defences in South China Sea islands under its flag. This adroitness and deft diplomacy are likely to give Vietnam the benefit of the better trade relations with China while at the same time engaging the US in terms of its market and large-scale investment which are going to come from the US. Vietnam in the post COVID-19 scenario would require the help of both the countries. As the US has already promised to help upgrade Vietnam technological institutions and work on providing better avenues for education for the Vietnamese students. On the other hand, China has been cautious of the fact that it cannot annoy Vietnam to such an extent that it enters into a strategic partnership agreement with the US. Vietnam has been steadfastly maintaining its neutrality and has clearly remarked that it will not be ceding away the Cam Ranh Bay to anyone particular power and would be working for better cohesion in the ASEAN forums.
While a number of the US think tanks (Rand, Carnegie and others) have been propagating that Vietnam- China relations is going to get more troubled and complex but both the countries capitals have issued diplomatic statements buttressing their ideological solidarity and the frequent show of goodwill completely undermining the maritime disputes. Vietnamese government has very strongly tried to keep its diplomatic interactions with China on an equal footing while at the same time it has engaged with the European powers as well as the US so that they give due attention to Vietnamese requests related to South China Sea.
In the year 2020, Vietnam has used its diplomatic skilfulness as well as its media channels to outline the assertive role that China has been playing in South China Sea. Following this call for attention many countries including UK, Germany, France and the US along with many as ASEAN claimant countries to SCS dispute have buttressed and supported Vietnam’s position on these contentious islands. Vietnam during its ASEAN chairmanship has strongly supported the cause for the signing of the code of conduct and adopting a standard operating procedure in case of tensions between any two claimant countries. While it is acknowledged that Vietnam has been playing a constructive role in the UN Security Council but the presence of Vietnam and India at the same time as non-permanent members of UNSC has annoyed China to a certain extent. There is a feeling that China because of its complacency in the investigation of COVID-19 virus and also highhanded approach with regard to allowing the World Health Organization officials to investigate the genesis of virus has drawn strong rebuttals from the countries across the world. Further, China has been trying to downplay the vaccine diplomacy that India has been playing and it is expected that Vietnam might be procuring Indian vaccines because of their cheap cost and more effectiveness.
In one of the Rand reports titled ‘Regional Responses to U.S.-China Competition in the Indo-Pacific Vietnam’ written by Derek Grossman, which was published in the year 2020 which talks about the US -China competition in the Indo-Pacific and the role of Vietnam in that context. It clearly addresses the fact that China has an increasing in influence in Vietnam in comparison to the United States. It admits the fact that Beijing is dominant in Vietnam’s economic superstructure but also acknowledges the fact that the US -Vietnam ties could only be enhanced only if tensions between China and Vietnam reach a threshold or an armed conflict begins. As a countermeasure, the report recommended that United States should adopt a multifarious approach so as to engage with political leadership as well as economic majors so as to bring about unison with regard to commitment towards the United States priorities and interest. It also suggested that United States should provide alternative options in order to counter the Belt and Road Initiative of China. Interestingly, it also suggests that at a senior level the interaction should be promoted between US Air Force and Vietnamese air forces and the two sides should take up cooperative activities which are non-military in nature. Given the fact that Vietnam is acknowledged as a critical country for the US interests in the Indo-Pacific plan of action. Therefore, Washington is compelled to organically engage Vietnamese leaders and make them understand the utility of the US in for the larger security outlook of Vietnam. Vietnam’s constitution has maintained that the US is an adversary country and any engagement or negotiations with the US is not acceptable.
China has also been cautious that in the wake of tensions in SCS the issue should not aggravate to a maritime conflict. The strategic autonomy that Vietnam has maintained would be helpful in keeping SCS tensions within a limit and also help in maintaining the sanctity of multilateral negotiations under ASEAN rubric.