Vietnam faces the daunting prospect of balancing its relations with the U.S. and China as tensions escalate between the superpowers.
The second October 16-17 visit by U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis to Vietnam this year attracted great attention among international experts. His first visit was in January 2018.
Carl Thayer, Emeritus Professor at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defense Force Academy, said the trip showed that the U.S. wants to include Vietnam in a cooperative defense network to deal with current challenges to regional security, including aggressive Chinese actions in the South China Sea. Vietnam calls the waters the East Sea.
“It is clear from the U.S. National Security Strategy and U.S. National Defense Strategy that the United States views Vietnam as an important strategic partner,” Thayer said.
Mattis’ visit happened at a time when tensions between the U.S. and China have continued to increase fiercely, fronted by a trade war triggered by the Trump administration imposing 10 percent tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods on September 24, then announcing that it would increase to 25 percent at the start of 2019.
China hit back immediately with tariffs on $60 billion worth of American goods and things escalated from there.
Late September, Chinese destroyer Luyang approached the USS Decatur, a U.S. guided-missile destroyer, as the latter was carrying out what it calls a freedom of navigation operation (FONOPs) in the Spratlys. It was a close encounter.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence accused China of military aggression against the U.S., “nothing less than to push the U.S. from the Western Pacific and attempt to prevent us from coming to the aid of our allies.”
He noted that while China’s leader stood in the Rose Garden of the White House in 2015 and said that his country had “no intention to militarize the South China Sea” today, Beijing has deployed advanced anti-ship and anti-air missiles atop an archipelago of military bases constructed on artificial islands.
Vietnam’s increased prominence
Among the countries in the Southeast Asian region, Thayer said that in the coming years, Vietnam will assume increased responsibility for regional affairs as it becomes the Chair of ASEAN in 2020; and globally, when it is elected a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council. This elevates the importance of Vietnam as a security partner in the U.S.’ eyes.
Political Science Professor Robert Ross, a specialist on Chinese foreign and defense policy and U.S.-China relations, believes that U.S. interest in cooperation with Vietnam reflects its interest in responding to the rise of China and cooperating with countries that can contribute to strengthening U.S. presence in Southeast Asia.
“Vietnam’s presence on China’s mainland perimeter makes it especially interesting to U.S. defense officials,” he said.
Derek Grossman, Senior Defense Analyst, The Rand Corporation, said Washington’s hardening of its position on the South China Sea plays well with Hanoi’s aspiration to maintain peace and stability in the region.
“Although the recent uptick in U.S.-Vietnam defense ties does not (and almost certainly will not) include a formal military alliance, Beijing is probably more cautious than in recent years to avoid U.S. intervention in a future Vietnam – China standoff in the South China Sea,” Grossman said.
Significantly, Secretary Mattis visited the Bien Hoa Military Airport, a dioxin hotspot and former American airbase. A Vietnam’s Defense Ministry statement cited Mattis as saying the result of the visit would be the foundation to report to the U.S. government and Congress, so that they can continue helping Vietnam deal with war consequences.
Thayer stressed that by visiting Bien Hoa, Secretary Mattis was acknowledging the importance Vietnam places on addressing war legacy issues such as Agent Orange.
Dr. Corey Wallace, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany, said the main “advantage” of the tensions is that it makes Vietnam more valuable geopolitically to both the U.S. and China, especially the former.
This gives Vietnam greater opportunities to diversify its diplomacy, especially its defense partners and equipment providers and possible infrastructure investment providers, he said.
Wallace said that currently Vietnam is still too dependent on Russian defense equipment and Chinese investment and trade.
On the economic front, Timothy Heath, The RAND Corporation, explained that while Washington was looking for friends to balance against China, Vietnam was very attractive, given its location and strength.
So Hanoi has an excellent opportunity to improve relations with the U.S., he said.
Furthermore, the whole region will likely benefit as the United States and China try to outbid each other to win friends and influence. The United States recently announced a $60 billion aid package for Asia, which is a direct response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative investments, Heath said.
Words of caution
The RAND Corporation’s Grossman warned that if one or both sides (U.S. or China) overplay their hand in the South China Sea, it could result in miscalculation and an escalation in armed conflict, which would be contrary to Vietnam’s interests.
A whiff of this could be scented a few weeks ago, when the USS Decatur, while conducting a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP), was tailed within 45 yards by the Chinese navy.
Going forward, Hanoi ideally would like to see a stable U.S.-China relationship to ensure regional peace and stability and to avoid having to choose sides.
Wallace said that Vietnam can use China-U.S. tensions to bolster its long-term strategic position but it will have to be tactically careful in terms of balancing demands from both sides. This has been the Vietnamese way up until now, he said.
Tensions between Washington and Beijing may also increase instability in the region, and a possible military crisis cannot be ruled out in the South China Sea; such instability could harm Vietnam’s economy, said Heath.
Gregory B. Poling, Director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, CSIS, said Vietnam’s best options are to continue to try to put the South China Sea back on the top of the international agenda, as it was in 2016 before the Philippine government shelved the arbitral award and the Trump administration took office with no clear South China Sea policy.
“International pressure and the threat of condemnation does constrain Beijing’s actions, China wants to be seen as a world leader, not a regional bully and outlaw. But that pressure can’t be effective if Vietnam is complaining alone, it must do so as part of a large coalition of states,” Poling said.
Thayer predicted that Vietnam will come under increased pressure to step up defense cooperation with the U.S. including more frequent naval port visits. In the coming months there are likely to be more incidents between Chinese warships and the U.S. Navy as Washington steps up freedom of navigation operational patrols in the South China Sea and conducts naval exercises with its allies, he said.
China is now likely to pressure Vietnam and other ASEAN members not to side with the United States. It could also delay negotiations on the Code of Conduct by arguing that the U.S. is responsible for threatening China’s security. Vietnam will now face a more confrontational environment between China and the United States both globally and regionally, Thayer said.
The Australian expert expressed concern that severe tensions between China and the U.S. would threaten regional peace and stability, undermine the investment environment, and cause uncertainty in the market place. This is not in Vietnam’s interest as it pursues a policy of active, proactive international integration, he said.
Any armed conflict would cause shipping rates to rise and this would increase the cost of trade. Depending on where armed conflict occurs, this could divert international commercial shipping and add to transportation costs.
Thayer said: “The advantage for Vietnam is to retain its independence of action and refrain from getting directly involved. Vietnam could use its independent position to take the diplomatic middle ground and urge both parties to de-escalate. Meanwhile, Vietnam can continue to conduct ‘business as usual’ with both countries.”