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February 21st, 2022

Adam Y. Soliman

The Sino-Vietnamese Partnership: 

Opportunities for American Engagement in the Asia-Pacific

I. The Importance of a US Commitment to Vietnam

Vietnam and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have a complicated and often uneasy relationship. Although both countries have similar political structures and maintain close military, economic, and cross-party relations, ties between Hanoi and Beijing in the modern era are characterized by distrust of each other’s motivations, especially among the Vietnamese. Policymakers in Hanoi are increasingly concerned with the PRC’s assertive foreign policy actions in the Asia-Pacific region under President Xi Jinping. The two countries have competing territorial and maritime claims in areas of geopolitical significance, such as the South China Sea (SCS). Amid tensions between the two nations, Vietnam seeks to limit the influence of the PRC to preserve its autonomy. Similar to the conclusions of policymakers in other nations that are also contending with the intensifying threat of Chinese regional assertiveness, Hanoi increasingly views the US as an ideal country with which to strengthen relations and counterbalance the PRC economically and militarily. While it is doubtful that Hanoi will completely break from Beijing to seek a formal alliance with the US, there is a valuable opportunity for America to deepen its engagement with Vietnam and gain a strategic partner in Southeast Asia. The US should thus engage productively with Vietnam by fostering closer economic ties and offering military support to help Vietnam respond to the PRC’s increasingly aggressive posture in the Asia-Pacific region. 

South China Sea Territorial Claims by Country             Source: Voice of America

II. An Overview of PRC-Vietnam Relations

Before exploring how the tense Sino-Vietnamese partnership provides an opportunity for greater US engagement, one must first understand the multifaceted nature of Vietnam’s relationship with the PRC and Hanoi’s strategy for handling it. Sino-Vietnamese ties deteriorated after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 for various reasons. This included Vietnam’s 1978 overthrow of the PRC-Backed, Marxist Khmer Rouge in Cambodia to which the Chinese responded by sending troops into Northern Vietnam in a short, but bloody conflict in early 1979. However, since the two countries restored formal diplomatic relations in 1991, they have established strong bilateral connections on the political, military, and economic fronts. 

The PRC and Vietnam have similar ideological and political structures. Each country is a totalitarian party-state, respectively controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV). They both also loosened some financial restrictions toward the end of the twentieth century to open up to the global economy while still maintaining single-party control. It is thus unsurprising that despite tensions in the countries’ relationship, the CPV and CCP retain close-party ties.  For example, there is a committee made up of key officials called the Vietnam-China Steering Committee for Bilateral Cooperation which meets annually and has been effective in helping to negotiate disputes in areas like the SCS. Vietnam and the PRC also collaborate militarily on some matters of mutual interest, including security along their maritime borders. Both countries even operate joint patrols by coast guard vessels in their common waters. Also, Vietnamese and Chinese military officials frequently communicate with one another by holding joint military conferences with regional commanders, and Vietnam is among the PRC’s top-ten most important global military partners. 

Perhaps the most important relationship to consider when studying Sino-Vietnamese ties is the nations’ economic partnership. This is particularly important for Hanoi given that the PRC is its top export partner, and its second-largest export market after the US. Vietnam was one of the first countries to join the PRC’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and Chinese companies are undertaking transportation infrastructure projects which include upgrading Vietnam’s shipping ports and constructing new highways. This has strengthened cross-border economic connections and enabled Vietnam to get much-needed capital from the PRC. Some observers expect that Chinese companies will move a lot of their operations to Vietnam in the coming years, which would further deepen the already-close economic relationship.

Despite their strong ties with the PRC, Hanoi has many disputes with Beijing over maritime borders in the SCS and the Gulf of Tonkin. The contested areas contain valuable resources such as oil and fish. Mutual trust that developed between the two countries since the early-1990s helps them to negotiate some of these issues, but tensions still manifest. For instance, there was a major incident in 2014 when the PRC attempted to install an oil rig in disputed waters, and the Vietnamese responded by ramming the Chinese vessels. While both nations still maintained high-level communication, the 2014 incident is one of the most serious confrontations since the 1979 war. Both nations have yet to formally agree on the exact maritime boundaries in the SCS, or even on what areas are actually in dispute. This issue remains one of the prime contributors to ongoing strains between the two nations, and it seems unlikely to be completely resolved soon.

