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Southeast Asia

Five years of PCA ruling and tensions in South China Sea

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It has been five years since Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) made a ruling on July 12,2016 in favour of Philippines and declined Chinese claims of territorial seas on the manmade islands in South China Sea. The situation on the strategic waters has become grim and the international apathy paved way for Chinese way for Chinese maritime jurisdiction.

The international bodies such as UN, the global powers and the ASEAN dialogue partners have not been able to bring China to the negotiating table, and develop understanding on standard operating procedures. Much has changed in South China Sea with China expanding its strategic control and access to the seas. The PCA ruling which was declared on July 12 clearly adjudicated that maritime entitlements and the lawfulness of Chinese actions were questioned by the PCA, and it stated that it does not have any authority to rule over the question of sovereignty on land territories. China has debated the ruling even before the judgment came and its position paper which was released in December 2014, it clearly questioned tribunal’s jurisdiction on maritime seas.

Deciding on the merits of the case, the tribunal has stated that United Nations Convention of the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) was incompatible with Chinese claims with regard to territorial seas in the hotly contested waters. It also doubted Chinese evidence of historically using exclusive economic control over the waters or its marine resources. The most impressive aspect of the ruling was none of the features that are above water at high tide have any entitlement of 12 nautical miles territorial seas, and it castigated Chinese act of heavily modified islands and construction done on submerged features. It again raised the issue of human habitation and the possibility of islands sustaining the human habitation on its own. It also stated that transient use cannot be constituted as a community settlement in history, and criticized China for its unilateral decision to violate sovereign rights of Philippines in its Exclusive Economic Zone. It has also observed that these kinds of construction activities where detrimental to the marine environment and have endangered different species of coral, sea turtles and giant clams in that region.

Interestingly even after five years of the PCA ruling there has been no respite from the Chinese aggressive postures, and incremental extension of Chinese strategic actions and control of the seas. China has now been deploying its maritime militia and Coast Guard vessels along with hydrographic survey vessels in areas such as Vanguard bank, Whitsun reef, Reed banks and extended encroachments until Natuna islands (which is under Indonesia). This ripple strategic zone has undermined the legitimate exploration of oil and gas by the littoral countries in their exclusive economic zones and even fishing in the traditional fishing areas in South China Sea. As this region is the third largest fishing grounds in the world and host many exotic species of fish is as well as is one of the richest reserves of oil and gas, it is expected that the tensions will escalate in near future.

Given the fact that after the PCA ruling there has been strong statements and criticism of China on these grounds but no military response or effective implementation of the PCA ruling by the major players have given a free hand to China to further develop those islands and undermine the marine life in that fragile ecosystem.

As China is celebrating its 100 years of establishment of the Communist Party of China rule and there are tensions including India-China border tensions, tensions between China and Japan on Senkaku islands, frequent infringement of airspace by China across Taiwan straits and Chinese submarines activities in the Indian Ocean region, the military tensions are growing in its periphery. 

Even though there has been multiple exercises conducted by the US, Japan, India and Australia in that region as well as group sails conducted by few of the countries, the tangible achievement on ground is missing. The negotiations with regard to Code of Conduct on the South China Sea has also been put in limbo by Chinese in the pretext of undertaking bilateral negotiations with the interested parties, particularly other claimants of South China Sea islands as such. This is seen as delaying tactics by China to undermine the claims of other littoral countries and project its own power in the region. 

This year has seen deployment of Chinese maritime militia in Whitsun reef and also laser attacks on the US surveillance planes last year. These has been criticised by the US Secretary of State as well as Secretary of Defence but global apathy on the issue has led to belief that China is dictating terms in defining the maritime order in South China Sea. The noncommittal attitude which has been undertaken by the US has also put the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between Philippines and the US under stress so much so that the Philippine President Duterte has even threatened to withdraw from the VFA. Even though the visiting forces agreement has survived this scare but it might be just a matter of time when the US loses its relevance in the Asian theater. 

