The Financial Express

The Vietnamese way of navigating the great powers

| Updated: October 05, 2021 21:30:48

The Vietnamese way of navigating the great powers

Against the backdrop of United States-China, India-China, Japan-China geopolitical competition in the Asian region, 'strategic hedging or balancing' has become a widely discussed concept amongst International Relations (IR) observers. Strategic balancing generally refers to a grand strategy somewhere between balancing and bandwagoning that helps middle-power states to cope with the uncertainty of resurgent great power rivalry. On this note, IR pundits tend to depict the strategic hedging of Bangladesh and Vietnam as classic models to navigate fierce great power rivalries in recent times.

Vietnam and Bangladesh are often, dubbed as the new economic miracles and rising powers in the global arena. As these two Asian nations rise with prominence in global politics, both states come up with their proactive strategies to navigate relations with the great powers. Needless to say, Dhaka and Hanoi successfully managed to navigate their 'balanced approach' in dealing with great power politics. Interestingly, their strategies of navigating great powers are different from each other and vernacular in nature. This leads many observers in Bangladesh to ponder about the pros and cons of Vietnamese way of navigating the great powers and what lessons Dhaka can learn from Hanoi in this regard.      

NAVIGATING GREAT POWER RIVALRY: USA, CHINA, JAPAN AND THE VIETNAMESE WAY: The Vietnamese way of navigating the great powers can be aptly unearthed by examining its recent ties with the United States, China and Japan. Vietnam, with its pragmatic approach, is assuaging all these states and reaping benefits by exploiting the great power rivalry. A quintessential recent manifestation of such pragmatic approach of hedging great power competition by Vietnam is reflected in the recent visits of US Vice President, Japanese Defence Minister and Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi within a short span of time.

On September 11, 2021, Japan and Vietnam signed an agreement on the transfer of defence equipment and technology. Japan's Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi said the deal, signed in Hanoi, elevates the two countries' defence partnership "to a new level" and that Japan and Vietnam plan to deepen defence ties through multinational joint exercises and other means. In global media circles, this move is considered as a significant move that targets China. Tokyo's military cooperation with Hanoi aims at expanding its influence in regional security issues and the equipment exports are an effort to ease Japan's military limit.  Japan's transfer deal of defence equipment and technology to Vietnam not only intends to substantially improve defence cooperation between the two countries, but also is a new move by Japan to increase its presence in the Indo-Pacific over regional security issues, taking Southeast Asia as the top priority.

Simultaneously, on September 11-12, Vietnam, with its pragmatic foreign policy approach, welcomed the two-day visit of Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Hanoi (coincided with the meeting of Japanese Defence Minister).  During his visit to Vietnam as the first stop in his trip to Southeast Asia, Wang Yi met with General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Central Committee Nguyen Phu Trong, Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh and other senior officials. During the meetings, Wang emphasised that China and Vietnam must abide by the political consensus already reached over the South China Sea issue and avoid any unilateral action that may complicate the situation and escalate disputes. China put significance on issues such as enhancing mutual trust between the two peoples, and guiding public opinion for bilateral relations, working for stronger momentum of two wheel-driven economy, trade and investment, accelerating the connectivity and cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the strategy of Two Corridors and One Economic Circle, and striving for further breakthroughs in bilateral trade volume in 2021. The cooperation move with Japan has been warned by some pro-Chinese scholars in Vietnam as interference and provocation by Japan and other forces outside the region.

Similarly, Vietnam warmly received the US Vice President Kamala Harris in a crucial period of regional politics, more importantly in the context of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the visit is meant to further strengthen U.S-Vietnam relations. Harris launched the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention regional office in Hanoi and called on Vietnam to join the U.S. in challenging China's "bullying" in the South China Sea. Harris openly asserts, "We need to find ways to pressure and raise the pressure, frankly, on Beijing to abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and to challenge its bullying and excessive maritime claims." Harris also expressed support for sending an additional U.S. Coast Guard cutter to Vietnam to help defend its security interests in the disputed waterway, and pledged that the U.S. would "maintain a strong presence in the South China Sea" to challenge China. It is pointed out that the Biden administration is aiming to bolster ties with countries in China's backyard. In response, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson termed the US role in Vietnam as an attempt to defend "U.S. hegemony and its own interests," rather than standing up for the rights of small countries.

These three visits from the great powers and subsequent bilateral documents of substantive engagement suggest that Vietnam has effectively betrothed these powers though they have their opposing goals in the region and beyond. The country has been able to sign business and defence deals with these three powerful nations in the world. Vietnam has pragmatically applied its diplomatic skills to make use of its geopolitical importance in the Indo-China region of Southeast Asia. It clearly shows that Vietnam has demonstrated its own style of diplomacy in successfully dealing with the great powers who have diametrically opposing interests in the country.

