Vietnam's Delicate Great-Power Balancing Act
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Vietnam's Delicate Great-Power Balancing Act


APLN member Rajaram Panda argues that with tensions between Washington and Beijing continuing, Vietnam faces a complex balancing act as it improves ties with Washington but seeks not to irreparably alienate Beijing.

AFTER ATTENDING the G-20 Summit in New Delhi in September 2023, US President Joe Biden traveled to Hanoi on Sept. 10, where he announced an historic agreement with Vietnam’s Communist leader Nguyen Phu Trong, elevating US-Vietnam ties to a “comprehensive strategic partnership.” The importance of this decision lies in the fact that Vietnam reserves this kind of arrangement for only a handful of close partners. It also signaled the culmination of Hanoi’s strategic alignment with Washington, putting the US in a central position in Vietnam’s security policy. The main driver of this alignment stems from China’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region, something that has brought these two former foes closer now than ever before.

Despite the dramatically different political systems in the two countries, both have common interests in the political and strategic domains. The relationship has gained traction since the 1995 normalization of ties, driven by the geostrategic changes taking place in the Indo-Pacific.

Also in the economic field, the interests of both converge. Washington and Hanoi have compelling reasons to cooperate on a wide range of issues, such as semiconductors, clean energy and public health. Even though Vietnam and China align in the sense that both have Communist systems, Beijing’s expansive political claims in areas that are part of the global commons such as the South China Sea have caused friction between the two countries. As Vietnam continues to face heat from China, it finds its strategic interests converging with the US and other friendly countries such as India and Japan. The growing security alliance with the US is a result of this China factor.

What is the impact of Vietnam aligning with the US despite its comprehensive strategic partnerships with a select group of other countries that includes China, India, Russia and South Korea? The recent deepening of ties with the US raises the inevitable question of whether Vietnam is abandoning or downplaying its policy of aligning with these other countries in favor of a single power. Hanoi is aware that its cozier relationship with the US could be seen as a provocation by China, attracting possible retaliation.

That is one reason why Vietnam, as it strengthens its ties with the US, is expected to tread carefully so as not to damage its economic relationship with China. Despite major political differences with Beijing on regional issues, Hanoi is keen to maintain the strong economic ties it has developed with China. Maintaining a policy of equidistance, or at least appearing to do so, between the two major powers is a diplomatic strategy that Hanoi is likely to pursue, despite the difficulties.

The full article can be accessed on the Global Asia website here.

Image: Joe Biden met Nguyen Phu Trong in Hanoi, Vietnam in 2023 (Official White House Photo, via Wikimedia Commons)

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