In this webinar, Ms Bich T. Tran addressed the question of whether Hanoi’s comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership with Beijing still makes sense given China’s growing assertiveness that threatens Vietnam’s interests in the South China Sea.
VIETNAM STUDIES PROGRAMME WEBINAR
Tuesday, 21 December 2021 – In 2008, Vietnam and China established a comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership, the highest level of relationship that Vietnam has with a foreign partner. In a webinar titled “Does the Vietnam – China Comprehensive Strategic Cooperative Partnership Make Sense?”, Ms Bich T. Tran discussed the factors contributing to the establishment of this strategic partnership and whether it remains relevant in the current context. Ms Tran is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Antwerp, a fellow at Verve Research, and a non-resident fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Washington D.C.
Ms Tran began by discussing the definition and characteristics of “strategic partnerships” in Vietnam’s diplomatic and strategic lexicons. From Hanoi’s perspective, strategic partnership is a security arrangement that aims to address common challenges and explore collaborative opportunities, rather than countering a specific country. Strategic partnerships are therefore flexible, non-binding, and multidimensional. They provide states with economic and security benefits without the risks of strategic entrapment or loss of autonomy. These features make strategic partnerships more attractive than formal alliances, and they have thus become more prevalent in recent years. Vietnam forged its first strategic partnership with Russia in 2001 and since then has developed 30 partnerships under various titles, forming a hierarchy of partnerships. The lowest level is comprehensive partnership, followed by strategic partnership, and then comprehensive (or extensive) strategic partnership.
Ms Tran noted that Vietnam’s decision to establish a “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership” with China in 2008 was intriguing because prior to that point, China had been detaining Vietnamese fishermen, harassing Vietnamese vessels, and asserting its claims in the disputed waters with Vietnam. In explaining this policy decision, Ms Tran pointed to a shift in Vietnam’s “grand strategy”. In 2003, in response to developments in the global, regional, and domestic situations, the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) adopted Resolution No. 8 titled “Strategy to Protect the Fatherland in the New Situation.” This document introduced a major shift in how Vietnam perceived its adversaries. Accordingly, Vietnam no longer saw its external relations through the dichotomy of friends and foes. Instead, Vietnam recognised that within each relationship, there were both areas for “cooperation” and areas where it must “struggle” to protect its interests. This strategy adjustment allowed Vietnam to develop close relations with China despite ongoing disputes in the South China Sea.
Ms Tran stressed that the policy outcome in 2008 was also a result of other international and domestic factors. At the international level, China’s meteoric economic rise offered enormous opportunities for Vietnam to promote trade with its northern neighbour. At the same time, Beijing’s growing military capabilities made a confrontational stance against China undesirable for Vietnam. Moreover, in the mid-2000s, China had been promoting its “peaceful rise” narrative, which facilitated its cooperation with Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries. A case in point is the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) signed between China and ASEAN. On the domestic level, ideological affinity encouraged the CPV to develop amicable ties with its Chinese counterpart despite growing anti-China sentiments at home. Because of these reasons, it made sense for Vietnam to seek a strategic partnership with China at that time.
However, contrary to Vietnam’s expectations, since 2008, China has become increasingly assertive in consolidating its maritime claims at the expense of Vietnam. The most prominent example was an incident in 2014 in which China moved the Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil rig into Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Another incident was China’s deployment of a survey vessel into waters near Vietnam-controlled Vanguard Bank in 2019. These developments beg the question: What is the point of a Vietnam – China strategic partnership?
Ms Tran argued that the Vietnam – China comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership serves two functions. First, the partnership helps the two countries manage their maritime disputes. For example, in May 2011, Chinese vessels cut the cables of a PetroVietnam survey ship in the South China Sea, resulting in 11 weeks of anti-China protests in Vietnam. High-level discussions between Vietnam and China began one month later, and in October 2011, the two countries signed an agreement on the basic principles guiding the settlement of maritime issues, which effectively resolved the crisis. The strategic partnership also helped stabilise bilateral relations during and after the 2014 oil rig incident. In June 2014, one month after China’s placement of the oil rig in Vietnam’s EEZ, then-Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung had a meeting with the Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi, in which the two sides agreed to maintain bilateral dialogues to deescalate tension. Subsequently, China withdrew the rig from Vietnamese waters one month ahead of schedule. In the aftermath of the standoff, Hanoi sent Politburo member Le Hong Anh to Beijing as an envoy to restore bilateral ties.
The second function of the strategic partnership is to allow Vietnam to elevate partnerships with other major powers without irritating China. Having assured China with the highest level of diplomatic relations, Hanoi was less wary of Beijing’s reactions to Vietnam’s stronger ties with other countries. Vietnam developed a comprehensive strategic partnership with Russia in 2012, an extensive strategic partnership with Japan in 2014, and a comprehensive strategic partnership with India in 2016.
In 2020, Hanoi and Washington were expected to upgrade their comprehensive partnership to a strategic one, but this has not happened. Ms Tran suggested that Vietnam might feel uncomfortable signalling greater alignment with the United States amid intensifying US-China competition. Nonetheless, Ms Tran observed that the Vietnam – China comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership is not higher than the Vietnam – US comprehensive partnership. To underscore this point, she referred to an essay by Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh, which suggested that comprehensive partnerships with some countries might be at a higher level than some strategic partnerships. Therefore, Ms Tran stressed that the hierarchy of partnerships only applies within one relationship, not across different relationships. Furthermore, US and Vietnamese officials have said that the Vietnam – US partnership is already strategic in nature. Ms Tran concluded that unless Vietnam invented a new title to upgrade its ties with China, the relationship had already peaked. Meanwhile, there is still a lot of room for the Vietnam – US relationship to grow, especially when the lowest level of partnership is already strategic in nature.
In the Q&A session, Ms Tran discussed to what extent factors such as ideology, nationalism, historical memories, and China’s presence in multilateral trade agreements affect the trajectory of Vietnam – China relations. She also answered questions on the prospects of the negotiations on the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea (COC), China’s potential use of economic coercion against Vietnam, the implications of Cambodia’s 2022 ASEAN Chairmanship, and Vietnam’s relationship with Japan in the context of China’s maritime assertiveness.