Vietnam: Between China and US

1 December 2014

PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – Vietnam’s foreign policy faces an unprecedented challenge deriving from increasing competition among major powers. Striking a balance between China and the United States is the most difficult foreign policy task for Vietnam.
China is a big neighbor, an ideological ally, and biggest economic partner for Vietnam. In 2013, trade between China and Vietnam totalled $50.21 billion and total Chinese investment capital reached over $2.3 billion.
But the sovereignty dispute in the South China Sea is the most serious test in bilateral relations since normalization in 1991. Anti-Chinese feeling in Vietnam has grown over the years, putting more pressure on Hanoi to respond to Chinese actions in the South China Sea.
Vietnam started experiencing increasing security threats posed by the rising power and assertiveness of China after the installation of a Chinese oil rig in the disputed waters in May. Under such circumstances, Vietnam reinforced its bilateral relations with other major powers — US, Japan, India, and Russia.
The United States is the most important strategic partner for Vietnam to hedge against China. Over the last five years, driven by convergent strategic and economic interests, Vietnam’s relations with Japan and the United States have developed rapidly.
In July 2013, Vietnam and the US upgraded their bilateral ties to a comprehensive partnership, signalling a significant development in their relations after diplomatic normalization in 1995. Washington policymakers view Vietnam as a promising partner in the Asia Pacific.
Bilateral trade volume between Vietnam and the US in 2013 was about US$ 30 billion. Vietnam’s decision to be part of the US-initiated Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) reflects its effort to diversify its economic partners, especially with the US, Japan, and Australia.
Next year will mark 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries. It is expected that President Barack Obama will visit Hanoi to deepen US-Vietnamese comprehensive partnership. Expectations are high. The US is expected to do more to ensure regional peace and stability and to assist Vietnam in its hedging strategy against China.
Yet, for Vietnam, there is uncertainty associated with building closer ties with the US. Some Vietnamese policymakers are wary of the ‘peace process,’ which has been exercised by the US and its allies against socialism. Human rights and democratic values remain stumbling blocks in forging closer ties between the two countries.
Vietnam also tries to build mutual strategic trust and cooperation with China at all levels. In the recent crisis, the leaders from both countries conducted intensive shuttle diplomacy to build mutual understanding. A hotline was created to prevent miscommunication and misunderstanding.
Party-to-party relationships and ideological harmony are the foundation of Sino-Vietnamese relations. It helps to overcome differences and forge closer ties between the two countries and peoples. Vietnam managed to effectively use this channel to reduce the recent tension in the South China Sea.
Vietnam is practicing hedging foreign policy towards major powers based on these guiding foreign policy principles: independence, diversification, multilateralism, international integration, and being a responsible stakeholder in the international community.
Vietnam is going to intensify comprehensive cooperation with both China and the United States. Different approaches and strategies will be applied to engage each major power.
Strengthening regional security and economic architecture centering on ASEAN would be the best way to socialize major powers and neutralize their competition.
To reinforce its strategic position in the region, Vietnam seeks a stronger regional role in ASEAN and a leadership role at the sub-regional cooperation level. Vietnam wants to replace the traditional role of Thailand — in ASEAN as well as in the Mekong Sub-region.

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