International environment has become highly complex since the end of the cold war. New developments are generating instability and tensions with multiple poles acting and reacting in an undefined and often in hostile manner. It is an environment where unpredictability frustrates conventional planning, where solutions do not yield the desired results, and where alliances become variables. These require innovative ways of thinking and acting for protection of national interests.
Vietnam’s immediate security environment has also witnessed multiple challenges. The South China Sea (SCS) disputes assumed a dangerous dimension since the beginning of the 21st Century. China in a more aggressive manner began to encroach on the Vietnamese EEZ discarding international laws and norms. China’s expansionist policy not only created problems for all countries in the region but also for external powers. The strategic balance in the region is being threatened with intensification of the US-China struggle.
China claims the entire nine-dashed line region in the SCS. China has also created artificial islands and militarised them in the disputed region. It imposes routinely fishing bans causing problems for the fishermen of all other littoral countries including Vietnam. Since Vietnam is seen as the strongest opponent of China in the region, it has become the main target of the Chinese aggressiveness. Its boats are frequently attacked by the Chinese vessels. China opposes its agreements with foreign countries for drilling in the Vietnamese EEZ. However, Vietnam firmly wards off such pressures.
Vietnam like a matured and civilised nation is using diplomatic mechanism to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity. At Eleventh National Congress, the policy of ‘proactive and positive international engagement’ was adopted that can be described as multidirectional approach. It seeks to diversify relations to reap economic. political and security benefits, while hedging against potential threats. The Vietnamese foreign policy is based on three mechanisms- Comprehensive/ strategic partnership, trade agreements and multilateralism. Vietnam has made partnerships with several countries, trade agreements with a number of countries bilaterally as also multilaterally and aligned its foreign policy with the multilateralism to establish relations with all irrespective of their ideological orientation.
Vietnam’s diplomacy functions at three levels. First at the bilateral level, it strengthened its relations with a number of countries like US. Russia, Japan, India European countries, ASEAN countries. At the same time, it maintains normal relations with China as a neighbouring country and it takes up its concerns whenever it is required.
Vietnam has deepened its relations with US, Russia, Japan, India as also with other nations. The US, which for some time had become more concerned about the West Asian problems, was made to pay attention to the SCS in a serious manner by Vietnam using its bilateral mechanism. Vietnam has Comprehensive Partnership with US. US last year openly stated its opposition to the Chinese claims on the SCS. With Japan it has Extensive Strategic Partnership. Abe former PM and the current PM Suga of Japan made their first foreign visit to Vietnam, which testifies close relations between the two countries. With India, the close relationship has been elevated to the level of Comprehensive Strategic Partnership and defence cooperation is the most important pillar of the relationship. There is an overwhelming convergence on international and regional issues between the two nations. With Russia too, Vietnam has close relations based on its Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. Relations with Australia are based on Comprehensive Partnership. It has strategic partnership with South Korea, Spain, UK, France, Germany, Italy, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore and Philippines. Significantly with China its relations are based on the Comprehensive Strategic Cooperative Partnership.
At the second level, it uses the regional forums. ASEAN’s various mechanisms are utilised for finding solution for the SCS disputes. The DoC was signed though it remained only on the paper mainly because of the Chinese reluctance to implement it. Vietnam in association with other ASEAN countries is pressing to get China agreed to the Code of Conduct (CoC). Notwithstanding the Single Draft of CoC being prepared, China is not showing real interest in its progress. China is also using coercion to create divisions among the ASEAN countries. All the partners of the ASEAN are supporting early finalisation of the CoC barring China which is creating problems. All the Quad countries find convergence between their concept of Indo-Pacific and the ASEAN’s Outlook for Indian Pacific (AOIP). They all support the implementation of PCA Ruling.
Vietnam chaired ASEAN in 2020 and it ensured that a unified Chairman’s statement on the SCS was issued. Since 2012 no unified statement could be issued because of the Chinese coercion on some states. In June 2020, the Chairman’s statement stated that ‘while discussing the situation in the SCS, concerns were expressed on the land reclamations, recent developments, activities and serious incidents, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region’. The terms like “some leaders” and “some ministers” to express the concerns over the Chinese activities as in the past were not used. This was a significant achievement of Vietnam as the Chair of ASEAN. It also reaffirmed boldly that the 1982 UNCLOS would be the basis for determining maritime entitlements, sovereign rights, jurisdiction and legitimate interests over maritime zones. Besides, Vietnam also maintains utilises other multilateral forums like European Union, Eurasian Economic Union, APEC etc.
At the third level, it is using UNSC. Vietnam became the non-permanent member of the UNSC in 2020 for two years. In April 2020, when the Vietnamese boat was sunk and its crew was detained, Vietnam approached the UN indicating ‘its sovereignty over the Hoang Sa (Paracel) and Truong Sa (Spratly) archipelagos in the East Sea in accordance with international law’. Later Malaysia and Indonesia also approached the UN. This matter would now be taken up there.
The Vietnam’s role in UNSC last year was praiseworthy. It established a linkage between UNSC and ASEAN. This would go a long way to get the support of UN on ASEAN related issues. The success of its Presidency in the first month was applauded by all members of the UNSC. Vietnam presided over more than 30 meetings to discuss security issues in the Middle East, Syria, Colombia, the Central African Republic and West Africa. The operation of the UN peacekeeping and political missions in Yemen, Cyprus and Libya were reviewed.
For economic progress, Vietnam has entered into trade agreements both bilaterally and multilaterally. It has FTA agreements with EU and Eurasia Economic Union. It is a member of Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and WTO and as mentioned above it uses ASEAN’s mechanisms for trade agreements.
It is hoped that the new leadership would continue with the multidirectional foreign policy adopted by Vietnam in the past that places significant emphasis on cultivating friendly relations with other nations and engaging with the International Community. Vietnam has achieved an important position in the comity of nations by pursuing this policy. Its objective of becoming a modern and industrialised country by 2030, when CPV celebrates its century, demands continuity of the current policies in foreign affairs with greater vigour and enhanced cooperation of the International Community. The international system is multi-polar and interconnected that brings frequent changes because of the shifting approaches of different nations resulting in unpredictability. Vietnam would have to deal with multiple challenges while making greater efforts to exploit opportunities in the coming period emanating from the profound changes that are taking place in the international system. The new leadership would need to keep this aspect in their calculus while formulating a comprehensive proactive strategy to achieve the twin objective of acquiring as many benefits as possible and securing alternatives for the worst-case scenarios.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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