Vietnam cancelled the fifteen defence engagement activities scheduled for 2019 with the United States. Whether it will reverse its decision depends on whether the US will waive sanctions on countries buying military equipment from Russia; the future direction of US-China relations, and China's stance in the South China Sea dispute.
In mid-October 2018, Vietnam scholar Carlyle A. Thayer reported that Vietnam quietly cancelled fifteen defence engagement activities with the United States scheduled for 2019 involving army, navy and air force exchanges. Given the robust strategic rapprochement between the two countries in recent years, despite the uncertainty generated by the Trump administration, Vietnam’s decision raised questions. What accounted for this sudden change in Vietnam’s attitude?
The decision may be related to US efforts to lobby Vietnam to buy American military equipment at the expense of Russia. Vietnam may have viewed this move as an interference in its internal affairs. This is entirely possible given the fact that the US Congress has passed the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) to sanction countries that procure arms and military equipment from Russia. US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis had sought a waiver from Congress for Vietnam, which has sourced up to 90 per cent of its weapons and military equipment from Russia, but no final decision has been made. As such, Vietnam might have cancelled the defence engagements with the US as a bargaining tactic to make sure that Washington would issue a waiver for the country.
At the same time, the decision may also be one of Hanoi’s reactions to the intensifying strategic competition between the United States and China. As the confrontation between the two giants becomes more visible, Hanoi may find it increasingly difficult to forge closer defence ties with one power without being frowned upon by the other. Facing this risk, Hanoi may have chosen to keep a low profile in its strategic cooperation with the US, at least temporarily, in order not to offend Beijing.
China’s actions in the South China Sea may become the single most important factor that determines the future trajectory of Vietnam-US strategic rapprochement.
Finally, the calmer situation in the South China Sea in recent months and Beijing’s diplomatic overtures, such as its stated goal of reaching an agreement with ASEAN countries on a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea within the next three years, can be yet another factor that encouraged Hanoi to slow down its strategic rapprochement with the United States. In the end, as long as its national interests in the South China Sea are well protected, it is not in Hanoi’s interest to abandon its traditional policy of maintaining a balance between Beijing and Washington. In other words, if China adopts an accommodative stance on the South China Sea dispute, Hanoi will be reluctant to lean too far towards the US.
How much Hanoi’s decision will bear on US – Vietnam strategic cooperation prospects remains to be seen. Whether Vietnam will reverse its decision and continue to step up its rapprochement with the US will depend on the very factors that may have slowed it down: a) whether the US issues a CAATSA waiver for Vietnam; b) the future direction of US-China strategic competition, and c) whether China renews its assertiveness in the South China Sea.
While the first is a short-term question that can be answered soon, there is more uncertainty regarding the two other questions. In case Washington agrees to waive Hanoi from CAATSA sanctions but the latter continues to cancel or delay its meaningful military engagements with the United States, we can assume that Hanoi’s fear to antagonize Beijing was the main reason behind its unwillingness to step up defence cooperation with Washington. In that case, given that US – China strategic rivalry will most likely persist in the future, China’s actions in the South China Sea may become the single most important factor that determines the future trajectory of Vietnam-US strategic rapprochement.
Le Hong Hiep is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Vietnam Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.