It has been seen even with regard to the Malaysia, Vietnam, and Philippines extended continental shelf representation in the UN there has not been much counter moves against Chinese actions. The five years have exposed the limitations of the international systems and also questioned the role that has being played by a ASEAN in mediating between China and the other claimant countries for ensuring  quick implementation of the Code of Conduct and defining the standard operating procedures in this region. Overtime it has been seen that there is no clear cut strategy which could be adopted by the other dialogue partners and the ASEAN countries in protecting the interest of their members as well as making a clear cut unified stance against Chinese activities in South China Sea. 

The last five years have seen that the PCA ruling has failed the ASEAN community while one of the UN Security Council members is adamant at defining the rules of engagement and order at sea. It is well acknowledged that military action cannot be the resolution of the crisis but during this  COVID-19 resurge there is a need for more effective measures as well as coercion against China so that sensible and acceptable outcomes could be achieved.

Pankaj Jha is faculty with Jindal School of International Affairs, O P Jindal Global University, Sonepat. He can be reached at pankajstrategic[at]gmail.com

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Southeast Asia

Can ‘border guard’ diplomacy strengthen ties between Myanmar-Bangladesh?

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photo: The Irrawaddy

The 8th Border Conference between Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) and Myanmar Border Guard Police (BGP) has started. The conference, which started today Thursday (November 24, 2022) in Myanmar’s capital Nay Pyi Taw, will continue for 5 days.

A 10-member delegation led by BGB Director General Major General Sakil Ahmed participated in the conference. In addition to the senior officials of BGB, the delegation includes representatives of the Prime Minister’s Office, Ministry of Home Affairs and Foreign Affairs.

On the other hand, a 15-member delegation led by Myanmar Police Force Deputy Chief of Police Major General Aung Naing Thuy participated in the conference. Apart from senior BGP officials, the team includes representatives from the ministries of Defence, Home Affairs, External Affairs and Immigration and Population Affairs.

The conference started with a formal meeting at 9 am local time in Myanmar’s capital Naypyitaw on Thursday (November 24).

In the conference, de-escalation of the tense situation on the border caused by the recent internal conflict in Myanmar, violation of airspace, combating inter-state terrorism and preventing the activities of cross-border criminal gangs, prevention of illegal infiltration, prevention of other drugs and human trafficking including yaba and crystal meth ice, increasing mutual cooperation in the overall security of the border, Exchange of various information related to the border, conducting joint patrols, organizing regular coordination meetings or flag meetings at the region and battalion levels, repatriation of detained or imprisoned citizens of both countries, return of forcibly displaced Myanmar citizens to their original homeland and discussion on various ways to increase mutual trust between BGB and BGP will be.

In addition, the conference will have very effective and fruitful discussions on the repatriation of detained or imprisoned citizens of both countries, the return of forcibly displaced Myanmar citizens to their original homelands and various ways to increase mutual trust between BGB-BGP. The Bangladesh delegation is scheduled to return to Dhaka after the conference on November 28.

A flag meeting was held between a nine-member Bangladesh delegation led by the captain of Teknaf 2 BGB Battalion and a nine-member delegation led by Lt. Col. Kao Na Yan Shor, commanding officer of Border Guard Police Branch No. 1, Myanmar Maungdu, at Shahpari Island in Cox’s bazar on Sunday at 10 am.

Last August and September, massive gunfire and mortar shelling erupted between the country’s army and the Arakan Army, an insurgent group in Rakhine state, inside Myanmar on the Tumbru border in Naikshyongchari. On August 28, two shells fired by Myanmar landed in the territory of Bangladesh. Bangladesh strongly protested by summoning the Myanmar ambassador several times over the incident of firing on the border.

In a flag meeting on October 30 at Teknaf in Cox’s Bazar, Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) and Myanmar’s Border Guard Police (BGP) both expressed remorse for recent border incidents. BGB discussed the issue of border shelling at the beginning of the meeting. Several times there were protests against mortar shells and helicopter flights violating the airspace inside Bangladesh.

Myanmar expressed grief over the border tension, helicopter flights, firing and mortar fire from Myanmar and the loss of life and property on the border of Bangladesh. Also, Myanmar’s BGP has promised that such incidents will not happen in future. At the same time, BGB-BGP agreed to work together on the border situation. The meeting discussed working to stop infiltration, drug smuggling.