III. Vietnam’s ‘Hedging Strategy’ and the Importance of US Involvement  

Given the PRC’s deep ties in Vietnam and its growing influence in the Asia-Pacific region, Hanoi policymakers face a dilemma to ensure that their autonomy is not compromised by Beijing. There is a serious risk that Vietnamese sovereignty could be threatened by the Chinese. To a certain extent, this has already happened, especially on the political and economic fronts. Following a 2015 agreement where the CPV and CCP moved to integrate with one another, some Vietnamese analysts expected that Beijing would gain even more influence in Vietnam’s affairs and strive to further align them with the PRC’s interests. Regarding Vietnam’s participation in the BRI, there are concerns in Hanoi that Vietnam is at risk of falling into a “debt-trap” with Beijing and being unable to repay their massive Chinese loans. Many Vietnamese worry that the BRI projects could undermine Vietnam’s autonomy and leave them in an unfavorable position with the PRC on issues such as the SCS maritime disputes.

Vietnamese policymakers therefore pursue a “hedging strategy” designed to balance the need to maintain cordial relations with Beijing while still trying to ensure that the PRC does not undercut their autonomy. Per the first prong of the hedging strategy, Vietnam engages with the PRC by doing a lot of what has been mentioned, such as partaking in the BRI and bolstering the relationship between the CPV and the CCP. However, in order for its hedging strategy to work, Hanoi must also engage with other powerful nations to balance the PRC’s influence in the country; it is here where the US becomes very important to the Vietnamese. The 2014 oil rig incident, and increasing Chinese assertiveness in general, helped turn many Hanoi policymakers towards the Americans. Vietnam knows that engagement with the US is one of its most important tools to preserve its autonomy from the PRC. It is thus unsurprising that there is some momentum within the CPV for rapprochement with the US, and this is helped by the fact that Chinese-sympathetic CPV members have lost some of their political influence.

Even though Vietnam already reestablished relations with the US in the 1990s, Vietnamese leaders tried to bolster these ties further during the Obama administration. They entered into a “comprehensive partnership” with the US around the time of the 2014 oil rig crisis. The US responded favorably to Vietnam’s efforts in various ways, including by revoking a lethal weapons export ban on Vietnam and earmarking millions of dollars to help Vietnam patrol its maritime claims in contested waters like the SCS. When former President Trump took office in 2017, the Vietnamese prime minister was the first leader from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to meet with the then-new president. Later that year, Vietnam’s defense minister went to the US for security talks where, among other things, he agreed to allow an American aircraft carrier to visit his country – am unprecedented and highly symbolic move given the recent history of hostile US-Vietnamese relations. Two carriers, the USS Carl Vinson and the USS Theodore Roosevelt visited Vietnam in March 2018 and February 2020 respectively. There are even some indications that Vietnam may be open to allowing the US to establish a naval base at Cam Ranh Bay, which flows into the SCS. If the US established a base there, it would be able to directly counter the PRC in the SCS with America’s powerful navy. However, less progress has been made with Vietnam in areas like trade. The US has a nearly $70 billion trade deficit with Vietnam, and trade tensions deteriorated to the point that the Trump administration even designated Hanoi as a currency manipulator. Despite challenges in the American-Vietnamese partnership, Congress authorized about $170 billion in foreign assistance to Vietnam in FY 2021. The US also remains Vietnam’s top export market, and Hanoi seems keen to maintain or even strengthen that relationship as it tries to reduce its economic and security dependence on Beijing. 

