The Platform

President Biden during a visit to Hanoi in September 2023. (Adam Schultz)

Vietnam faces somewhat of a dilemma when it comes to China.

Vietnam finds itself in an intricate geopolitical puzzle as President Xi Jinping’s recent visit amplifies the stakes in the Asian power game, closely following President Joe Biden’s diplomatic initiatives. The scene is set for a strategic balancing act where economic incentives and security assurances become the currency of influence, yet the grounded realities of Hanoi’s interplay with Beijing and Washington appear to have a muted impact on mutual expectations and the discernment of underlying intentions.

Amidst this delicate dance, a suite of 37 agreements were announced, spanning diplomatic, rail, and telecommunications sectors. The conviviality was marked last year by Nguyễn Phú Trọng, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, whose visit to Beijing was met with Xi’s fraternal embrace, evoking imagery of the two nations as “comrades and brothers,” intertwined by geography and history.

Yet, Xi’s vision of a “Community of Common Destiny” suggests a Sino-centric alternative to the prevailing global order, nudging Hanoi into a role within this narrative. The relationship, fraught with tension stretching back decades—from the 1979 border conflict to the present-day territorial frictions in the South China Sea—casts a long shadow of skepticism over the strategic trust and economic interdependence that may leave both parties vulnerable to the so-called “inevitable neighbour” effect.

The echoes of historical discord resonate, with the memory of China’s “nghìn năm bắc thuộc” – a thousand years of northern domination – still influencing Vietnam’s strategic and policy calculus as it navigates Beijing’s resurgent economic and diplomatic overtures.

Despite the managed high sentiments in Hanoi, an underlying wariness persists. Concerns range from China’s assertive territorial claims in the South China Sea to the repercussions of Chinese dam constructions on the Mekong River’s ecosystem and communities.

Vietnam’s cautious approach to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) overtures is telling of its concern over the risks of economic entanglement and dependency that could backfire, potentially exacerbating nationalist and anti-China sentiments due to an increased Chinese presence within its borders.

The Hanoi metro project stands alone as Vietnam’s singular venture to have welcomed BRI funding. In a symbolic gesture of cooperation, the two nations have pledged to promote the “two corridors, one belt” initiative, emblematic of Vietnam’s cautious but necessary engagement with Chinese infrastructure projects.

China remains Vietnam’s primary trade partner, commanding a bilateral trade volume of $200 billion annually, and is the foremost foreign direct investor in Vietnam, outstripping U.S. investment by significant margins.

Fully cognizant of this economic interdependence, Hanoi is actively seeking to diversify its security assurances, looking towards Washington for a reliable partnership that does not destabilize its delicate relationship with Beijing. This delicate endeavor is compounded by the current economic challenges facing China, offering Hanoi strategic opportunities to assert its interests.

President Biden with Vietnam's Nguyễn Phú Trọng
President Biden with Nguyễn Phú Trọng, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam.

In the realm of regional hegemony, China’s strategic moves to counter the U.S.-led post-Cold War order highlight Vietnam’s critical position within Beijing’s strategic priorities.

As a burgeoning middle power, Vietnam is capitalizing on its diplomatic ties with both Washington and Moscow, deftly maneuvering amidst the shifting regional security dynamics to maximize its strategic benefits.

The importance of flexibility cannot be overstated as Vietnam adheres to its historical strategy of the four “Nos” that have steered its foreign policy since 1986: no military alliances, no alignment against any country, no hosting of foreign military bases, and a commitment to peaceful resolution in international relations.

The prevailing wisdom among Hanoi’s elite is a commitment to a diplomatic philosophy of being friends with everyone while opposing none. Yet, they face a deepening quandary in managing relations with their most significant neighbor, China, and their critical security partner, the United States.

Vietnam is increasingly recognized as an alternative manufacturing destination for U.S. corporations diversifying away from China. This shift is propelled by U.S. strategies to decouple economically from China, even as Chinese companies relocate production to Vietnam to circumvent new U.S. trade barriers. Consequently, Vietnam has also become a beneficiary of Western firms’ migration from China.