BGP pledged to uphold a peaceful stance on the border in order to prevent the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar from being impacted by the civil war in Myanmar. Such a meeting demonstrates that all parties have a culture of open communication, mutual trust, and confidence that will serve to clear the road for the repatriation of the Rohingya.

The border conference between Myanmar-Bangladesh gives senior leaders of participating militaries and security personnel the chance to forge closer ties of friendship and collaboration. Participants are also able to share best practices and lessons learned.

Additionally, it strengthens participants’ mutual understanding of each other’s advantages and main challenges in border regions, fostering cooperation in the face of transnational threats.

The militaries cooperate to find solutions to problems that they share and to look for chances for training exchanges between the participating countries. Myanmar and Bangladesh both can consider the conference to be a crucial occasion for Armies to comprehend the regional ties.

Recognizing that it is more difficult to detect security issues such as transnational threats, narcotrafficking, illicit mining, illegal immigration, and other transnational crime in the border areas due to their thick topography.

The security of the border is a challenge and a shared goal for all neighboring states. Our two countries have long-standing cooperation, but it was strengthened between the two forces with this conference, strengthening cooperation and building trust measures, which is a key factor in achieving hemispheric security objectives. The participants can openly discuss the issues at hand as well as the successful solutions put forth in each nation.

Bangladesh and Myanmar must place a high priority on maintaining a secure state border and takes the necessary precautions to stop the flow of terrorist combatants, illicit drug and weapon trafficking, and other international organized crime.

Cross-border and other security threats have grown more complicated over the past few years, and difficulties are piling up quickly. Threats including international organized crime, human trafficking, terrorism, and drug trafficking are too great for any state to handle on its own. It is essential to increase cooperation on both a regional and global scale.

We encourage regional cooperation to increase readiness and foster confidence in fending off global dangers while upholding human rights.

In order to combat terrorism and violent extremism within border security and management and implement the holistic approach to security, both parties should emphasize the importance of enhancing cooperation between the government, law enforcement, and civil society. Results are only attained by employing comprehensive and constructive – hard and soft – solutions to border security management including both government, security and defense enforcement forces and civil society players.

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Sustain instability in Myanmar is censure to India’s Act East Policy: Time for Proactive measure

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photo: Wikipedia

Myanmar’s political situation is worsening and will remain so, as the UN special envoy for Myanmar warns of an acute political, human rights, and humanitarian crisis. The Arakan Army (AA), having a ceasefire with the military just before the coup, is now fighting against Tatmadaw (now Sit-Tat), and a fierce battle is going on in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. The recent conflict poses considerable security implications for regional security in particular and India’s internal security in the northeast region, with the military resorting to harsh crackdowns with lethal weapons, even fighter aircraft.

Current situation 

The implication of AA raising arms against Sit-tat is huge as; first; AA is one of the most influential, more disciplined, well-equipped Ethnic Revolutionary Organizations (EROs) and is undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with for the military junta. Second, it will shift the balance of power toward the resistance forces. Previously, the AA has trained and provided technical support to numerous armed forces resistance groups. It enhances the National Unity Government (NUGs)-a group of ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) politicians, activists, and representatives of several ethnic minority group strength to fight Sit-Tat. Recently, NUG claimed that People’s Defence Forces (PDFs) and allied EROs effectively control half of Myanmar’s territory and demanded official recognition at the 77th UN general assembly. Seeing losing grip, the Sit-Tat extended its hand to negotiate with various armed groups. However, many armed groups, including the Karen National Union (KNU), Kachin Independence Army (KIA), and Chin National Army (CNA), refused to negotiate on the pretext that the peace talk is not inclusive without the participation of NUG. 

With Sit-Tat getting overwhelming support from Russia and China, India’s policy toward Myanmar is that of ‘Twin-Track.’ The policy maker fears taking any black-and-white approach considering the hard-earned peace in the northeast region after decades of insurgency.

