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Friends in Many Places: Vietnam’s Diplomacy

Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang and Peruvian President Ollanta Humala at the APEC 2011 meeting in Hawaii. Image: Wikimedia.

This article was originally published by FPRI on 9 May 2014.

Last Wednesday, Vietnam feted the 60th anniversary of its victory over French forces at Dien Bien Phu. But earlier that week, Hanoi lodged a protest against Beijing for allowing a Chinese offshore oil rig to drill in the waters near the Paracel Islands, which are disputed between China and Vietnam. Hanoi also complained that Chinese ships intentionally rammed two Vietnamese coast guard vessels which were dispatched to the oil rig site on Sunday. Several Vietnamese sailors suffered minor injuries.[1] Fortunately, the outcome of the incident was far less severe than Vietnam’s March 1988 naval clash with China in which 70 Vietnamese personnel were killed and three ships lost after Chinese forces fired on them near Johnson South Reef in the Spratly Islands.

That China and Vietnam have had a long history of mistrust, reaching far before the 20th century, is well known. The fact that both countries eventually became single-party states with a common communist ideology did not make them comrades. During the Cold War, Vietnam allied itself with the Soviet Union, not China. And in 1979 China and Vietnam fought a short, but intense war, in which Beijing sought to “teach Vietnam a lesson” for its invasion and occupation of Chinese-backed Cambodia. But by the end of the conflict, China, after losing over 30,000 troops, learned that Vietnam was no walkover. What Vietnam learned was the rarity of reliable friends. Despite a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation that Hanoi signed with Moscow a year earlier, the Soviet Union did not come to Vietnam’s aid when China invaded. Unfortunately for Hanoi, after the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed, it had even fewer friends than before.

South China Sea, Paracel Islands, Spratly islands and Vietnam. Image: FPRI.

But with growing unease across the Asia-Pacific over China’s rise (and attendant assertiveness), Vietnam has found other countries receptive to friendlier ties. Unlike the Philippines, which has sought to maximize its long-time relationship with the United States (and a more recent one with Japan), Vietnam has cast a wider net for friends. Over the last 15 years, it has made fast friends with a number of external powers, including India, Japan, Russia, and the United States.[2] These have paid off in different ways.

Like Vietnam, India has become wary of China. New Delhi has wanted to push back against what it sees as China’s efforts to exert influence into South Asia, in countries like Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Moreover, India has its own territorial disputes with China over large sections of the Himalayan Mountains. And so, India has pursued new ties with Southeast Asia through its “Look East” diplomatic strategy, and in doing so found common cause with Vietnam. So, even as China drilled for oil in waters that Vietnam contests, India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation had already agreed to lease exploration blocks from Vietnam in waters that China contests in the southern part of the South China Sea.[3] India has also extended military support to Vietnam. Since 2000, the Indian navy has deployed ships into the South China Sea (and on occasion ignored warnings from China’s navy that they were entering Chinese waters). In 2010, Vietnam signed an agreement that granted the Indian navy access to Vietnamese port facilities. In turn, India agreed to expand Vietnam’s naval logistics capabilities and, in 2013, offered to help train new Vietnamese submarine crews (since India has long operated the same class of submarine that Vietnam is now acquiring).[4]

Vietnam’s relations with Japan have also grown. The rift between China and Japan over the disputed Diaoyu (in China) or Senkaku (in Japan) Islands in the East China Sea has made Tokyo as interested as Hanoi in developing new security ties with its neighbors. In 2011, Japan and Vietnam signed a memorandum of understanding that facilitated the creation of bilateral defense ties, ministerial visits, and exchanges between the two countries’ armed forces. And when Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung visited Tokyo in December 2013, the two sides discussed further collaboration, including providing Japanese-built patrol boats to the Vietnamese coast guard. (Japan made a similar offer of ten patrol boats to the Philippines in July 2013.) That was followed up with an accord between Japan and Vietnam to establish an “extensive strategic partnership” during Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Hanoi in March 2014. The partnership envisions many areas of engagement, most notable among which is Japan’s assistance to enhance Vietnam’s maritime law enforcement capacity.[5]

Of course, Vietnam’s relationship with Russia extends back to the days of the Soviet Union. But that relationship has been revitalized over the last decade. Russia is once again doing a brisk business as Vietnam’s principal arms supplier and ranks among Russia’s top five arms export recipients. In April 2014, Vietnam took delivery of the second of six Kilo-class submarines that it ordered from Russia. Before that came orders for 32 Su-30MK2 fighters, two batteries of P-800 mobile land-based anti-ship cruise missiles (part of the K-300P Bastion-P coastal defense system), six Svetlyak-class fast-attack craft, and four Gepard-class frigates. Vietnam also contracted Russia to upgrade its venerable naval base at Cam Ranh Bay, where Russia maintained a naval presence until 2002. Meanwhile, Vietnam has tried to broaden its relationship with Moscow by allowing Russian state-owned companies, like Rosneft, to acquire stakes in its energy sector. When Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Vietnam in late 2013, the two sides agreed to several deals that included a joint investment in a major refinery and a contract for a nuclear power plant. But more interestingly, Hanoi offered Rosneft concessions in two offshore exploration blocks, both of which sit near or within China’s “nine dash line” that demarcates Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea.[6]

