US President Biden signed the interim National Security Guidance early this month which notes that Russia “remains determined to enhance its global influence and play a disruptive role on the world stage”, and identifies China as “the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system”. The Guidance further points out that both countries have “invested heavily in efforts meant to check U.S. strengths and prevent us from defending our interests and allies around the world”. However there is also the sobering note in the Guidance i.e. Washington’s plan to manage the strategic challenges presented by an “assertive China and destabilizing Russia” by engaging in a “meaningful dialogue” on a number of issues including “emerging military technological developments that implicate strategic stability”.
The interim US National Security Guidance is being read with interest by many countries and depending on their national interests and foreign policy choices, they see many opportunities as also numerous challenges. Among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states, the Guidance makes specific reference to Vietnam along with Singapore with whom Washington intends to “deepen our partnership” to “advance shared objectives”. It is quite natural that the Guidance is being read with enormous interest in Hanoi and being analyzed in minute detail to explore opportunities to upgrade the Vietnam-US relationship from a current ‘comprehensive partnership’ to a full ‘strategic partnership’. Meanwhile, Vietnam is also confronted with a ‘dilemma of choices’ given that it enjoys robust relations with China, Russia and now with the US.
Vietnam and China are neighbours and have disputes over sovereignty of features in the South China Sea, while they have demarked their maritime boundary in the Gulf of Tonkin as also along their land borders. Significantly, their respective Communist Parties enjoy excellent relations and their leaderships are committed to “consolidate political mutual trust, carry forward our traditional friendship, and strengthen the foundation of our bilateral ties” and building together a “blueprint to guide the development of China-Vietnam relations in the new era”.
Likewise, Vietnam enjoys excellent relations with Russia and the latter has emerged as a major import source of military hardware for the Vietnamese armed forces accounting for nearly 85% of the requirements. It is useful to mention that Russia has invested in Vietnamese offshore energy projects which may be in Chinese claimed waters in the South China Sea. Apparently, Beijing and Moscow do not make references to these issues including Russian military sales, in their discussions. In the ongoing China-US competition, Vietnam sees Russia as an “alternative partner”.
The US has been making earnest efforts to build strategic relations through defence cooperation. It has offered sale of defence equipment and technology, offered intelligence sharing agreements and joint military exercises, and capacity building of maritime law enforcement agencies. In the context of the latter, US provided two Hamilton-class cutters for the Vietnamese Coast Guard. The US Navy has made regular port calls to Vietnam including by aircraft carriers. However, Vietnam has dismissed overtures by the US to obtain access to strategic facilities at the Cam Ranh Bay which was once a major base for the Soviet Navy and later was also taken on lease by Russia. US’ military engagements with the Vietnamese military can be expected to grow further in the light of the US-China tensions and Washington’s emergent needs for vital military capabilities to deter China in the Pacific for which the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command needs US $4.68 billion under the Pacific Deterrence Initiative.
President Biden has announced a Summit level meeting with Prime Ministers of Australia, India and Japan to be held in the next few days. He is not only following the footsteps of his predecessor, but appears to have accorded high priority to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) or the Quad. Vietnam would need to take a position on the US’ Indo-Pacific Strategy which clearly identifies China that challenges ‘a rules-based regional order and freedom of navigation’. That should not be very difficult given that Hanoi’s stated position on this issue is that it upholds the international principles of rule of law and freedom of navigation. Besides, Vietnam is also committed to the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) which promotes peace, security, stability and prosperity in the wider Indo-Pacific.
Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.
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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.