By Khang Vu

The USS Ronald Reagan sailed into Vietnam this week, only the third visit by an American aircraft carrier since the Vietnam war ended in 1975. The visit marks the growing strength of the Vietnam-U.S. security partnership as China continues to assert its sovereignty in the South China Sea at Vietnam’s expense.

However, it would be a mistake to look at Vietnam-U.S. relations without taking into account developments in Vietnam-China relations. On the day the Ronald Reagan arrived, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh visited China for the first time during his term. Chinh’s visit was another example of Vietnam’s balancing act between the two great powers. Twin anniversaries this year underscore this effort – Vietnam this year celebrates ten years since the establishment of a “Comprehensive Partnership” with the U.S., as well as 15 years since its “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of Cooperation” with China.

As a relatively small country, Vietnam lacks agency when it comes to managing relations with the great powers, especially China. And China’s actions also have consequences for Vietnam in its relations with the U.S. In a recent journal article in Journal of Contemporary China, I detailed how China has leveraged its military and economic power as well as its political ideology to drive a wedge into the Vietnam-U.S. partnership.

My research shows that since 2013, China has adopted a dual-pronged approach to undermine Vietnam-U.S. security cooperation. Most obviously, China has sought to coerce Vietnam in the realm of international security by issuing threats warning it not to cooperate with the U.S. against China. But China has also used political and economic cooperation with Vietnam in a bid to convince Hanoi the benefits of a good bilateral relationship and the dangers of a U.S.-backed “colour revolution” to Vietnam’s internal security.

So far, China has succeeded in keeping Vietnam neutral and impeded the upgrade of the Vietnam-U.S. relationship from a “comprehensive” to a “strategic” partnership despite China’s assertive behaviour at sea and a relentless U.S. push for an upgrade.

Photo Credit: U.S. Navy

Captain Daryle Cardone, commanding officer of the USS Ronald Reagan, greets sailors from the Vietnam People’s Navy in Da Nang, Vietnam.

My findings have several implications for how the U.S. should manage its relations with Vietnam.

First, the U.S. should recognise that Vietnam cares as much about its internal security as its external security. There is no doubt that China’s assertiveness has been the driving force of improvements in relations between Hanoi and Washington, but so long as Vietnam is sceptical about U.S. intentions to meddle in its internal affairs, relations cannot move forward. Vietnamese state media repeatedly warned that the West should not exploit the growing relationship with Hanoi to incite political opposition against the government.

China understands Vietnam’s reservation and so has hyped up the ideological differences between Hanoi and Washington to keep the country from moving closer to the U.S. The U.S. thus should eschew a democracy-versus-autocracy narrative to avoid alienating security partners that don’t share its liberal ideology. Although the U.S. has shown it is willing to work with Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) officials so long as they support a “rules-based order”, respect for the CPV’s authority is a must to improve Vietnam-U.S. relations.

Second, the U.S. needs to make clear to Vietnam the extent of its commitment to the region. The tyranny of distance means that China can more credibly threaten to punish Vietnam than the U.S. can promise protection. When Russia invaded Ukraine last year, China’s then foreign minister Wang Yi had a phone conversation with the Vietnamese counterpart Bui Thanh Son, warning Vietnam not to cooperate with the U.S. to oppose China and that both countries “can’t let the Cold War mentality resurge in the region and the tragedy of Ukraine be repeated”.

China has also sought to deliberately exploit Vietnam’s uncertainty about the U.S. promise to preserve a free and open South China Sea. Bitter experience along the 1400-kilometere China-Vietnam land border in the 1970s and 1980s is a reminder for Vietnam about the risks of moving closer to Washington. Only when Vietnam is confident that the U.S. is a reliable security option will it move closer to Washington to oppose Chinese coercion.

With talk of efforts to update the Vietnam-U.S. partnership, the “China factor” will determine the extent of security cooperation – both ways. China will keep driving a wedge to keep Vietnam and the U.S. apart, so a strategy to blunt this tactic is needed.

This article originally appeared in the Lowy Interpreter. The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article.

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TNL Editor: TJ Ting (@thenewslensintl)

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