Hanoi turns to the United States when China threatens but values ideological connections for big foreign policy decisions
Relations between China and Vietnam have taken a dive since June after Chinese General Fan Changlong cut short his visit to Hanoi and canceled a cross-border gathering for the two militaries aimed to build mutual trust.
The cause of the row was an oil-drilling contract in the South China Sea that Hanoi had signed with the Spanish firm Repsol. Unlike previous occasions, this time Beijing threatened to undertake military measures if Hanoi did not cease and desist. Within a week, Vietnam indeed canceled the contract and agreed to pay millions of dollars to Repsol as compensation.
China’s direct military threat to Vietnam indicates an escalation of tension in the South China Sea, and Hanoi’s quick kowtow to Beijing has led many to blame Trump’s inward-oriented foreign policy. “The Week Donald Trump Lost the South China Sea” was the title of British journalist Bill Hayton’s article for Foreign Policy magazine.
This is unfair. A week later, Vietnam’s Defense Minister Ngô Xuân Lịch arrived in Washington, DC, to meet with his counterpart, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis. General Lịch, the political commissar of the People’s Army of Vietnam – PAVN – was known as a hardline ideologue in Vietnamese politics. Yet Lịch appeared in the American capital with a rare smile and announced that, for the first time in bilateral history, Vietnam accepted a proposal for a port visit by a US aircraft carrier.
The idea for such a visit had been floated many times – it’s conceivable that a visit could have been made when President Bill Clinton made the ice-breaking trip to Vietnam in 2000. Most recently, Trump as president-elect also made the suggestion, but it took Chinese military pressure for the PAVN’s top brass to warm to the idea. General Lịch’s visit, in fact, fits a longstanding pattern of Vietnamese policy toward China and the United States. Hanoi looks to Washington for assistance only when China threatens, but in its heart, the country values Beijing’s comradeship more.
Like Vietnam, China is a socialist country. The relationship between the two communist parties goes back to the 1920s when a young Ho Chi Minh worked alongside fellow revolutionary Zhou Enlai to mobilize peasants in southern China. Few political parties can boast of such a century-long international comradeship. Soon after Mao Zedong and Zhou took power in China, they supported the Vietnamese revolution by sending arms and advisors, helping Ho’s army win a decisive battle over the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.
During the Vietnam War, Beijing was Hanoi’s big brother as well as its most generous financier. Beijing sent Hanoi billions of dollars in cash, food and military aid even while millions of Chinese died of starvation. For much of the 1960s, more than 100,000 Chinese troops were stationed permanently in North Vietnam while PAVN soldiers were sent to fight in the south.
Relations turned dramatically as the war ended. Hanoi viewed Mao’s invitation for US President Richard Nixon to visit Beijing in 1972 as a despicably traitorous act. With both Beijing and Moscow courting Washington’s attention and with their victory over the Americans in 1975, Vietnamese leaders began to imagine themselves as vanguards of the world revolution. Their ambition to dominate Indochina riled Deng Xiaoping, who sent half a million troops across the border in 1979 to teach the “ungrateful” Vietnamese a lesson.
The border war between the communist brothers lasted until the late 1980s. As the Soviet bloc collapsed and the US-led camp emerged triumphantly, Hanoi felt threatened and quickly turned to Beijing, apologizing for the war and proposing a new anti-imperialist alliance. Although Beijing turned down the proposal, bilateral relations were restored in 1991.
To demonstrate a lesson had been learned, Hanoi leaders changed the constitution to remove anti-China passages. While Vietnam grandly celebrated the wars against France and the United States every year, the 1979 war with China was erased from public memory. State-controlled media were prohibited from publishing negative news about Chinese society, economy or politics, and editors who violated the ban were swiftly punished.
To attract much-needed foreign aid and investment once the Soviet bloc was no more, Hanoi sought to expand foreign relations, declaring that Vietnam welcomed friendship with all countries. However, an internal memo by the Politburo of the Vietnamese Communist Party showed that the party distinguished between “close and not so close friends” depending on their ideology.
Vietnam restored relations with the United States in 1995 and concluded a bilateral agreement in 2001. As market reforms gathered steam, Vietnam achieved remarkable success with many exports including seafood, rice, and coffee. The United States became the leading market for Vietnamese exports, allowing the country to earn billions of dollars in trade surplus.
Despite the value of the American market for Vietnam, the United States remained in the “not so close” category in the eyes of Hanoi leaders. Washington’s frequent criticism of Vietnam’s violations of human rights infuriated them, and US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq prompted deep anxieties. As recently as 2005, PAVN still considered the United States a strategic enemy.
Across the border, bilateral relations between China and Vietnam thrived: Top leaders paid regular annual visits, as did representatives from the military, the Public Security Ministry, the Propaganda Department, the Communist Youth League, and various other government organs. No wonder that by 2011 China had overtaken the United States as Vietnam’s top trade partner. By 2014 its trade with China was nearly twice that with the United States. Ironically, Vietnam had a trade deficit with China as large as the trade surplus it enjoyed with the United States.
Problems began by 2005 when China began to aggressively enforce its sovereignty claims over much of the South China Sea, dashing Vietnamese leaders’ cherished hope that the comradely spirit between the two parties would soar above narrow national interests. While pursuing several strategies in response to China’s rising threat, Hanoi consistently assigned greater weight to talks between the two fraternal parties than to multilateral or legal approaches.
When China towed a giant oil rig within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone in 2014, even as Hanoi sent Coast Guard ships to surround the Chinese naval force defending the rig, Party chief Nguyễn Phú Trọng tried to call Chinese President Xi Jinping a dozen times, hoping in vain that Xi would pick up the phone. On the streets, Vietnamese peacefully protesting against China was beaten, in some cases savagely, by security forces. Trọng later visited Washington, the first for a general secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party.
After the oil rig confrontation, criticisms of China appeared in the Vietnamese press. Nevertheless, no sign exists that Hanoi has fundamentally changed its strategy in which timid overtures to the United States are made only when Beijing acts up. Given the domination of Marxist-Leninist loyalists in the top leadership elected at the 12th Party Congress in 2016, such change is less likely.
General Lịch’s welcome of a US aircraft carrier’s visit sends a signal of displeasure more than any drastic U-turn in Vietnamese policy regarding China. The Repsol affair left Hanoi with a bruised eye, and the country wants Beijing to know that it is unhappy. Still, like an abused spouse who calls the police after a beating but then refuses to end the relationship, Hanoi will follow its heart and is not about to break away from Beijing soon.
This article was first published on Yale Global (August 24, 2017)
Tuong Vu is the director of Asian Studies and professor of Political Science at the University of Oregon. His most recent book is Vietnam’s Communist Revolution: The Power and Limits of Ideology (Cambridge University Press, 2017).