All nations understand that they must deal with outside pressures from other states, but Vietnam knows this better than most from their past experience with French colonialism, the Second Indochina War with the United States, and violations in their maritime waters by Chinese vessels.
Strong headwinds never fail to deter Chinese coast guard vessels and fishing trawlers from sailing into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). While most policy analysts simply regard Beijing’s brazen acts of intimidation as routine, Vietnamese citizens recoil since they are all too familiar with Chinese advances into their sovereign territory.
Last month, a Chinese research vessel, Xiang Yang Hong, protected by an entourage of a dozen other ships, was dispatched into Vietnam’s EEZ’s oil and gas fields. This expansion of China’s maritime militia has been widely recognized as a maneuver to achieve their control in disputed waters.
This unauthorized survey action was met by a rare public protest and resulted in the ship’s departure from the area.
In a Voice of America interview, Van Pham, head of the nonprofit South China Sea Chronicle Initiative says, “Exploring the deep South China Sea has become China’s strategy for obtaining valuable information for economic and military intelligence.”
Pham and other commentators may recount the founder of modern Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh’s quote, “Land is the house, and sea is the door. How can we protect the house without guarding the door?” The nation’s revolutionary leader and the Communist Party (CPV) acknowledge that their East Sea (SCS) is central to its national security and territorial integrity.
By guarding the sea, Vietnam seeks to safeguard its maritime sovereignty and protect its territorial claims. Despite its remarkable economic, industrial, and technological strides achieved over the past two decades, Vietnam faces real challenges in preventing Chinese vessels from entering its waters.
The sheer vastness of the maritime area, the complexity of disputes, and the disparity in naval capabilities between Vietnam and China make it difficult for Vietnam to keep Chinese boats out of their East Sea.
In 1974, in a bloody conflict, China annexed the Paracel Islands. It also failed to honor all of its law of the sea agreements including one reached in 2011 that sought to contain the dispute over the sea and the Paracels.
China, as a major super regional power, continues to rewrite the rules of freedom of navigation as it bolsters its maritime claims and exploits vital marine resources. Of the more than 3.1 million fishing vessels in Asia, China operates 864,000 of them according to a report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN.
With this hyper-competition over fish, there are continued run-ins between Chinese and Vietnamese fishing boats, often resulting in the sinking of Vietnam’s traditional colorful wooden boats.
Hanoi has dealt swiftly with China’s past assaults into its territory, including in 1979 when Beijing launched its offensive into La`o Cai, along Vietnam’s northern border. Vietnamese forces inflicted significant casualties and forced China to withdraw.
That conflict has never receded from the memory of either nation.
Ten years later, during Vietnam’s renovation in the late 80s, China saw economic opportunities and recognized the potential of Vietnam’s emerging market and its strategic location in Southeast Asia.
By investing in Vietnam, China could and did establish a strong foothold in their neighbor’s country to tap into its resources and labor pool. China, known for its manufacturing capabilities, saw Vietnam as a location for outsourcing labor-intensive industries. It is one of the country’s largest investors injecting almost $2.52 billion trailing only Singapore, Korea, and Japan.
At first glance by policy observers, the troubled history and distrust between the two nations belies this economic relationship. Although Vietnam’s economy has experienced a strong rebound, with growth reaching nearly 8% according to the World Bank, and strengthened its economic self-reliance, Hanoi does not like to admit that its financial debt to Beijing is at $16.3 billion or nearly 3% of the GDP.
For now, Vietnam navigates safely along a fast-moving geopolitical and economic highway. Hanoi has positioned itself as a responsible leader engaged in diplomatic talks with China to resolve maritime disputes. It has also embraced the legal mechanisms, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to support its international claims and challenge China’s incursions.
Additionally, the nation has strengthened regional cooperation with other countries facing similar challenges in the South China Sea, such as the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia. By collaborating on joint patrols, information sharing, and coordinated responses, all parties can seek common ground to collectively address China’s assertive actions.
The China-US-Vietnam triangle
As relations between the US and China continue to slide to their lowest point since the 1970s, the Biden administration has been pulling out all the stops to strengthen its ties with governments of Southeast Asia, especially Vietnam.
Vietnam is located in a strategically important region, where both the United States and China have significant interests, and this presents an alliance conundrum for Hanoi. Vietnam shares a land border with China and has its ongoing maritime disputes in the South China Sea, where the interests of the US and China remain on a high-level collision course.
As a result, Vietnam must chart a safe and stable road with both countries to protect its sovereignty and security.
Although this year Hanoi and Washington celebrate the 10th anniversary of the signing of the comprehensive partnership, it also marks the 15th anniversary of a comprehensive strategic partnership between Vietnam and China.
Both China and the US are courting Vietnam with stronger diplomatic overtures. Despite a visit by US Secretary Antony Blinken, the construction of a $1.2 billion new Embassy in Hanoi and finalizing the shipment of another naval coast guard cutter, Washington appears to remain a mere runner-up.
Victor Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington, DC, stated in a recent interview that “Beijing is more confident that Vietnam is an independent actor and steadfast in its refusal to undertake any action that Beijing would view as hostile to Chinese interests.”
The geopolitical balancing line between Vietnam and Washington is proving more difficult to chart as Hanoi remains most reluctant to formally upgrade the relations with its former enemy, while it has not hesitated to augment its military and trade relationships with Australia, India, Japan, and South Korea.
What is clear is that the long history of conflict and mistrust between China and Vietnam appears not to weaken their economic interdependence and socialist solidarity.
James Borton is a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins/SAIS and the author of Dispatches from the South China Sea: Navigating to Common Ground.
The views expressed in this article belong to the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Geopoliticalmonitor.com.