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What the US can learn from Vietnam's Four No's

What the US can learn from Vietnam's Four No's

Amid deepening ties, Washington should recognize that Hanoi's regional strategy sits far beyond any singular focus on China

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

Vietnam is seared in American history and memory like almost no other distant nation since World War II. Seen as the first domino in the supposedly relentless march of communism across Southeast Asia, it later caused the downfall of a president and left a trail of tears and recriminations in its wake that echoed all the way until the Gulf War in 1991. And it opened a window — even if for a brief few years — for serious questioning at home of both the means and the ends of U.S. foreign policy.

How times have changed! The lavish welcome accorded to President Biden in Vietnam is just the latest sign of the dramatic shift. Clearly, Washington is eager to deepen ties with Vietnam with China on its mind. But if Washington thinks Hanoi will, at some point in the foreseeable future, align with Washington on countering China on the security plane, it would be sadly mistaken. Vietnam indeed has a China strategy, but it is not America’s China strategy. Being clear-eyed about this can open doors to thinking about the true payoffs of the relationship.

Vietnam upgrading its relations with the United States to the level of “comprehensive strategic partnership” merely means ties have drawn level with a similar status bestowed earlier to China, India, Russia, and South Korea. China is also Vietnam’s biggest trade partner by far. Though Hanoi has welcomed the U.S. Navy, it has also hosted similar visits from Japan and India, among others. And unlike some other U.S. partners in Asia, American defense sales to Vietnam remain limited and confined to lower-value products. Vietnam conducts military exercises with foreign powers, but they are dominated by a focus on disaster relief and peacekeeping, or come in very expansive almost-multilateral formats such as RIMPAC. Hanoi, which has a sharp maritime dispute with Beijing, is nevertheless not pursuing a geopolitical alignment with Washington so much as a hedging strategy involving all of Asia’s major powers.

The real story of the U.S.-Vietnam relationship is geoeconomics. Vietnam — which Washington shamefully bombed and strafed practically back to the stone age in the 1960s and 70s — is now, incredibly, Asia’s new economic tiger. Even more remarkably, it has become the United States’ 8th largest trade partner in goods and looks set to overtake the U.K., (currently seventh-largest partner) very soon. U.S. bilateral trade in goods with Vietnam reached $139 billion in 2022, a 20-fold increase in 20 years.

Washington’s emphasis on moving supply chains away from China aligns with Vietnam’s desire to attract as much trade, investment, and manufacturing as possible. Vietnam also possesses the world’s second-largest rare earth reserves, a key asset in a time when the global energy transition is taking off. Vietnam saw a surge in solar installations recently and signed up to a U.S.-led initiative to reduce its dependence on coal. Vietnam has also joined the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework and is a part of both the CPTPP and RCEP trade agreements. Clearly, there is a serious convergence of geoeconomic interests, and both sides are acting on this recognition.

But while Vietnam looks toward a rapid rise, its feet appear firmly planted. The anchor is provided by its famous “Four No’s” policy: no siding with one country against another, no military alliances, no foreign military bases, and no using force or threatening to use force in international relations. This does not preclude having military relations with other powers, but even in those, balance is pursued.

Vietnam keeps its powder dry — for instance it has developed its own potent maritime militia to counter Chinese maritime assertions. But if there is one state in Asia that demonstrates both resolute strategic autonomy and committed non-alignment, it is Vietnam. It would take a huge strategic error by China to change that.

President Biden denied that countering China was the motivation for his visit. The United States was not trying to start a “new cold war,” he said, and was focused on “stability” in Asia. But Washington’s actions speak louder than words. The Philippines is a case in point. In recent months, the United States has expanded its military footprint in the Philippines and doubled down on deep military coordination, also involving its other allies, with Manila. This has enhanced chances of a great power war and is also turning out to have divisive impacts on Filipino domestic politics.

Of course, Chinese intrusive actions — most recently trying to stop Philippine resupplies to its troops perched precariously on the Second Thomas Shoal and asserting a new, illegal 10-dash line map — are contributory factors. And, of course, the Philippines is also exercising its own agency in all this. But the asymmetric realities of power in the Washington-Manila alliance give reasons to suspect U.S. “agency” is much more consequential in the dramatic U-turn in the trajectory of the alliance. Biden’s skipping the ASEAN and East Asia summits in Jakarta and going to Hanoi instead also sent the unfortunate signal that Washington is focused more on building up potential China-balancers than prioritizing ASEAN centrality.

Despite the vociferous denials, the logic of a new cold war with China is very much alive in many quarters in Washington. The United States should resist this logic, which includes seeing Vietnam’s own serious maritime rifts with China as an opportunity to bring Hanoi over to “our side.” Aiding Vietnam’s economic rise, and encouraging supply chain diversification where sensible, is important to pursue. It will create opportunities for American businesses and workers, deepen bilateral ties and automatically help create a more multipolar Asia, reducing chances of absolute Chinese dominance. But we will likely not see enhanced military interoperability and heavy-duty exercises between Washington and Hanoi. In their bilateral relations, Hanoi’s terms will set the bar, also because Vietnam has its own concerns about U.S. policies that mirror China’s. Hanoi remains very wary of Washington’s “democracy v. autocracy” rhetoric and so-called values-based interventions. “Color revolutions” and the “politicization of human rights” even made it to the joint statement by Chinese and Vietnamese leaders during General Secretary Trong’s visit to Beijing in November 2022.

Vietnam’s rise is also a sign of how a middle power in Asia and the Global South can find the will to not remain hostage to the suffering of two genocidal wars (against France and the United States) and another damaging invasion (by China), even though Hanoi effectively won all these wars. Vietnam is a case study in channeling past trauma into a laser-like focus on rise — “don’t get mad, get rich.” This is being achieved by the one-party state through a deliberate emphasis on external multi-alignment, investing in the capacities of its people, and a focused embrace of trade and investment.

The United States, in contrast, let its own victory in the Cold War go to its head with disastrous invasions and coercive projects to remake entire regions. And today, the impulse is to wall off major trading powers and adversaries and pursue forward presence to deter rivals. Much of the American political class is also deeply fearful of trade agreements. These are two very different countries, but Vietnam provides America an antidotal geopolitical model worth reflecting on.

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