Like its ASEAN colleagues, Vietnam has sought not to choose sides in the ensuring rivalry between China and the United States. But its motivations are of an older and more enduring vintage.
On January 25, Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party (CPV) will convene its 13th Party Congress to set the country’s political trajectory for the next five years. One issue on the agenda is how to manage the China-United States rivalry in a way that best protects Vietnam’s interests, particularly in the South China Sea. The question of whether Vietnam will abandon its non-alignment policy will again dominate debates within Vietnam’s leadership, as well as the media.
Generally, Southeast Asian states have adopted a hedging posture with regard to the festering Sino-United States rivalry; Vietnam is not an exception. Hanoi’s “Three Nos” policy – no military alliances, no aligning with one country against another and no foreign military bases on Vietnamese soil – is the essence of its non-alignment. While scholars attribute the policy to Vietnam’s current need for maximum flexibility among the great powers, its non-alignment posture has a decades-old root – in fact, since the country’s partition at the Geneva conference in 1954. Historically, Hanoi only allied with a foreign power that shared both national security interests and ideological values, namely China (1954-1975), the Soviet Union (1954-1991) and Laos (1977 to the present). This is because as a one-party state, Vietnam’s national security cannot be separated from the regime security of the CPV.
Hanoi allied with China throughout the Vietnam War because the two countries shared the same Communist values and security interests of opposing the U.S. presence on mainland Asia. China’s “resist U.S. aggression and aid Vietnam” campaign allowed Hanoi to extract a massive amount of aid to build up key infrastructure and to expand the war to South Vietnam despite the U.S. military superiority. Beijing sent 300,000 troops to North Vietnam to build up logistics and air defence systems around strategic locations. It assured Hanoi that it would militarily intervene if America launched a ground invasion of North Vietnam. China’s support was vital to Hanoi’s victory given the power disparity between North Vietnam and the United States.
However, after Vietnam’s unification in 1975 and the U.S. withdrawal from Indochina, Hanoi and Beijing’s differences over the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia eliminated their shared security interests. China opposed Vietnam’s imperial ambitions over Cambodia and its cooperation with the Kremlin to expand Soviet influence in China’s southern border. Despite sharing the same ideology, Hanoi and Beijing terminated the alliance and fought a bloody border war in 1979.
Vietnam adopted the same alliance criteria with regard to the Soviet Union. Moscow and Hanoi shared ideological values and security interests and cooperated throughout the Vietnam War. There was the Sino-Soviet split in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Moscow improved relations with Washington at the 1972 Moscow Summit – about the same time as the historic Mao-Nixon summit that year. In effect, these events turned Beijing into Moscow’s principal enemy in Asia. Consequently, Vietnam and the Soviet Union signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in 1978 to grant the Soviets access to Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay in return for Soviet security assurances and sponsorship of Vietnam’s military campaigns in Cambodia. The alliance was without a doubt directed against China.
In Hanoi’s view, shared security interests are necessary grounds to contemplate an alliance, but common political values have to be sufficient to bring such an alliance into existence.
The alliance could not survive the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. As a result, Hanoi found that it no longer shared the same ideological values with the new Russian government although both sides still had common security interests. Hanoi decided to replace the 1978 treaty, which was initially valid until 2003, with a new one in 1994 to formally terminate the alliance. The 1994 Treaty on the Basic Principles of the Vietnam-Russia Relationship got rid of “Marxism-Leninism” and “socialist internationalism” and replaced it with “mutual benefits” as the basis of the relationship. Importantly, the military alliance aspect was totally eradicated. In the 1978 treaty, both sides committed to eliminating the threat to national security by taking “appropriate and effective measures”. In the 1994 treaty, Vietnam and Russia committed themselves only to diplomatic consultation to manage security threats and pledged to refrain from signing treaties with other countries or undertaking actions that hurt the interests of the other side. The treaty binds Vietnam – albeit unofficially – to not ally with another major power that can potentially hurt Russia. Vietnam and Russia just celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Treaty in 2019, confirming its continued relevance today.
The only country that Vietnam maintains an alliance with today is Laos, which still shares ideological values and security interests despite the end of the Cold War. As Hanoi wants to increase its defence capabilities to resist China’s aggression in the South China Sea, it can rely on potential security partners in the Quadrilateral Security Grouping – Australia, India, Japan and the US. After all, the four members of the Quad share the implicit goal of managing the challenge posed by the rise of China. Indeed, Vietnam’s defence cooperation with these countries has grown closer in recent years. However, since none of the Quad members shares the same ideological values with Hanoi, Vietnam will not abandon its non-alignment policy to ally with the Quad. It will, however, continue to improve security relations with members of the Quad insofar as its national interests allow it to.
In Hanoi’s view, shared security interests are necessary grounds to contemplate an alliance, but common political values have to be sufficient to bring such an alliance into existence. Hanoi’s modern non-alignment is not simply a situational manoeuvre for the short-run; rather it is a reflection of the same persistent alliance policies that has guided it since 1954. While Vietnam shares the same contemporary geostrategic inclinations as its ASEAN colleagues, the country’s historical motivations are sui generis.