Hanoi’s Deeper Regional Power Trap with Beijing and Washington

President Xi’s visit to Vietnam ups the ante on regional power scramble and friendshoring momentum, right after Biden’s overtures. Efforts to bolster guardrails and deepen trust and usage of economic enticement and security deterrence provide the order of the day, but harsh realities on the ground for the tripartite power calculations of Hanoi-Beijing-Washington create little impact on the eventual outcome and expectations on one another’s original intent.

A total of 37 deals were announced, including on diplomatic ties, railways and telecommunications.

The General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, Nguyễn Phú Trọng visited Beijing last year and was feted by Xi, in which the latter has termed the ties to be between “comrades and brothers”, and that the countries are “connected by mountains and rivers, as close as lips and teeth”.

Xi’s “Community of Common Destiny” remains a  Sino-centric and a countermove to the West’s current global order, in which Hanoi is now nudged to be a part of.Sharing a tumultuous relationship that stretched back decades, from the full scale border war in 1979 to the current bitter territorial dispute in the South China Sea or the East Sea as termed by Hanoi, both players remain sceptical and wary of the true intent and economic exposure that might render both to be susceptible to the curse of the “inevitable neighbour”.

Historical discord affiliates far and wide, with China’s long historic colonisation of Vietnam known as “nghìn năm bắc thuộc” or 1,000 years of northern occupation still occupying the central strategic and policy options and considerations in anticipating and dealing with Beijing’s renewed economic and diplomatic intent with Hanoi.

Sentiments have largely been high but managed to be handled carefully by Hanoi, but deep wariness persists, ranging from the territorial assertiveness in South China Sea to the impact of the Chinese built dams on the Mekong river.

Hanoi has been reluctant to accept the BRI overtures, because  of the apparent risks and the economic dependency that will be backfiring. This will also be at the expense of the government in managing the rising nationalist and anti China sentiments as a result of the deepened Chinese footprint in the country.

The Hanoi metro is Vietnam’s only project to have received BRI loans. The two countries agreed to jointly promote the “two corridors, one belt” initiative, the Vietnamese term for infrastructure projects supported by China.

China remains Vietnam’s largest trading partner, with bilateral trade reaching US$200bn a year and is the biggest foreign direct investor in Vietnam,far  dwarfing the US.

While Hanoi is well aware of this inevitable economic need, it is ramping up efforts to secure credible long term fallback security assurance from Washington without upsetting the apple cart. This looks easier said than done, but the recent economic downturn and the debt and demographic crises in China provide new openings for Hanoi to seize the moment.

China’s growing countermeasures to challenge the unipolarity of the US-led post-Cold War order and to extend its regional hegemonic status put Vietnam at one of the core priority circles.

Hanoi’s Growing Regional Power Influence

 Vietnam cements its status as a growing middle power in the region, utilising its ties with both Washington and Moscow in dealing with Beijing and the shifting regional security calculations, in getting the best returns to its calculations.

Flexibility remains the utmost importance, in maintaining its historical strategy of the four “Nos” that have defined Vietnam’s approach after it ended its pro-Soviet isolation in 1986: no military alliances, no siding with one country against another, no foreign military bases on Vietnamese territory, no use of force in international relations.

The core idea is to be friends with all and an enemy to none. For Hanoi elites, they are under an increasingly deeper dilemma of treating its most important neighbour in China and the most important deterrent player in the US.

Vietnam has been touted as the alternative manufacturing hub for US companies as they seek to reduce their dependence on China. Driven by the US policy of de-coupling from China,  Chinese companies shift production to Vietnam to try to get around new US restrictions, and Vietnam has also been at the receiving end of more Western firms in the exodus from China.

The security deal sealed by Xi’s visit has been argued by some to underscore the common worry about Western forces. However, ingrained wariness of Beijing’s intent trumps any common worry about the West, and it reflects a gesture by Hanoi in accommodating Beijing’s security overtures with the existing hedging approach.

While both have been touted to have concerns about external threats to their socialist systems, both also have ingrained suspicions on one another’s long term risks of threats to their security and national interests.

