Vietnam’s difficult decision 28-Sep-2022

South China Sea Series

Vietnam might be the country most in China’s way.

It has the usual territorial disputes, but it makes the next largest territorial claim to the South China Sea, and shares a land border, taking it right up around and behind China’s Hainan Island

Vietnam relies on China economically, the Communist leaderships share an affinity, but Vietnam also fiercely wants its independence.

Vietnam is in a difficult diplomatic position with China. Does it become warmer or cooler?

Lay of the land - what is Vietnam’s situation?

Vietnam has a long history of Chinese domination, long before the French or Americans ever came to Vietnam.

Vietnam’s history of resistance goes back right to its name. The name “Viet Nam” means something like “the people in the South”. This means south of China. Definitionally the Vietnamese are the people who do not want to be Chinese. This couldn’t be shown clearer than the resistance to China in the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War.

Since then, and especially since the end of the Cold War, Vietnam has enjoyed better relations with the US. The US was only there a relatively short time, is generally looked on as a much better place to go and emulate, and Vietnam’s relatively young population does not remember the war. It also helps that Vietnam won.

Since then, Vietnam flourished as an alternative manufacturing destination to China. Chinese labour has become more expensive. Vietnam is comparatively less developed but its workforce has the right level of education and skill to turn its hand to the kinds of manufacturing foreign markets demand.

Vietnam is increasingly important in the global supply chain but also relies on China for certain parts of it.

These are some of the reasons why Vietnam has to be careful. It does not want China to view it as a US cat’s paw. Vietnam developed a foreign and defence policy to reflect this - the Four No’s.

1) No military alliances.
2) No affiliation with one country to counteract another.
3) No foreign military bases on Vietnamese territory.
4) No use of force or threats in international relations.

This explains Vietnam’s vague statement (Hanoi Times 23-Sep-2021) on the AUKUS deal, for example.

On the other hand, how closely are these 4 No’s stuck to in practice? Vietnam is also improving its relations with India (Ministry of External Affairs 30-May-2022). With various members of the Quad (e.g. India) it conducts joint military exercises (Diplomat 22-May-2018), receives US carriers (Reuters 05-Mar-2018), receives lines of credit (PR 04-Mar-2018), is gifted patrol vessels (VietNamNet Global 17-Mar-2017), and Vietnam buys ships too (Reuters 28-Jul-2020).

Vietnam understandably probably feels encircled. China to the north and east in the South China Sea, and Chinese aligned Laos and Cambodia to the west.

Vietnam is also vulnerable militarily by land. It’s a narrow country. It wouldn’t take much to cut the country in half. The depth the Viet Cong used during the Vietnam War against the US, going into Cambodia and Laos, is not an option any more.

To the north, China is damming the Mekong River. This is a big threat to Vietnam. Vietnam receives the environmental externalities sent downstream. Laos and Cambodia are respectively going ahead with their own projects for dams (Radio Free Asia 27-Apr-2022), and delaying them (Reuters 18-Mar-2020). These projects represent any number of possible disruptions downriver to Vietnam, or taps which can be turned off.

What’s next?

The Vietnamese should be optimistic.

Its recent history is victorious. Its self-perception isn’t frozen by defeat in the same way that China’s is a little by the century of shame, or Japan’s defeat in WW2, or even Korea’s conquest by Japan and then forcible split in the Cold War.

Sooner or later though, it should reasonably expect some pressure from China. What will its leadership do? Vietnamese and Chinese leadership both face the challenge of retaining their own power and commitment to communism in the post-Cold War world. On the other hand, this probably makes the Vietnamese very suspicious of the Western powers, especially the US. Do they trust the West not to try to replace or undermine their communist government?

Vietnam will have to decide what’s worse. China or the West.