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Vietnam looking to play pivotal role with both China and US

By Carlyle A. Thayer (

10:05, July 25, 2012

Illustration: Sun Ying

No analyst residing in a country that has gone to war with Vietnam can doubt Hanoi's commitment to maintaining its own independence. Vietnam has also learned from history that too much reliance on a major power can have negative consequences.

This historical backdrop is a necessary reminder to readers that Vietnam is not aligning with the US to oppose China. Since 1991 Vietnam has pursued a foreign policy to diversify and multilateralize its relations and become a reliable partner to all countries. This has been a success. Vietnam was the Asia's bloc unanimous choice as its representative for a seat on the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member and it has entered into strategic partnerships with Russia, Japan, India, China, South Korea, Spain, the UK, and Germany.

Vietnam seeks to be the pivot in relations with China and the US. In other words, Vietnam seeks to develop comprehensive ties with each and make each bilateral relationship important in its own right. As pivot, Vietnam wants China and the US to accept Vietnam as a reliable partner. Vietnam wants to shape its relations with both so it does not have to ally with one side against the other.

In 2003, Vietnam's Communist Party adopted the terms "to cooperate" and "to struggle" to guide its relations with both China and the US. This formulation overcame an apparent contradiction in Vietnamese ideological thinking: how to explain friction and conflict with socialist China and how to explain areas of common interests with the "imperialist" US. Vietnam decided to cooperate with both but to struggle when Vietnam's core interests are challenged.

The US has announced a policy of rebalancing its military presence in the Asia-Pacific region. Some Chinese and regional analysts have concluded that the US is attempting to contain China. As part of its rebalancing policy, the US has sought to upgrade its defense relations with Vietnam. Vietnam has been receptive but only up to a point. For example, for the past three years Vietnam and the US have conducted joint naval activities, but these are not military exercises involving the exchange of combat skills.

The best way to view US-Vietnam defense relations is to compare them with China's defense relations with Vietnam. Vietnam exchanges high-level visits with both countries. Vietnam conducts strategic dialogues with both countries and recently raised the level to that of deputy defense minister with both countries. Vietnam permits all countries to make naval port visits, but restricts this to one visit a year, including the US. In 2010, for example, the USS John S. McCain destroyer visited the Da Nang Port, several months later one of China's most modern guided missile frigates also called in.

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