Vietnam's 'bamboo' foreign policy clout

Vietnam's 'bamboo' foreign policy clout

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, centre, accompanied by Vietnam's Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son, right, participates in the ground-breaking of the new US embassy in Hanoi, Vietnam on April 15. (Photo: Reuters)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, centre, accompanied by Vietnam's Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son, right, participates in the ground-breaking of the new US embassy in Hanoi, Vietnam on April 15. (Photo: Reuters)

Vietnam is the only Southeast Asian country at this critical moment to be facing a major challenge as it attempts to juggle the three great powers -- China, Russia, and the US -- simultaneously. It is as if Hanoi is keeping a dagger, a bomb, and a gun in perpetual mid-air flight to ensure the tripartite relations will not crash along the way. It is bamboo diplomacy Vietnamese style, at its very best in keeping these extraordinary allies and friends at bay. In recent years, the bamboo policy description has been widely used due to the country's distinctive diplomacy.

Thailand and the Philippines, for instance, only require to deal intensely with the US-China competition. To them, the ties with Russia are a sideshow. They are important of course, but not at the same level as Vietnam's. Within the region, the Russia-Vietnam alliance is rock solid -- even the ties and sentiments of other Indochinese countries, such as Cambodia and Laos, are not quite as unwavering. In particular, Phnom Penh's attitude towards Moscow has been shifting in ways that nobody expected. Cambodia jumped the high fence without looking back over the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While the rest of the world shuns Russia, Vietnam is still grateful to Moscow for assisting in its post-war reconstruction.

Since joining Asean in 1995, Vietnam's foreign policy has been very active and omnidirectional in trying to end its longstanding isolation. Hanoi has quickly normalised ties with former foes and equally quickly established diplomatic ties with new friends. Although the former Soviet Union collapsed, rock-solid ties with Moscow have continued unabated. When Vietnam joined Asean, it also normalised ties with the US. Nobody can deny that since then, Vietnam has been on the upswing. For Vietnam's internal and external development, the past two decades have been the greatest period of national rejuvenation and all-around development.

What is most remarkable about Vietnam's external relations has been its ability to win over the West, in particular the US and Europe, in terms of the country's political stability and pro-free trade frameworks. Vietnam's membership in the former Trans-Pacific Partnership and its free trade agreement with the EU are good indicators of the country's capacity to engage and conduct its foreign policy with the most demanding partners like the US and EU. Even allies like Thailand and the Philippines might find it difficult to perform such a task. It is noteworthy that Western analysts credit the age-old rivalry between Beijing and Hanoi for Washington's continued efforts to raise the profile and capacity of Vietnam, which indeed was the US's former foe in the Cold War period.

One would have thought that the cordial Vietnam-US ties, which have been further consolidated both in terms of trade and security, would go on forever as long as the rise of China is unstoppable. In a similar vein, Vietnam has also become one of the US's major trading partners. In 1995, bilateral trade was a pittance, with a mere total of US$195 million; in 2021, the volume was 5.5 billion USD. In comparison, Vietnam-Russia trade was much smaller -- expanding from US$229 million in 1994 to US$80 billion in 2019.

But Russia's invasion of Ukraine on 24 Feb 2022 caused an unexpected hiccup in the US-Vietnam dynamic. Indeed, without the Russia-Ukraine war, Vietnam-US cooperation would have been more strategic and attained the level of "comprehensive strategic partnership" by now. This trajectory has been set forth for quite a while. The Russian-Ukraine war has uncharacteristically added stress to Vietnam's foreign policy and US-Vietnam relations. Hanoi was placed in an unavoidable position of having to abstain from voting on the three UN General Assembly's distinctive resolutions on the situation in Ukraine, much to the chagrin of its Western friends. Hanoi's votes caused a high level of anxiety among the US and European policymakers who have bet on Vietnam as a new bulwark against the rising influence of Russia as well as China.

The West has been vexed by its Asian friends' attitude toward the Russian-Ukraine war, mainly India and Vietnam. Both have been considered the staunchest Western allies in countering China's rise. It has taken nearly a year before the West reached an understanding that their support of India and Vietnam must continue and further strengthened despite their aberration over the Russian-Ukraine war. It was a quick U-turn.

