The US-China competition is getting more acrimonious and the Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Yi may have put the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) nations on call. In his address at the ASEAN secretariat in Jakarta, Indonesia, Yi cautioned the Member States not to be used as a pawn in the ongoing geostrategic turmoil in the region : “We should insulate this region from geopolitical calculations… from being used as chess pieces from major power rivalry and from coercion.” Foreign Minister Yang Yi’s message is quite clear but to tone down the “subtle warning”, he played to the gallery and assured the Member States about China’s ASEAN policy of “deepened cooperation”. Yang Yi also offered support for developing digital and green economies and jointly build the high-quality Belt and Road. 

In the midst of this ‘blow hot, blow cold’, US aircraft carrier Ronald Regan is scheduled to make a port call in Vietnam in the second half of this month. This will be the third US carrier to visit Vietnam after a call by USS Carl Vinson in Vietnam in March 2018 and USS Theodore Roosevelt in 2020. Apparently the US had sought permission from Hanoi for annual calls by its carriers to Vietnamese ports but was denied. 

Although there is nothing alarming about the upcoming call by the US aircraft carrier to Vietnam, it did not come as  surprise that China Daily, an official mouthpiece, published an article and called the impending visit as “ display of navy clout” and “show of intimidation” which is “aimed at ensuring an ‘Indo-Pacific’ that is subject to the dictates of the US rather than one that is truly ‘free and open’.” Furthermore, the article asserts about Chinese ability to “defend its core interests, sovereignty and territorial integrity in a broader scope in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.” 

Earlier in 2018, reacting to the US aircraft carrier visit to Vietnam, Ruan Zongze, Vice President of the China Institute of International Studies labeled the visit as “historic” and commented that it is a “powerful symbol of the growing strategic and military ties between the US and Vietnam”; another researcher at China Institute of International Studies observed that the US was attempting to woo and “draw Vietnam” in its fold.  

Meanwhile, as many as 26 navies are participating in the US led biennial Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC) 2022. The 28th edition of RIMPAC 2022 also include six ASEAN countries and four of these are the claimants to various features and islands in the South China Sea. Vietnam has decided to give these exercises a pass this time although it participated in the 2000 iteration of the RIMPAC. China has abstained from participating in RIMPAC since 2018 due to strategic reasons with the US and issues concerning the militarization of the South China Sea. 

The current iteration of the RIMPAC also comes in the background of the recent freedom-of-navigation operation (FONOP) in the South China Sea by USS Benfold (DDG-65) which sailed near the Paracel Islands. PLA Navy frigate Xianning had stayed close to the US warship but there are no reports of any “close quarter situation” i.e. dangerous manoeuvers.  However, a PLA statement notes that “The U.S. military’s actions have seriously violated China’s sovereignty and security, seriously undermined peace and stability in the South China Sea, and seriously violated international law and norms governing international relations.”

Coming back to the forthcoming call by US aircraft carrier Ronald Regan to Vietnam, the visit should be seen as “once in two-year” event though not formally agreed to by Vietnam. It is important to keep in mind that there are important geopolitical and geostrategic realities-limitations in the US-Vietnam relations. Although the bilateral relations have witnessed significant growth in many sectors including Vietnam expressing interest in the Indo-Pacific Economic Frame (IPEF) partnership, but remains anchored with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) Agreement which entered into force in January this year. 

At the politico-strategic level, Hanoi is not keen to join the Indo-Pacific grouping led by the US and the Quad Members. It is mindful of current realities i.e. China–US contestation that not only encompasses the South China Sea, but also includes the Taiwan Strait. 

Hanoi will continue to use diplomatic tools to manage expectations from both the US and China. There will be periodic additions and achievements in its bilateral relationship with these contenders and would avoid being seen as close to any one power.   

Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.

Featured Image Source: vietnameseprivatetours.com

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Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Honorary Distinguished Fellow with CPPR and associated with our Centre for Strategic Studies. Dr. Sakhuja, a former Indian Navy officer, is also former Director, National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. He earned his MPhil and PhD from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He specializes in issues of national security and public policy, particularly in the context of ocean affairs, geopolitics, Climate Change, Arctic, Blue Economy and 4th Industrial Revolution Technologies.

Dr Vijay Sakhuja
Dr Vijay Sakhuja
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Honorary Distinguished Fellow with CPPR and associated with our Centre for Strategic Studies. Dr. Sakhuja, a former Indian Navy officer, is also former Director, National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. He earned his MPhil and PhD from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He specializes in issues of national security and public policy, particularly in the context of ocean affairs, geopolitics, Climate Change, Arctic, Blue Economy and 4th Industrial Revolution Technologies.

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