The two countries will engage in more high-level exchanges between their law-enforcement agencies and share intelligence to protect regime security. For this, the calculations are predominantly geared towards ensuring domestic political and regime security which form the higher priority, as reflected in the intent to boost intelligence cooperation and share experience in the issues of anti-interference and anti-secession.

In describing one another as sharing “similar political regimes, a compatible ideology and belief, a similar development path, and a shared vision and future”, both tried to consolidate internal grip while wary of external implications that one might exert on the other.

Both Hanoi and Beijing primarily preserve a single party dominance, and political legitimacy remains the core interest. Xi’s visit is to stop the momentum of Washington in courting Hanoi.The offer of a digital road and in physical investment in the railway from Kunming to Haiphong is meant to force its hands into Hanoi, in knowing that as much as Vietnam resents external loan and the fear of the BRI debt trap, the playing of the critical resource card and in developing the needed cultivation and management of Vietnam’s huge rare earths deposit will be important for China’s leverage.

This includes a rail link from southern China in Kunming to the Vietnamese port of Haiphong, which passes through a region that has some of Vietnam’s richest rare earth deposits which it has so far been unable to exploit because of a lack of processing technology.

Vietnam holds the world’s second largest deposits of rare earths but Beijing is usually reluctant to share its refining technology and Hanoi largely prevents export of unprocessed rare earths.

The digital road remains another pathway of deeper Chinese overtures, under the flagship of the Digital Silk Road, ranging from optical fibre cables and data centres to a more comprehensive telecoms infrastructure avenue. Plans by Hanoi to build the full fledged 5G network are being looked into strategically by Beijing, apart from increasing leverage in the undersea digital infrastructure.

Hedging Strategy in the Balance with Greater Deterrence Need

Vietnam remains the two players in continental southeast Asia that are still wary of Chinese power and influence, and Hanoi remains the most important player in Beijing’s regional ambition.

Vietnam also remains the most critical player in its southern flank to ensure that the West is not able to use it to further weaken China in a potential usage as a second front battle in attacking China and creating a new battlefront from the south apart from a potential third front in the Himalayan border with India.

For the US, Hanoi is needed in using it both from an economic and defence point of view, in repelling China’s land line through the continental southeast Asia and as a maritime support base in supporting operations in the South China Sea alongside its renewed presence of the new bases in the Philippines.

Vietnam also serves as a critical support system to repel any momentum from China’s Ream base and in weakening China’s A2/AD capacity in the First Island Chain and in the South China Sea.

Vietnam holds the key in disabling the alternative land route through to Andaman Sea that serves as the second channel for Beijing in solving the Malacca Dilemma. The country is also seen as the main player that will benefit in the dwindling state of the economy of China, in reaping the investment benefits and serving as new hubs for critical sectors.

China will want to seize the momentum and opening to strengthen ties in halting Washington’s efforts, and to leverage Hanoi’s Four Nos stance.

The overtures by Beijing are also to provide the narrative and argument that China remains Vietnam’s biggest economic partner and to sell the bigger idea of being the inevitable neighbour, but one that is bigger provider and assurance of stability and security guarantor.

China poses a further dilemma and Hanoi, in serving both as a hard power tool of coercion in forcing Hanoi’s hands and using economic and soft power tools in trapping its options.

However, this is being done in a long term strategic approach of both winning the hearts and minds of the people and in presenting a renewed approach with Hanoi in lowering the tensions in South China Sea, unlike its public tiff with Manila.

Conversely, the US will always maintain its security presence, and has calculated and anticipated counter measures by Beijing in courting Hanoi and presenting its geographical narrative. The US will rely on Hanoi’s own self realization of the need to depend on Washington as the security counterbalance and Hanoi’s persistent wariness and fear of Beijing both historically and in modern times through its actions and intent in the region.

Vietnam’s mistrust of China runs deep, and despite the strategic overtures and efforts shown to foster greater trust and ideological similarities and protection, there is little intent and trust from the grassroots to accept the greater narrative. For the US, despite the lingering hauntings of the war, new power calculations and the needs of China containment trump other considerations, a calculated necessity that even the public domain in Vietnam understood quite well.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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