FOUR PILLARS OF VIETNAMESE WAY: Over the past three decades, Vietnam's foreign policy has undergone a dramatic change from "socialist solidarity to national interests based on multilateralism". This change opened the door for Vietnam to greatly expand its relations across the world and to join multinational institutions. Most importantly, thanks to Vietnam's four major inter-related policies of its foreign policy framework: independence and self-reliance, multi-lateralisation and diversification of external relations, struggle and cooperation, and proactive international integration for successfully navigating great powers through a policy of multi-lateralising and diversifying its external relations.

Vietnam has sought to avoid being caught in the middle of strategic rivalry between a rising China and the United States or China and Japan. Instead, consistent with Vietnam's policy of "multi-lateralising and diversifying" its foreign relations, it has pursued the strategy of forging strategic partnerships with a range of countries. Between 2001 and 2016, Vietnam reached strategic partnership agreements with 16 countries, including China and Japan and agreements on comprehensive partnerships with 10 others, including Australia and the United States. These agreements were broad in scope and included, among other things, provisions for cooperation in foreign affairs and defence and security. Hence, Vietnam has successfully sought to create a multi-polar balance among five major powers - Russia, India, Japan, China, and the United States. The purpose of strategic partnerships was to give rivaling great powers 'equity' in Vietnam to prevent Vietnam from being pulled into a rival's orbit and to enable Vietnam to maintain its strategic autonomy.

RELEVANCE VIETNAM'S STRATEGY FOR BANGLADESH: This Vietnamese approach is particularly relevant for Bangladesh as the country is in a hot seat of great power rivalry in the Bay of Bengal. Bangladesh, with its geo-strategic location to bridge South Asia, Southeast Asia and West Asia, rose to prominence over the last decade. Along with its strategic location and resources, booming economy, speedy growth rate, efficient manpower, cheap labour and political stability raised the prominence of Dhaka in the global arena. In this regard, the stories of rise of Bangladesh into prominence are no different than its fierce RMG competitor - Vietnam.     

Bangladesh's foreign policy calls for a "multi-directional foreign policy" orientation with the goal of making "more friends, fewer enemies". Like Hanoi, Dhaka, on its part, aims to ensure successful implementation of foreign policy and international integration by proactive and active diplomacy and thus, it aims to be a friend, reliable partner, and a responsible member of the international community." Bangladesh has successfully addressed the Rohingya crisis and sheltered millions of Rohingya refugees for humanitarian cause. Bangladesh, following its own multilateral approach, has engaged itself in a plethora of multilateral institutions as well. Thus, Bangladesh has become a role model of economic miracle, climate diplomacy and socio-political development. In its journey towards becoming role model, Bangladesh, alike Vietnam, follows a vernacular approach of 'strategic balancing' to navigate great power politics. More recently, these two states also managed to halt the pandemic with great success. Therefore, both the nations can learn from each other to enhance their strategic thinking and capabilities.

Bangladesh may take notes from Vietnam on how to escape from strategic bullying and avoid misunderstandings while navigating great power politics. Vietnam has been able to engage China, an aspiring global power despite having bilateral dispute focusing on the South China Sea Island. China and Vietnam also bear the legacy of war in 1979 as the former invaded the latter. On the other hand, Vietnam has bitter memories of imperial war with the US. Vietnam has gradually developed strategic partnership with the US since the early 1990s. Japan is the only country with which Vietnam does not have any history of major dispute. However, Japan has contrasting interests with China. Bangladesh has been facing great power competition and rivalry in the country involving China, India, USA and Japan. Although Bangladesh has been pursuing its peaceful and non-aligned nature of diplomacy, it often becomes a case of misunderstanding and 'bullying' due to growing hostility among the great powers. Vietnam offers a good example for Bangladesh to deal with the hostile great powers that come with exorbitant demands and 'pressure' tactics in bilateral relations.

On another note, Bangladesh might take lessons from Vietnam on building warm ties with its neighbours to counter the regional hegemon - China. Vietnam pursued a policy of greater cooperation with its small neighbours and often, forms alliance with them to counter China in the region, especially in the case of South China Sea dispute.  Conversely, Vietnam should take lessons from Bangladesh on how to manage strategic and territorial disputes in a peaceful way. Bangladesh sets an exemplary model on how to manage territorial and maritime disputes in peaceful ways by utilising legal mechanisms and dialogues. The maritime victories of Bangladesh over India and Myanmar in 2014 and 2012 respectively and the settlement of enclave issue with India in 2015 are the classic lessons for Vietnam to be learnt from Bangladesh.


Hassan Ahmed Shovon is a Research Assistant at Central Foundation for International and Strategic Studies (CFISS). [email protected]

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