It is interesting to note that even in the midst of the Russia-Ukraine war, Vietnam and Russia have diligently forged closer cooperation on non-sensitive matters, especially in energy security, humanitarian assistance, science, and education. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Chernyshenko's visit in early April demonstrated the scope and depth of their bilateral cooperation, the most remarkable example being in the cultural, educational and nuclear research fields. Both countries agreed to upgrade the AS Pushkin Institute to a regional centre for the study of the Russian language in Southeast Asia. Vietnam still has the largest number of students taking up the Russian language.

Most important has been the agreement to create the Nuclear Science and Technology Centre in Dong Nai, which will be established in June. This is will be the first Russian nuclear research centre in Asean. It is well known that before the Fukushima incident in Japan, several Asean members had plans to establish nuclear-powered plants. Now they are having second thoughts due to yet another energy crisis.

During his trip, Mr Chernyshenko reiterated that Vietnam-Russia ties have not been subject to change for more than 70 years. "We will definitely not change our relations, which were established by our ancestors," he stressed, adding that strengthening a comprehensive strategy partnership with Vietnam will be one of Russia's foreign policy priorities. Mr Chernyshenko has already called Vietnam one of Russia's leading partners, according to the Vietnam Express.

As far as bilateral trade cooperation is concerned, the Vietnam-Russia economic roadmap to 2030 can serve as a guide. One important task is to double the trade volume by 2025 to US$10 billion. In the near future, both countries hope to use their national currencies for payment, facilitation of the visa procedures and logistics.

Hot on the heels of Chernyshenko's visit came that of US State Secretary Antony Blinken, who had postponed his visit planned for last year. Mr Blinken's first visit was more subdued. While he met the key leaders, including General Party Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, to further promote their relations to a higher level, the local media placed no focus on the plan to upgrade the Vietnam-US relationship to a comprehensive strategic level in the near future.

Mr Blinken was quoted by the Western media as saying that he hopes to do that in the foreseeable future. In more ways than one, Mr Blinken's visit also prepared for Mr Trong's upcoming visit to Washington in July. Unconfirmed reports also spread around that President Joe Biden might make a surprise visit to Hanoi to shore up ties in the near future. Frankly speaking, Washington cannot afford to be complacent in its relationship with Vietnam, which needs constant adjustment. After all, Vietnam is a pivotal partner in the US Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy.

On top of the US and Russia, Vietnam also has to navigate ties with its northern neighbour, China, in every possible way it can. Vietnam and China have a two-tier relationship. The party-to-party ties have been cordial, especially after Mr Trong's visit to Beijing in late October last year, right after the conclusion of 20th National Party Congress. He was the first foreign leader to meet with President Xi Jinping who is leading China for a third term. The trip was not only rich in symbolism but a deep reflection of their fraternal ties, which are increasing intertwined as the world's two most successful communist states. They have efficiently adopted their distinctive political and political systems to reap developmental benefits from globalisation.

In terms of state-to-state relations, both sides can still manage differences that are deep-rooted in their complex relations, including managing territorial disputes, especially in the South China Sea. After Covid when all meetings can be face-to-face, the Asean chair, Indonesia, has expressed the hope that the negotiation of a code of conduct in the South China Sea will proceed at an encouraging pace and in a meaningly way. China and Asean have both said that they would like to expedite the negotiations on the code of conduct to ensure its early conclusion. It is not an overstatement to say that the two communist parties need each other despite some ups and downs in their friendship. Today, Beijing and Hanoi are the biggest supporters of open trade and multilateralism, which have brought progress and prosperity to their nations and peoples.

For now, Vietnam has to balance its economic relations with the strategic imperatives of the three great powers. The World Bank has already forecast that Vietnam will enjoy the highest economic growth in the region this year at 6.3% -- and the growth rate is expected to be the same in 2024. As such, Vietnam's stable ties with these major powers are necessary as they are also huge markets for Vietnamese exports. The US is pivotal because it is still Vietnam's largest export market. Its economic health depends on smoothing US-Vietnam trade relations. At the same time, Vietnam-China trade is also growing. The regional value chain, both traditional and the newly established free trade agreements including the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, has also boosted the trade volume between the two countries.

While bilateral trade with Russia is marginal, unmatched by the volume of trade with the US and China, Moscow's strategic value is far more important. Vietnam-Russia ties have continued non-stop for the past seven decades, and this serves as a counterweight vis-a-vis the US and China.

One can easily see the pragmatic way Vietnam plays its so-called bamboo diplomacy, with great powers, without over-bending but being flexible and curvy enough to stand up to external pressure.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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