Vietnam's adroit balancing act

In the past year, there has been a flurry of visits by Vietnamese leaders to major foreign countries to forge closer bilateral partnerships.

Only a month ago, Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong paid an official visit to Washington.

Next month, he will visit Tokyo for talks with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan. In November, Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit Hanoi and, later in the month, US President Barack Obama is expected in the Vietnamese capital. Vietnam is also joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

What is going on?

It is all part of Vietnam's strategy to balance between China and a host of its other partners.

It wants to deepen political, strategic and economic relations with important players - the US, Japan, India, Russia, Australia, the European Union and Asean - to cushion itself from China, but without entering into a formal alliance arrangement with any great power.

It is part and parcel of Vietnam's adroit strategy of balancing its partnerships.

At one end is China. Vietnam was ruled by China for a thousand years and then fought China for over 800 years or paid tribute to maintain its independence.

As China once again takes its place as a leading world power after a hiatus of two centuries, an ancient and primordial security issue again haunts the Vietnamese mind: How to protect itself from Chinese domination and maintain a measure of independence. Clashes of interest with China in the South China Sea have raised tensions and made this issue more pressing.

China and Vietnam were allies during much of the Vietnam War (1965-1975), but relations deteriorated in the later stages of that conflict, culminating in the 1979 border war, when China launched a punitive military assault against Vietnam for its invasion of Cambodia to replace the Khmer Rouge regime with something more acceptable to Vietnam.

Through much of the 1980s, Indochina was a theatre of bitter Sino-Vietnamese and Sino-Soviet rivalry as Vietnam, armed and financed by the Soviet Union, confronted the Chinese-sponsored Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

However, Vietnam could not sustain this confrontation once Soviet military and financial support withered after the ascent of President Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union.

This vast change in its circumstances compelled Vietnam to settle the Cambodian conflict and normalise its relations with China. It helped that, after the Tiananmen suppression and Western sanctions, China was eager to expand its international ties.

Since then, the VCP has gone to considerable lengths to accommodate China's interests.

Apart from the curse of geography, historical antagonisms and the vast asymmetries in power between the two states, accommodation was facilitated by the fact that Vietnam shared with China a deep ideologically-rooted fear of liberal political and economic ideas which could activate civil society demands

for democracy and individual rights and undermine communist party rule.

However, with the persistence of Chinese pressures in the South China Sea , Vietnam now feels that concessions in the spirit of Vietnam-China communist brotherhood will not change Chinese behaviour.

One might ask why Vietnam does not then opt for an alliance with the US to counter China.

The answer is straightforward.

The US would be wary of "entrapment", that is, being lured by Vietnam into fighting a war with China over interests of only marginal concern to US security.

Even if the United States were keen on an alliance, Vietnam might fear US abandonment if the political and economic costs to the US of such a commitment become unsustainable in the future, as happened in South Vietnam in the early 1970s and, more recently, in Iraq.

Vietnam might also be wary of being a pawn in big power collusion between the US and China at some point. In 1954, after defeating the French at Dien Bien Phu, the Vietnamese were denied the full fruits of victory at the Geneva conference because China, in an understanding with the US, pressured them to accept partition of the country at the 17th parallel.

In 1972-1973, during the Paris peace talks to end the Vietnam war, China again applied pressure on Vietnam to make concessions to the Americans, leading the Vietnamese to believe that Beijing did not want the reunification of Vietnam.

Today, the US and China have a complex relationship, made up of both cooperation and rivalry, with conflicting interests on the role of each in East Asia.

While nobody knows how this relationship will play out in the future, among the longer-term possibilities is a Sino-American accommodation in which the US allows some parts of the region to slide into a China sphere of influence. The Vietnamese, with a deep store of bitter experiences with great powers, have sensitive enough antennae to know this.

So Vietnam prefers to widen its strategic options by deepening partnerships with all important players. It is also strengthening its national capacities, including military capacities, to resist.

Will Vietnam's strategy succeed? For now, it looks like the best or the least bad option. Much will depend on what China does and what the naval balance in the South China Sea between China and the US and its allies will be like in the future. One thing is certain: Vietnam has centuries of experience in dealing with China through an adroit mixture of resistance and obeisance.

•The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies-Yusof Ishak Institute.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 13, 2015, with the headline Vietnam's adroit balancing act to balance between China and other partners. Subscribe