Vietnam has even courted the United States, a country against which it fought a bitter conflict in the late 1960s and early 1970s. When Russia’s lease on Cam Ranh Bay was about to expire in the early 2000s, Vietnam turned to the United States. Hanoi informally discussed granting the United States access to the naval base, which it had used during the Vietnam Conflict. At the time the United States demurred, concerned about China’s reaction. Even so, Vietnam has welcomed U.S. Navy port visits, which have averaged once per year over the last decade.[7] Nonetheless, the relationship between Washington and Hanoi only really took off after they began holding annual bilateral defense and security talks in 2008. Vietnam was particularly pleased in 2010 when the United States declared that freedom of navigation in the South China Sea to be in its “national interest.” That American assertion was reinforced in late 2013 when Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the United States would provide Vietnam with $18 million and five fast patrol boats to improve its coast guard’s ability to properly police its waters.[8]

Whether Vietnam eventually finds these external powers to be fair-weather friends remains to be seen. Certainly, China has tried to plant the seeds of doubt, warning Vietnam not to be misled by professions of friendship from other countries. Of course, a country like Russia must weigh its growing strategic relationship with China against its military and economic ties to Vietnam. Other countries must also consider how far they are willing to go for Vietnam. Thus far, these sorts of questions have not hindered Hanoi from pursuing a foreign policy that aggressively makes friends around the globe. Perhaps one day France may be counted among them too.

Notes

[2] Vietnam also developed closer security ties with Australia, Germany, Italy, and Sweden. In 2010, Vietnam signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Defence Cooperation with Australia and further strengthened its ties in 2013 with a new joint training program. In the same year, it contracted with Sweden’s Unmanned Systems Group for unmanned aerial vehicles. Julian Kerr and James Hardy, “Australia, Vietnam signal closer defence ties,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Mar. 21, 2013.

[3] That same region was a zone of contention in the early 1990s when China and Vietnam leased exploration blocks abutting one another to Crestone and Mobil Oil, respectively, both American energy companies. Philip Bowring, “China Is Getting Help in a Grab at the Sea,” New York Times, May 6, 1994.

[4] Rahul Bedi, “Indian Navy to train Vietnamese submarine crews,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Dec. 2, 2013; Hao Zhou, “China warns India against oil exploitation,” Global Times, Dec. 5, 2012; Desikan Thirunarayanpuram, “USA, China frown at Navy’s S China Sea exercise,” The Statesman News Service, May 8, 2000.

[5] “Vietnam-Japan ties lifted to extensive strategic partnership,” Tuoi Tre News, Mar. 19, 2014; Jon Grevatt, “Japan, Vietnam pave way for further defence collaboration,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Mar. 19, 2014; “Japan extends patrol ship carrot to Vietnam, plus ¥96 billion loan,” Japan Times, Dec. 15, 2013.

[6] Alexei Anishchuk and Ho Binh Minh, “Russia’s Gazprom, Rosneft sign Vietnam energy deals on Putin visit,” Reuters, Nov. 12, 2013 ; “Russia to Deliver 12 Su-30 Fighter Jets to Vietnam – Source,” RIA Novosti, Aug. 21, 2013; Nguyen Pham Muoi, “Vietnamese Defense Minister in Russia to Boost Military Ties,” Wall Street Journal, Aug. 10, 2013; “Russia Will Help Vietnam Build a Submarine Fleet, Shoygu Says,” RIA Novosti, Mar. 8, 2013.

[7] The most recent U.S. Navy port visit occurred in April 2013 when the guided-missile destroyer USS Chung-Hoon and salvage ship USNS Salvor docked at Da Nang.

[8] “Kerry announces new US maritime security aid to Vietnam amid China tensions, pushes reforms,” Associated Press, Dec. 16, 2013; Malcolm Moore and Praveen Swami, “Vietnam offers navy base to foil China,” The Telegraph, Nov. 8, 2010; John Pomfret, “Clinton wades into South China Sea territorial dispute,” Washington Post, Jul. 23, 2010; Nayan Chanda, “Cam Ranh Bay manoeuvres,” Far Eastern Economic Review, Dec. 28, 2000-Jan. 4, 2001, pp. 21-23.

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