Previously, under operation sunrise, Sit-Tat helped India to ambush insurgents in its territory. The ASEAN nations were initially hopeful of negotiations and came up with a five-point action plan to solve the crisis but now banned the Myanmar generals ASEAN until any progress on the peace plan. The Western sanctions remain primarily ineffective due to prolonged isolation and the self-sustaining economy of Myanmar, but a change in the policy, especially from India, with Western countries’ support, can change Myanmar’s situation.

Challenge to India’s Internal Security 

With people’s perception toward Sit-Tat is shifting drastically since the coup, and now people are calling it ရွံစရာ (jun zaja), which means loathsomeness and disgust. The image of Sit-Tat will continue to deteriorate, considering its human rights violations, which was not the case during the previous military rule. According to the UN report, more than 1.3 million people have been displaced, nearly 28,000 homes destroyed, and an undetermined number of innocent people, mainly children and women, have lost their lives following the coup. With over 40,000 Myanmar refugees taking shelter at 60 camps in Mizoram, the situation is posing a serious challenge to India’s national security. The current crisis has blocked India’s gateway to the southeast Asian nation and India’s ambitious Act East Policy (AEP) is at a standstill. AEP without a stable Myanmar is neither fruitful nor feasible. Also, continuous infighting and the increasing influence of EAOs have reduced the sit-tat capacity to support India’s counter-insurgency operations. Further, the reports of the Myanmar junta joining hands with the Indian insurgent group has forced India to contemplate reorienting northeast India’s security apparatus. 

On the other hand, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) repeated incursion at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) pushed New Delhi to deploy the Indian army at the border, keeping the responsibility of COIN operations with Assam Rifle. Currently, only one army brigade of more than 35 out of 46 battalions of Assam Rifle (AR) is available for COIN operation. There is a massive workforce shortage of AR personnel at the Myanmar border, and even the customs department faces a crunch of human resources and inadequate warehouse facilities, leading to increased drug trafficking and illegal trade along the border. Various reports show the increase in drug trafficking and smuggling of exotic animals in northeast India, Southeast Asia, and beyond following the Myanmar coup. The possibility that the ‘Golden Triangle,’ infamous for illegal drug trafficking, converting ‘into the ‘Golden Quadrilateral,’ i.e., the Northeast region becoming a prominent hub for drug smuggling, is relatively high and goes beyond ‘urgent attention.’ 

Changing Approach

India must change course from ‘Twin -Track’ to that of proactiveness and start supporting democratic forces. Myanmar, which is so critical and at crossroads to ‘India’s Neighbourhood First policy and AEP, is not finding a due place in India’s foreign policy initiative and lacks ‘Myanmar consciousness‘ as well advocated by Jaideep Chanda in his book ‘Irrawaddy Imperative: Reviewing India’s Myanmar Strategy.’ However, there is a sharp contrast in China’s policy initiative. Despite the situation in Myanmar, China vows to provide unconditional support to the military junta and is even considering pursuing EAOs to stop supporting pro-democracy forces and recognise the military junta. Therefore, India’s strategic manoeuvre must be in sync with India’s policy initiative and must be bold in taking any black-and-white approach. The resolution comes from the power of strength and not from maintaining the status quo. 

With the prevailing situation, chances are dim that Sit-Tat can establish control over the country. Further, neither the UN nor the ASEAN countries have recognized the military junta. Also, next year’s proposed election will undoubtedly fall short of international standards for free and fair elections, leading to further crises. In this regard, India’s foreign policy regarding Myanmar seems passive; thereby, India must make course corrections and support democratic forces. India’s support will strengthen New Delhi’s connection with Myanmar’s people and improve its global image as a democratic country, somewhat dented by India’s undeclared support to Russia in the ongoing conflict. New Delhi’s stake in Myanmar is very high; the Kaladan multi-modal project, which is supposed to connect the northeast region with the Bay of Bengal and a trilateral highway that extends India’s reach to Thailand, is yet to be completed. Further, apart from forging ties with the democratic forces, New Delhi must look into changing the security apparatus of Northeast India. This change in security apparatus requires making Assam Rifle purely a border guarding force and enhancing the capability and capacity of state police forces in dealing with the insurgency in the region. Therefore, New Delhi needs a holistic correction in its national security apparatus in northeast India and must keep its strategic initiative in line with its Act East Policy. Failing to do so allows other state actors like China and Russia to play a more significant role where India’s initiative could make a difference.

