Protesters hold up marked depictions of Chinese president Xi Jinping as they march on a street leading to the Chinese embassy in downtown Hanoi on 5 November, 2015, a few hours prior to the arrival of the Chinese leader for a two-day state visit. (Photo: Hoang Dinh NAM/ AFP)

Protesters hold up marked depictions of Chinese president Xi Jinping as they march on a street leading to the Chinese embassy in downtown Hanoi on 5 November, 2015, a few hours prior to the arrival of the Chinese leader for a two-day state visit. (Photo: Hoang Dinh NAM/ AFP)

Constant and Continuous: Vietnam’s Foreign Policy After The 13th Party Congress

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Hedging between the US and China while promoting a rules-based South China Sea will continue to guide Vietnam’s foreign policy.

The recent 13th Party Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam signified continuity in leadership and policy. The Politburo, showing trust and confidence in 76-year old Secretary-General and State President Nguyen Phu Trong, selected him for a third five-year term. This comes despite party rules mandating a limit of two terms and retirement age of 65. 

The new Politburo is expected to provide predictable and stable government and continue reforms, particularly the war on corruption. In the face of Covid-19 and geopolitical tensions, strong and decisive political leadership was deemed necessary. 

The same applies for Vietnamese foreign policy. At the opening session of the 13th Party Congress, Nguyen Phu Trong emphasised lessons learnt in foreign affairs: Vietnam strives to “properly and effectively handle relationships with major powers and neighbouring countries,” and invest more in research and assessment capacities on global and regional trends to better enable the country to seize opportunities.  

Over the next five years, Vietnam’s foreign policy will continue to pursue omni-directional engagement, international integration, and diversification of partners. According to the Political Report to the 13th Congress, there are four foreign affairs priorities: (1) improve the efficiency of foreign relations; (2) proactively and actively promote foreign affairs; (3) promote multilateral diplomacy; and (4) fulfil international responsibilities.

The Political Report identifies three foreign policy pillars; party diplomacy, state diplomacy, and people diplomacy. It holds that consultation and coordination among the party, state, and the public play a crucial role in formulating foreign policy and advancing national interests defined in terms of peace and stability, economic development, and international prestige. 

For professional development, the Political Report highlights the importance of strategic research and forecasting, and that advice on foreign affairs should be proactive to avoid situations where the country is thrown into a state of passivity and shock. The 2019 Vanguard Bank incident when China Coast Guard vessels harassed an oil rig in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone affirmed this need. Continuous training and capacity building for diplomats are essential to adapt to changing external and domestic conditions. 

Drawing out from the 13th Party Congress, Vietnam will continue to preserve its strategic autonomy through a ‘hedging strategy’ seeking to build stable partnerships with all major powers, especially the United States and China. Cooperation and struggle, the tension inherent in hedging, will remain the primary tactic of Vietnam’s foreign policy. There is no pure form of cooperation. Cooperation always is accompanied by the struggle to protect national interests and independence. 

Drawing out from the 13th Party Congress, Vietnam will continue to preserve its strategic autonomy through a “hedging strategy” seeking to build stable partnerships with all major powers, especially the United States and China.

In Vietnam’s hedging strategy, deepening international integration, including participating in the China-led Belt and Road Initiative and US-led Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), and promoting ASEAN unity and centrality will gain new momentum in tandem with efforts to diversify Vietnam’s strategic partners and sources of growth. 

Domestically, internal unity and political consensus within the Party and the State are strong concerning this balancing act between China and the United States. However, public opinion is somewhat polarised when it comes to Vietnam’s relations with China. Anti-China nationalism has risen over the past few years. The majority of Vietnamese prefer to build closer ties with the United States, while being suspicious of China. The recent State of Southeast Asia: 2021 Survey Report that polled elite opinion in Vietnam corroborated these views.

Vietnam’s complicated relationships with the two competing major powers- China and the United States- present daunting challenges for the country’s leadership. Remarkably, Vietnam was the third Southeast Asian country called by the new US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, after the two US treaty allies, the Philippines and Thailand. During Blinken’s 4 February call with Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Pham Binh Minh, the two reaffirmed “the strength of the U.S.-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership and discussed our shared commitment to peace and prosperity in a free and open Indo-Pacific region and protecting and preserving the rules-based South China Sea.” 

The United States is Vietnam’s most important strategic partner. It is expected that the United States will continue to enhance its strategic partnership with Vietnam and not allow differences over democracy and human rights to overshadow this partnership. Vietnam will continue to give special attention to relations with the US to enhance its economic interests and strengthen its strategic deterrence against China in the South China Sea. 

Regarding the US’s FOIP strategy, Vietnam will take advantage of opportunities to cooperate with the US and its allies and partners to improve its economic development and infrastructure. Vietnam will strengthen its maritime enforcement capacity and promote a rules-based regional order while enhancing ASEAN’s central role in the regional multilateral cooperation frameworks.

The Vietnam-China relationship will remain complicated and sometimes troubled. The sovereignty dispute in the South China Sea will persist and Vietnam will continue to promote the primacy of UNCLOS to challenge China’s claims. Promoting ‘the rules-based South China Sea’ will remain a top foreign policy priority. 

At the same time, Vietnam is trying to implement a “separation of politics from economics” game plan with China to limit the impact of the differences over the South China Sea on bilateral economic ties. China is the second largest global economic power and export market for Vietnam that provides huge opportunities for Vietnam.

As Vietnam’s external environment becomes more fluid and contested, the political leadership and foreign policy remain constant.

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