“New White Paper Reveals Little Change to Vietnam’s Defence Policy” by Le Hong Hiep

2019/104, 10 December 2019

Vietnam released the fourth edition of its national defence white paper on 25 November 2019. Compared to the third edition released in 2009, the new white paper provides detailed and more updated information about Vietnam’s perception of the global and regional security environment, Vietnam’s defence policy, and its defence forces. In terms of defence policy, however, the paper does not reveal any major changes, except for a minor twist to the longstanding and well-known “three no’s policy”, that is no military alliance, no foreign military base on Vietnamese soil, and no siding with one country against another.
Specifically, the paper states that “Viet Nam consistently advocates neither joining any military alliances, siding with one country against another, giving any other countries permission to set up military bases or use its territory to carry out military activities against other countries nor using force or threatening to use force in international relations”.

This addition of the principle of no use or threat of force was obviously meant to highlight the defensive and peaceful nature of Vietnam’s national defence policy, especially in the context of Vietnam’s continuous efforts to upgrade its military capabilities.

However, from another perspective, this change is rather redundant. After all, the principle of no use or threat of force is widely recognized by the international community as a foundation of international relations and is enshrined in the charters of the United Nations and ASEAN.
The new principle can also generate confusion about Vietnam’s defence policy, especially when its introduction is not accompanied by proper contexts and explanations. This has led some commentators to argue that the new principle contradicts the purpose of Vietnam’s military modernization program as well as the overall task of Vietnam’s national defence forces, that is to defend the country, including by using force when necessary. In anticipation of this misunderstanding, Deputy Minister of Defence Nguyen Chi Vinh had to clarify at the launch of the paper that if Vietnam is invaded, “we have to bear arms but our struggle is for peace”.

As such, while including the principle in the white paper may help further underline the peaceful and defensive nature of Vietnam’s national defence, it should not be bundled with the “three no’s policy”.

The above confusion aside, the 2019 defence white paper is a welcome publication that brings more clarity and transparency to Vietnam’s national defence policy. Vietnam’s continued commitment to the non-alignment policy is also noteworthy, especially against the backdrop of the increasing pressures that China has been putting on Vietnam in the South China Sea over the past five years.

Since 2014, when China’s decision to plant a giant oil rig in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone sparked a major crisis in bilateral relations, there has been a debate among Vietnamese strategists as to whether the “three no’s policy” remains relevant and whether Vietnam should further strengthen strategic ties with the major powers to counter China’s pressures. Vietnam’s continued commitment to the policy suggests that Hanoi still values the role of the  “three no’s policy” in explaining Vietnam’s national defence policy to the world. Moreover, even when Hanoi continues to pursue “alliance politics”, or efforts to forge close security and defence ties short of formal, treaty-bound alliances with key partners, especially the US and Japan, to deal with China in the South China Sea, it will likely realise caution in such efforts to avoid being seen as abandoning the policy and taking side with the US and its allies in their intensified strategic rivalry with China.
Dr Le Hong Hiep is Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

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