IV. Recommendations to Bolster the US-Vietnam Partnership 

When considering many of the current US-Vietnam agreements, it is evident that one of the primary objectives for the US is to check the PRC’s growing influence in Vietnam and the Asia-Pacific region (especially in the SCS). There is little doubt that expanding security cooperation and economic arrangements with the US is completely in line with the hedging strategy that Vietnam pursues when dealing with the PRC. Policymakers in Hanoi are likely aware that the US is the only country capable of challenging the PRC’s military and financial ambitions and, by extension, preserving Vietnam’s autonomy. While important progress has been made in strengthening US-Vietnam ties, it would be unwise to conclude that Vietnam will move towards a formal American alliance, economically or militarily. Vietnam and the PRC maintain an intricate and multi-faceted partnership, and there are important barriers to efforts to formalizing the US-Vietnam partnership into an alliance. Hanoi currently does not want to make a drastic decision that might anger Beijing. The PRC would likely not react favorably to a formal American-Vietnamese alliance and could respond by pulling the massive capital investment that Vietnam desperately needs as a developing country. Other challenges to an American alliance with Vietnam include existing trade tensions and the fact that the country does not fulfill key US policy objectives, especially on political freedoms. As a totalitarian party-state, Hanoi has an abysmal human rights record that has only worsened in recent years. The Congressional Research Service reports that the government has increasingly repressed protesters and other dissenters, while more closely monitoring people’s social media activity. Vietnam has also targeted lawyers who represent pro-democracy and religious freedom activists. It should be noted that the US maintains alliances with other nations in the region that do not respect human rights, such as the Philippines with President Rodrigo Duterte’s violent “war on drugs” policy. However, it would likely not help America’s global reputation to publicly forge a new alliance with Vietnam unless Hanoi makes tangible improvements in this policy area.

A final challenge to a US alliance comes from within the CPV itself. While American sympathies have increased within the governing party, it remains divided on US engagement. Part of the reason for this is that many party leaders are suspicious that the US ultimately wants to see the CPV’s grip on political power weaken and are thus leery of bolstered US-Vietnam relations. Other Vietnamese leaders think that their hedging strategy in dealing with the PRC has been successful and are not keen to break it by formally allying with the US. These leaders seem to think that it is better for Vietnam to not align completely with either side, particularly as the US-PRC rivalry intensifies. Consequently, it is clear that a formal US-Vietnam alliance is unlikely in the short term.

Despite the challenges to striking an alliance with Vietnam, the US should not stop cooperating with Hanoi. While the Vietnamese seem unlikely to pursue an alliance now, they could consider doing so in the future. Should Vietnam’s security situation with the PRC deteriorate further in the SCS, some think that Hanoi would seek an American alliance regardless of the possible risks. Vietnam has demonstrated that it will do everything it can to preserve its autonomy from its powerful and increasingly aggressive northern neighbor. The US should thus be prepared to formally ally with Vietnam if Hanoi’s changing security situation with the PRC causes Vietnamese policymakers to seek such a partnership. Even if Sino-Vietnamese relations do not hit a breaking point, the two nations’ partnership remains strained despite their close political, military, and economic links. Xi Jinping’s aggressive actions in the Asia-Pacific region have helped persuade Vietnam’s policymakers to bolster ties with the US. Going forward, the Biden administration must keep Hanoi’s options for American engagement open and undertake other actions to improve the countries’ partnership and strengthen Vietnam’s ability to protect its sovereignty. This includes working to reduce the countries’ trade deficit, providing Vietnam access to military weaponry to defend its maritime claims, and even offering Vietnam Western-made mRNA COVID-19 vaccines. There is some evidence that mRNA-based vaccines like the one produced by Pfizer-BioNTech are more effective at generating antibodies against the coronavirus than Chinese inoculations such as Sinovac, which rely on inactivated viruses. The mRNA immunizations may thus be more preferable to the Vietnamese, and Hanoi might respond favorably to US shipments of these innovative vaccines. 

Overall, it is important that President Biden continues to strengthen economic and security ties with Hanoi, as doing so will help protect US interests in the crucial Asia-Pacific region given Vietnam’s strategic location. While there would seemingly be no question that Vietnam would be a strong ally of the PRC, their partnership is complicated and marred by tensions. As Hanoi strives to preserve its sovereignty from its increasingly aggressive neighbor, the US must demonstrate its commitment to the Asia-Pacific region by deepening its economic and military involvement, and convince Vietnam that America can be trusted to preserve its autonomy from the PRC. 



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