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Australia’s churn in the Indo-Pacific with India and Indonesia

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The shared vision for a free, open, rules-based, and inclusive Indo-Pacific brings Australia, India, and Indonesia together. Being democracies and maritime powers with overwhelmingly large coastlines, the three countries are natural partners. Australia and India have just inaugurated a ‘2+2’ Dialogue of foreign and defence ministers on September 11. Meanwhile, Indonesia and Australia have conducted seven ‘2+2’ ministerials so far since 2012.

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The mutual interaction between these countries has improved over the years. Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Peter Dutton are on a visit to New Delhi, the Indian capital, from 10-12 September 2021, with the main point of agenda being the commencement of the annual ministerial-level consultations, taking the India-Australia Comprehensive Strategic Partnership to the next level. They are on a four-country Indo-Pacific tour, spread over two weeks that began on September 9, with their first leg being Jakarta, the Indonesian capital where the headquarters of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is also located. The Australian minister-duo will be heading to South Korea and the United States after concluding their India visit.

Looking back on Australia-India ties

2021 has been the fourth year since India and Australia recalibrated their ties in the second avatar of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the Quad 2.0 that came into being in 2017. Last year witnessed several landmark moments in India-Australia relations. Australian PM Scott Morrison and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi held a virtual summit in June, followed by the elevation of bilateral ties to a ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ and the signing of a naval interoperability pact called the ‘Mutual Logistics Support Agreement’ (MLSA) to access each other’s bases and reciprocal use of each other’s military facilities, including refuelling and repair. Both leaders also agreed on a ‘Shared Vision for Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific’ in 2020. The year also saw Australia returning to Exercise Malabar after 13 years, accepting India’s invitation, and both countries participated in the drills for two consecutive years – 2020 and 2021 – along with Japan and the United States. Shared concerns on the disruptive rise of China in the past few years have also brought Australia closer to India.

Australia and India have joined hands with Japan for a Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) last year for the diversification of supply chain risks across a group of supplying nations instead of being dependent on just one or a few and for ensuring the free flow of goods, apparently with China in mind, with which both countries have deep-rooted economic and trade links. Both India and Australia are victims of Beijing’s bullying in different arenas. If territorial disputes with China form a major part of Indian security concerns, for Australia it is the trade and tariffs-related tensions. Both countries are also apprehensive of Chinese telecom companies and their technological edge, particularly regarding 5G trials and rollout.

Australia was the first country in the world to ban Chinese firms of next-generation technology Huawei and ZTE from 5G trials due to the alleged links of these companies with the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which if allowed could’ve been used against Australia’s national security interests one day, capitalising on increased tensions between the two countries. Under Chinese law, companies that operate in Chinese territory are obligated to co-operate with the country’s intelligence services. With China upping the ante in the Himalayan frontiers with India that resulted in a bloody skirmish in eastern Ladakh in June last year, New Delhi has also taken similar steps like the banning of Chinese mobile applications and not permitting Chinese firms from participating in the 5G trials in India.

In a subtle reference to China while addressing an event organised by an Indian think-tank during the recently-concluded visit to India, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said that Canberra seeks a region in which the rights of all states, large and small, are respected with a strategic balance, in which ‘no single dominant power dictates outcomes for others’. Today, India-Australia ties cover a wide range of areas that goes beyond maritime security and defence cooperation such as science and technology research, economic and multilateral cooperation, innovation and entrepreneurship, agriculture and water resources management, education, culture, tourism and people-to-people ties.

Looking back on Australia-Indonesia ties

The Indonesian archipelago lies to the north and northwest of Australia. Both countries are immediate maritime neighbours and touch upon both the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The governments of Indonesia and Australia have held seven ‘2+2’ Ministerial Dialogues so far. In the recently concluded such dialogue, issues that were discussed include defence cooperation, the pandemic, the situation in Myanmar, an ASEAN member-nation, and also the regime change in Afghanistan.

Notably, both countries have enhanced their military-level cooperation in the recent ‘2+2’ meet with the joint decision to renew the defence cooperation arrangement (DCA) that was agreed in 2012. With a new framework, Indonesian defence personnel will be trained in Australian military academies, along with their Australian counterparts, for the very first time. Soon, it is expected that both militaries would conduct joint military exercises in Australian soil, along with maritime drills.

Indonesia and Australia have crossed the milestone of 70 years of diplomatic ties just last year and their cooperation in counter-terrorism operations have improved considerably from the early 2000s, particularly in the aftermath of the 2002 Bali bombings that also included Australian victims, but it followed a brief period of strained ties owing to Indonesia’s intervention in East Timor and its alleged military excesses and spying.

In 2006, both countries signed the landmark Lombok Treaty, named after an Indonesian island lying east of Bali, which set out a ‘Framework for Security Cooperation’ that covered both traditional and non-traditional challenges to security. This commitment was reiterated in 2014 with the signing of a Joint Understanding on a code of conduct on the same between the two countries. Even though there have been ups and downs on their ties, both countries have been conducting ‘2+2’ ministerial-level consultations annually since 2012. Indonesia and Australia have signed a Joint Declaration on Maritime Cooperation in 2017 that took their ties to the next level, and in the following year it was elevated to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.

While Indonesia represents the ‘ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific’ that distances itself from great power rivalries, Australia is one of the four partners in the Quad, which accepts the centrality of ASEAN as essential for their conceptualisation of the Indo-Pacific. Even though balancing Chinese assertion is one of the non-explicit objectives of the Quad in which Australia is part of, as evident from Exercise Malabar, Indonesia seems least concerned with antagonizing China. In fact, Jakarta is a key participant of China-sponsored Maritime Silk Road, a key component of Beijing’s trillion-dollar project of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

However, these differences have not prevented the both countries from cooperating in the realms of military, diplomatic, economic and maritime cooperation. Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne has said in the latest ‘2+2’ Dialogue with her Indonesian counterpart that Canberra welcomes a ‘healthy competition’ based on rules and norms, on a ‘level-playing field’, rather than the one that risks sliding into a conflict. However, she played down the need for direct ASEAN-Quad consultations.

An emerging trilateral and the way ahead

The emerging Australia-India-Indonesia trilateral sheds light on the Asia-Pacific’s evolving mini-lateralism and a multipolar order that has its beginnings in 2017 with the Senior Officials’ Strategic Dialogue held in Bogor, Indonesia, with the three countries participating. Further such meetings were followed in Canberra in 2018 and New Delhi in 2019. As the US-China great power rivalry continues to take a new shape, this trilateral of the three maritime middle-powers would further enrich multilateralism and the overall regional architecture in the Indo-Pacific.

Common interests that bind Australia, India, and Indonesia include a rules-based, free, and inclusive maritime order in the region, and the respect for international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS). The Australia-India-Indonesia trilateral could also complement the Quad and other trilaterals and minilaterals in the region such as the Australia-India-Japan and the Australia-France-India groupings. India’s ‘Act East’ policy, Australia’s ‘Pacific Step-Up’ policy, and Indonesia’s ‘Global Maritime Fulcrum’ policy are well-capable of effectively finding strategic convergence with each other.

Bejoy Sebastian is Teaching Assistant at FLAME University, Pune, India. He writes on India-China relations, Chinese foreign policy and the broader geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific region. His articles and essays have previously appeared in Delhi Post, The Kochi Post, The Diplomat, and republished in The Asian Age (Bangladesh), and The Cambodia Daily. He is an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), New Delhi, and holds an MA in International Relations from Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala, India.

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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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‘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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