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Southeast Asia

‘Mr. Trong Goes to Beijing’: General Secretary Trong’s Beijing Visit Affirms Vietnamese Balancing Act with China

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Image source: China MFA

Between October 30 and November 2, Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong visited Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in a decorous affair filled with a twenty-one gun salute and Xi’s presentation of China’s Friendship Medal to Trong.  Although notable for many reasons, Trong’s visit was the first by a foreign leader to China since Xi consolidated power and secured an unprecedented third term as the General Secretary. The trip signaled unity among two of only five remaining communist-led countries while resulting in more tangible outcomes like the signing of multiple economic agreements.

Despite its significance, the visit has inspired a slew of overactions claiming that this visit has brought “Chinese-Vietnam relations to [a] new stage” or “[the trip] affirms their ties as firm as ever” and “sends a strong signal that Vietnam is not going to side with the U.S. against China.”  Although the visit is significant, what these hyperbolic reactions are missing is that Trong’s Beijing visit is not an aberration of Vietnam’s China policy, representing a significant shift that signals a Vietnam firmly in the Chinese camp. Instead, it signifies a part of Vietnam’s longstanding, complicated approach to China that includes anxiety and distrust while rhetorically playing up the two countries’ shared ideological and political systems to maintain healthy relations, which is underpinned by growing its security ties with the United States.

A Statecraft Rooted in History

After a long history of invasion and colonization by larger powers, modern-day Vietnamese statecraft prioritizes sovereignty and independence. Beginning in 111BC, China invaded Vietnam, which kicked off a nearly 1,000-year reign of Chinese dominance in the country. In AD 939, Vietnam achieved independence but had to contend with Chinese aggression until the French established Vietnam as a protectorate in 1883. French domination lasted until the communist national movement led by Ho Chi Minh expelled the French after the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and the subsequent American invasion in 1975 before unifying the country under the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

Similarly, the Chinese Communist Party, under the leadership of Mao Zedong, unified China under the People’s Republic of China in 1949. As expected in the ideologically driven Cold War environment, Vietnam and China quickly developed close relations built on ideological fellowship and mutual trust. However, bilateral ties quickly deteriorated when Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978 to remove Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. China responded by invading Vietnam in 1979, resulting in a brief, bloody border war.

The two countries normalized relations in 1991 and have since had a cooperative relationship, particularly with economic engagement, despite Vietnam’s anxieties and distrust of its larger neighbor. In 2008, China and Vietnam upgraded their ties to a Comprehensive Strategic Cooperative Partnership, a status that only China holds. Resultingly, the economic relationship has significantly deepened. China is Vietnam’s top trading partner, one of its most significant sources of raw materials, its second-largest export market, and Vietnam’s eighth-largest source of Foreign Direct Investment, which increased two-fold between 2011 and 2017.

Increasingly Negative Perceptions of China

Economic engagement is complicated by China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea as it relates to its overlapping claims with Vietnam. Vietnam lays claim over the Spratly and Paracel islands, arguing that they fall within Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Meanwhile, China has openly called its claims illegal, militarized the region, built artificial islands including, 3,200 acres in the Spratlys, and prevented Vietnam from taking advantage of the resources there. Significant examples include a 2020 altercation where a Chinese coast guard vessel sunk a Vietnamese fishing ship near the Paracel Islands or when it agreed to pay about a billion dollars to two foreign oil companies after it canceled their contracts due to Chinese pressure.

Resultingly, negative perceptions of China and positive perceptions of the United States among Vietnamese remain high. The Singaporean-based think tank, the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, conducts an annual survey of prevailing Southeast Asian attitudes and concerns. In its most recent survey in 2022, when asked which country Vietnamese have the most confidence will provide leadership and uphold the rules-based order international law, 56.9 percent chose the United States, while only 11.8 percent picked China. More telling, when asked if forced to choose which superpower the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should align with, 73.6 percent of Vietnamese chose the United States. In comparison, only 26.4 percent opted for China.