The security pact solidified by Xi’s visit is interpreted by some as an acknowledgment of shared concerns regarding Western influence. However, the ingrained distrust of Beijing’s motives overshadows any collective apprehension about the West, reflecting Hanoi’s strategy of hedging by tentatively engaging with Beijing’s security initiatives.

While both nations espouse concerns about threats to their socialist systems and maintain a vigilant stance towards external security risks, mutual suspicions about long-term threats to their security and national interests persist.

The commitment to increase high-level exchanges and intelligence sharing between their law-enforcement agencies underscores a shared objective to protect regime security, with domestic political stability taking precedence in their strategic considerations.

As they describe their partnership as one of “similar political systems, compatible ideologies, and shared development paths,” both nations are seeking to consolidate their internal control while remaining alert to the external ramifications of their alliance.

Both Hanoi and Beijing are intent on preserving their single-party rule, with political legitimacy as the focal point of their engagement. Xi’s visit can be seen as an attempt to counter Washington’s influence in Vietnam, offering technological and infrastructure investments, such as the railway from Kunming to Haiphong, to assert China’s position.

This railway, traversing regions rich in rare earth elements—resources critical to both nations—becomes a strategic pawn in the larger geopolitical game. Although Vietnam is home to the world’s second-largest rare earth reserves, it has been unable to leverage these due to technological constraints and a policy against exporting unprocessed materials.

The digital corridor represents another avenue for China’s outreach under the Digital Silk Road banner, encompassing everything from fiber-optic cables to comprehensive telecommunications infrastructure. As Vietnam plans its 5G network, Beijing sees strategic opportunities to increase its influence in the country’s digital landscape.

Within continental Southeast Asia, Vietnam stands as a pivotal player, cautious of Chinese power and influence. Hanoi’s strategic importance to Beijing’s regional ambitions cannot be overstated, nor can its role as a potential countermeasure against Western attempts to weaken China from the south.

For the United States, Vietnam is an invaluable economic and defensive ally, providing a bulwark against China’s influence through mainland Southeast Asia and as a maritime partner in the South China Sea.

Vietnam is key to disrupting China’s alternative land routes to the Andaman Sea, thus addressing the strategic Malacca Dilemma. The country is poised to capitalize on China’s economic downturn, attracting investment and emerging as a new hub for critical industries.

China is eager to strengthen ties and halt Washington’s overtures, leveraging Vietnam’s non-aligned stance. Beijing’s initiatives are also designed to reinforce the narrative that China remains Vietnam’s foremost economic partner and a stable, secure neighbor.

Yet, in this strategic courtship, China employs a dual strategy: exerting hard power to coerce Hanoi while simultaneously deploying economic and soft power to influence its options.

In a long-term strategic play, China aims to win hearts and minds in Vietnam by presenting a conciliatory approach to reduce tensions in the South China Sea, contrasting its public disputes with other nations like the Philippines.

Conversely, the United States maintains its security presence, calculating countermeasures to Beijing’s advances. Relying on Vietnam’s self-awareness of its need for a security counterbalance to China, the U.S. anticipates Hanoi’s enduring caution and historical fears of Beijing’s regional ambitions.

Despite efforts to foster trust and highlight ideological and strategic alignments, grassroots skepticism towards China remains entrenched in Vietnam. For the United States, strategic imperatives to contain China outweigh past enmities, a necessity acknowledged by the Vietnamese public and policymakers alike.

Collins Chong Yew Keat has been serving in University of Malaya for more than 9 years. His areas of focus include strategic and security studies, America’s foreign policy and power projection, regional conflicts and power parity analysis and has published various publications on numerous platforms including books and chapter articles. He is also a regular contributor in providing op-eds and analytical articles for both the local and international media on various contemporary global issues and regional affairs since 2007.