What Vietnam’s New Defense White Paper Says About What Its Leaders Fear Most

Tuong Vu, US-Vietnam Research Center, University of Oregon

Many observers have commented that Vietnam’s new Defense White Paper is evasive on important issues and conveys little new thinking. Perhaps Vietnamese leaders are simply trying to hide their real thinking and to confuse their enemies by not revealing much. But this begs the question about the purpose of the document. To confuse their enemies, they would be better served by not issuing any White Paper at all. This White Paper confuses not only their enemies but also their friends.

An “anti-terrorism” drills that mobilized over 4000 thousands of people in Ho Chi Minh City on December 15th, 2019 (Source: “Phap luat TpHCM”)

Once we realize that Vietnam’s new Defense White Paper actually targeted the domestic rather than foreign audience, it is possible to understand why it was released last month. Although the document’s release served a political purpose, it does reflect some extent Vietnamese leaders’ understanding of the world and their threat perceptions at this point.

A close reading of the text, as we do below for Section 1 of the new Defense White Paper, provides some clues to important questions such as: What do Vietnamese leaders think about Vietnam’s position in the world? Are they past-, present-, or future-oriented in their thinking? What are the most pressing security issues for them? What do they fear the most for the future?

Illusions of a Stable and Respected Vietnam in the World

Section 1 is focused on the strategic context facing Vietnam today. The Paper first affirms the continuing broad trend of peace and cooperation in international affairs. It then discusses various problems since the new century, including clashes over national territories, ethnic and religious conflicts, foreign intervention into the politics of sovereign nations, terrorism, local wars, and cyberwars as well as other non-traditional security threats.

The Paper goes on to discuss more specific trends, including the rapid rise of a multipolar order in world politics; the recent policies of the “big powers” to assert their national interests; the intensification of certain trends such as globalization, interdependence, economic competition; and the emergence of new kinds of weapons and cyberwarfare.

In Asia-Pacific, the Paper notes the “latent destabilizing factors” caused by the rivalry for influence among the “big powers.” It is predicted that conflict over territory will become “more complicated,” leading to possible clashes and an arms race. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), according to the Paper, has been playing a positive role in promoting peace, development, security, and international cooperation, and in working with China to create a peaceful solution to the conflict in the East Sea (South China Sea).

Turning to Vietnam, the Paper asserts that Vietnam occupies an “important” geographical position in the region and the world, being located on critical sea routes connecting the Pacific and the Indian Ocean, and serving as “the gate to global and regional trade” and “the bridge linking Asia to Southeast Asia.”

Vietnam, the Paper continues, has achieved “historic” success with its economic reform and its expanding foreign relations. Vietnam now belongs to the group of “middle-income countries.” Its “dynamic economy” enjoys macroeconomic stability while “market institutions with socialist orientations” are being constructed and perfected. Vietnam’s society now enjoys stability; living standards have improved; democracy, human rights, and freedom of religion are respected; and unity among ethnic groups has been achieved.

The Paper then continues with achievements in defense and international affairs. Vietnam’s defense is claimed to have strengthened greatly, and its international relations have broadened as a “respected,” “responsible,” and “active” member of the world community. On territorial disputes with its neighbors, Vietnam has achieved agreements with Cambodia and Laos as well as with China over land border and over the Gulf of Tonkin.

Cooperation with China for the Greater Cause

The Paper warns that Vietnam’s dispute with China over sovereign rights in the East Sea (South China Sea) should be dealt with great care and an alert mind [tỉnh táo] lest the issue negatively affect the “greater cause” [đại cục] of peace, friendship, and cooperation between the two countries. The two sides should work together for a peaceful solution on the basis of international law such as the UNCLOS 1982, and should avoid actions that would “further complicate the situation” and should refrain from the use of force or threat to use force.

The final paragraphs of this section turn to the challenges facing Vietnam. First, the Paper points out that Vietnam’s economy with low labor productivity is still lagging behind its neighbors, and protectionism and competition among “big powers” are posing a threat to its (trade-dependent) economy.

Second is the conspiracy by “hostile forces in collusion with domestic reactionary and opportunistic elements” to sabotage the ideological and political foundations of the Vietnamese revolution and to destroy the Communist Party and the socialist regime in Vietnam. According to the Paper, those hostile forces seek to drive a wedge between the Party and the military and the people. They are accused of taking advantage of new technologies to wage an online war against the Vietnamese revolution.

Third, the situation in the East Sea (South China Sea) still poses many challenges to Vietnam “despite recent positive developments.” Certain “unilateral actions based on force” (by some country or countries) have violated Vietnam’s sovereign rights and threatened the interests of other nations as well as the safety of sea and air transport. Intensifying “big powers’ strategic rivalry” is another danger to peace and stability in the region, the Paper warns.

Pride in the Past and Optimism for an Uncertain Future

The analysis of world politics and Vietnam’s position in Section 1 of the White Paper is overly abstract and contains many factual errors. What is most relevant for Vietnam is less the multipolar order than the rising US-China tension and rivalry. This is not a “latent destabilizing factor” but already is causing instability. In this issue, unlike what the Paper claims, the ASEAN has not played any significant role, and on several occasions, has failed under Chinese pressure to come to Vietnam’s aid.

Vietnam is not “the bridge linking Asia to Southeast Asia” as it is fully located within Southeast Asia. Despite being “the gate to global and regional trade,” Vietnam ranks low in the global value chain of production. Vietnam belongs to the group of “low middle-income” countries, not “middle-income.” Its economy is deeply dependent on China, and it has failed to achieve the goal to develop an industrialized economy by 2020. Its political system is authoritarian and its record of human rights is poor by international standards.

Our close reading of the new Defense White Paper shows that its overall tone is optimistic yet lacks a clear vision for the future. The document dwells heavily in the past, conveying a great pride in revolutionary heritage and achievements since market reform as well as an exaggerated sense of self-importance about the position of Vietnam in the global order.

Fear Their Own People More Than Any Outsiders

Vietnamese leaders appear content about the present yet are aware of the threats to the regime. Among the threats, economic problems are listed first, followed by the threat from “hostile forces in cahoots with domestic reactionary and opportunistic elements.” The situation on the East Sea (South China Sea) and the competition among the “big powers” are listed last.

Vietnam’s dispute with China in the East Sea (South China Sea), a traditional security threat coming from a foreign power, thus appears not as important as the economic and political vulnerabilities at home. The Paper even mentions “recent positive developments” in Vietnam’s relations with China, leaving observers confused about what those positive events referred to.

An “anti-terrorism” drills on December 15th, 2019 (Source: “VNExpress”)

It is clear that, for all the recent tensions, incumbent Vietnamese leaders still adhere to their longstanding commitment to maintaining good relations with China—what they call “the greater cause.” They continue to express the hope that China would uphold its side of the bargain in the aftermath of Chinese aggressive moves on the East Sea (South China Sea). They are still ambiguous about relations with the United States, which is not mentioned even once in the whole section.

As the regime falls under intense pressure from within and without, it is understandable (even if not justifiable in the view of many Vietnamese) that survival needs increasingly shape the threat perceptions of Vietnamese leaders. China would not threaten their survival but domestic forces would. One may dismiss the recent “anti-terrorism” drills that mobilized thousands of people in Vietnam’s largest cities as signs of paranoia, but these events also confirm our analysis of the new Defense White Paper here. Vietnamese leaders now appear to fear their own people more than any forces from outside.

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