The most violent manifestation of Vietnamese distrust of Beijing was in 2014 after violent anti-Chinese riots erupted following China stationed an oil rig in Vietnamese-claimed territory. In response, Vietnamese leaders sent a group of ships to the area, met by over eighty Chinese boats that deployed water cannons as a deterrent, and later two other Chinese ships armed with anti-air missiles. The reaction in Vietnam, where anti-Chinese nationalism is always smoldering, was visceral. Vietnamese citizens targeted Chinese citizens by attacking them, burning/destroying their businesses, and running many out of the country. Over twenty people lost their lives, while hundreds were injured.

The U.S. as a Hedge

While Vietnam has deepened its economic engagement with Beijing, it has simultaneously hedged against Chinese aggression by deepening security ties with the United States. In 2013, the two countries signed the U.S.-Vietnam comprehensive partnership, and three years after that, President Barack Obama announced the end of the U.S. arms embargo against Vietnam. This decision would mark a fundamental shift in U.S.-Vietnamese relations.

Since then, Vietnam has taken part in the United States Rim of the Pacific naval exercises (despite missing this year) and hosted the U.S. Secretary of Defense every year since 2018. Meanwhile, the United States has anchored multiple aircraft carriers in Vietnamese ports and provided Vietnam with over $60 million in security assistance between 2017 and 2020. As Vietnamese Prime Minister Chinh noted during the ASEAN-U.S. Summit in Washington D.C. earlier this year, where he extended his stay to deepen relations with key U.S. power brokers, the two countries’ relationship is “special.”

Vietnam’s security situation necessitates a strong relationship with the United States, which acts as a counterweight to Chinese aggression in the region, particularly in the South China Sea, with a robust military presence and consistent Freedom of Navigation Operations. Overall, Vietnam and the United States are aligned in their support of an international rules-based order that often puts them at odds with China, which many fear have revisionist intentions.

Lip Service Goes a Long Way

Having the United States as a hedge is critical as Vietnam strives to maintain healthy bilateral relations with China, despite Chinese aggression and unpopularity domestically and because of the sturdy economic interdependence.

This endeavor to maintain a healthy relationship often manifests in Vietnam picking and choosing its battles with China to prevent an unnecessary escalation of tension while paying lip service with diplomatic overtures. For instance, before Trong participated in the second annual Belt and Road Initiative forum, authorities directed the press to refrain from any negative coverage of China. Similarly, Vietnam has refused to take China to international court mainly because it would be an exercise in angering China for little pay off, as the Philippines found out. Its lukewarm response to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative and Global Security Initiative (GSI), where leaders have rhetorically shown support but failed to embrace it substantively (the majority of Vietnamese infrastructure projects that use Chinese financing date back to 2016 or before and leadership spoke positively of the GSI without committing to taking part in it) is also telling.

In the same vein, Trong’s trip was filled with rhetoric that focused on “comradeship and brotherhood” while thirteen economic agreements that steadied up supply chains were signed.  Unsurprisingly, a week after the Trong-Xi meeting, Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh met with President Joe Biden during the 40th and 41st ASEAN Summits to extend an invitation from Trong to Biden to visit Vietnam and discuss ways to bolster the two countries’ comprehensive partnership. On the one hand, it made low-stake diplomatic overtures to its northern neighbor and secured robust economic engagement; on the other, it used the United States as a bulwark.

With this historical context, the Trong-Xi meeting is better understood not as an aberration but as something that neatly into an established Vietnamese-China policy. While Vietnam has serious concerns regarding Chinese actions and intentions, it prioritizes a healthy bilateral relationship with China, partly for economic reasons, while pursuing a security relationship with the United States to mitigate the consequences. Although the Trong visit was significant, it did not signal a fundamental shift in Vietnamese foreign policy but affirmed the longstanding tenets of its post-1991 China policy.

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