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Why Vietnam shuns the idea of being a pawn in great power competition

In her trip today, Vice President Kamala Harris again raised the specter of China 'bullying' and hopes for a strategic relationship.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

It is clear from Vice President Kamala Harris’s trip to Vietnam today and to the region that the United States is trying to shore up its allies in its great power challenge to China. The question is whether these allies are willing to play along.

Armed with vaccines and a desire to upgrade the two countries’ relationship to a “strategic partnership,” the vice president was precluded earlier on Tuesday by a Chinese envoy who was also bearing vaccines. The competition over Vietnam is on. Harris, following up on a speech she made in Singapore earlier in the week, made it clear in remarks to officials in Hanoi that China and security was front and center on the administration’s minds:

“We need to find ways to pressure and raise the pressure, frankly, on Beijing to abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and to challenge its bullying and excessive maritime claims,” said Harris.

But like other countries in the region, Vietnam is struggling to find a balance between its interests in improving the Washington-Hanoi relationship and its own path to security and prosperity among its neighbors, and in particular, with China.

Improved ties between the United States and Vietnam did not happen overnight. But despite only normalizing relations in 1995, the countries have found much common ground. While Vietnam is likely to continue to be a crucial partner as Washington focuses greater attention on the region, it will not abandon its core foreign policy values of independence and self-reliance. U.S. military cooperation with Vietnam will have inherent limitations. The Vietnamese have no desire to rely on the United States or any other country to provide for their own security. The United States will have to continue to put diplomacy and economic ties at the forefront of its relationship with Hanoi.

Few Americans have any familiarity with Vietnamese history before or after America’s ill-fated war there. The conflict with the United States is not absent from Vietnam’s memory, but the country has endured centuries of intervention and subjugation at the hands of regional and global powers. Various Chinese dynasties, dating as far back as the Western Han dynasty in the second century BC, sought to control the people of Vietnam for centuries with varying levels of success. France consolidated its control over Indochina in the late 19th century before the Japanese Empire arrived in 1940. French colonial rule returned after World War II only to come to a violent end in 1954, setting the stage for an ever-growing American presence. The Paris Peace Accords marked the ostensible end of America’s war in 1973, and South Vietnam fell two years later. The Vietnamese had little time to rest. China invaded from the north in 1979 in response to Vietnamese actions against the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, which was then backed by Beijing. Vietnam withstood this incursion as well. The Khmer Rouge was removed from power, and China eventually withdrew its troops from Vietnam.

Vietnam’s long history with hegemons forged an iron identity that continues to play a central role in its foreign policy. Vietnam shuns the idea of becoming a pawn caught up in great power competition. Its defense strategy begins with its longstanding “three nos” policy: Vietnam will accept no military alliance, no foreign bases on its territory, and will not siding with a second country against a third. Vietnam will not sacrifice its independence or sovereignty for a closer relationship with the United States or China.

A pessimist might view these limitations as a hindrance to deeper US-Vietnam relations, or an obstacle to be overcome. This misses the point. Vietnam’s consistent, pragmatic approach to foreign policy is a virtue unto itself. Using military cooperation as a substitute for diplomacy in some Southeast Asian countries has led to tenuous situations with partners like the Philippines or Thailand. By contrast, Vietnam’s policy of self-reliance and its rejection of hegemonic influence makes it a stable partner for years to come.

Vietnam has grown to become one of the United States’ ten largest trading partners despite the fact that the two countries only agreed to a bilateral trade deal in 2001. That relationship could continue to grow if additional companies choose to move operations out of China. About 24,000 Vietnamese students were studying in the United States in 2019-20, the sixth-most of any country. America has also prioritized humanitarian efforts to remove unexploded ordinance and clean up dioxins such as Agent Orange. Daniel Kritenbrink, a career Foreign Service Officer who served as ambassador to Vietnam during the Trump administration, earned plaudits for his work in the country. He has since been nominated to serve as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs by the Biden Administration. It is a success story that is worth studying.

That is not to say that America’s improved relationship with Hanoi can be copied and pasted to other governments in Southeast Asia. Other counties in the region will pursue their own interests, just as Vietnam has done. Cambodia and Laos have deep ties to Beijing that cannot be easily undone. Many countries have large populations of ethnic Chinese that play a role in domestic considerations. There is no one-size solution in Southeast Asia. Relationships in the region will continue to be complex and require serious engagement.

But broader strokes from the development of US-Vietnam relations are still useful. Vietnam continues to maintain a relationship with China where it can benefit while also pursuing greater cooperation with the United States. Few countries in Southeast Asia are comfortable with the idea of being beholden to Beijing, but none are blind to what China has to offer. The United States was able to build a strong relationship with Vietnam without relying on close military cooperation. American presence in the region should not begin and end with military power.

The United States has more to offer these countries than just closer security ties. Vietnam’s pursuit of independence, self-reliance, cooperation, and development are all values that the United States should seek to support in the region. The improved US-Vietnam relationship advances those causes without a larger American military footprint in the region. That success shows that a full range of foreign policy tools can be effective in developing deeper relations in a vital region.

Vietnam does not wish to fall under a US security umbrella in the region, or to become wholly reliant on its relationship with China. America has improved its relationship with Vietnam by fostering diplomatic, economic, and cultural ties rather than leaning on military cooperation. The result has been a strengthened partnership that is worth maintaining in the future.

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris attends the official launch of the CDC Southeast Asia Regional Office in Hanoi, Vietnam, August, 25, 2021. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein/Pool
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