Webinar on “Navigating Strategic Uncertainties: Vietnam’s Pursuit of Strategic Autonomy in a Changing World”

In this webinar, Dr Vu Le Thai Hoang introduced the concept of strategic autonomy as the utmost level of autonomy a state can achieve within a five-level framework. He also discussed measures Vietnam has undertaken to enhance its resilience and adaptability in an unpredictable future, especially amid great power competition.


Wednesday, 29 May 2024 — The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute organised a webinar titled “Navigating Strategic Uncertainties: Vietnam’s Pursuit of Strategic Autonomy in a Changing World”, presented by Dr Vu Le Thai Hoang, Director General of the Institute of Foreign Policy and Strategic Studies and Dean of the Faculty of International Politics and Diplomacy at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam.

Dr Vu Le Thai Hoang with moderator Dr Le Hong Hiep. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Hoang began by discussing the concept of strategic autonomy, which refers to a state’s capacity to independently develop a strategic narrative and execute policy on vital strategic matters despite countervailing pressures. Strategic autonomy allows states to exert greater control over foreign policy decisions and mitigates risks associated with fluctuating international dynamics. This concept is rooted in historical concepts, such as the non-alignment movement, and has gained renewed importance in the current geopolitical context.

Dr Hoang then introduced a five-level framework to analyse a state’s autonomy, ranging from no autonomy to strategic autonomy. The lowest level, no autonomy, occurs when an actor has completely lost the ability to exercise political control, typically due to military conquest by a foreign power. Symbolic autonomy, the next level, is when an actor maintains a facade of independence, but its foreign policy and vital national interests are dictated by another state. Limited autonomy, the middle level, is where an actor enjoys independence but its foreign policies and vital security matters are significantly constrained by more powerful states. Robust autonomy is achieved when an actor has the capacity to pursue independent policies on most critical issues but may lack the capacity to implement a comprehensive and sustained strategy. At the highest level, strategic autonomy, an actor possesses comprehensive national power and an independent policy orientation, enabling them to execute preferred policies on vital strategic matters despite countervailing pressures.

Dr Hoang emphasised that strategic autonomy is distinct from related concepts such as non-alignment, hedging, and isolation, which are specific strategic choices that states make if they have a significant level of autonomy. Moreover, the concept of strategic autonomy applies not only to nation-states but also to institutions such as the European Union or ASEAN.

In an environment of strategic uncertainty, states with higher levels of strategic autonomy are better equipped to navigate and mitigate risks. Strategic autonomy provides flexibility and agency for states to adapt to changing circumstances and pursue their interests, despite external pressures. Particularly, by reducing dependence on any single power and diversifying partnerships, states with strategic autonomy can create a buffer against shocks and sudden shifts in the international system and act decisively in the face of uncertainty.

Dr Hoang then turned to how Vietnam has managed strategic uncertainties through its foreign policy of independence, self-reliance, multilateralisation, and diversification. Vietnam’s management of its relations with other states has three elements: reassurance, hedging, and deterrence. Reassurance involves maintaining consistency in foreign policy and transparency in communication, keeping partners informed of diplomatic moves, and building strategic trust to narrow the narrative gap. Hedging involves expanding and enhancing relations with partners, participating in various multilateral institutions, and diversifying partnerships to ensure stable supply chains of weapons, critical resources, and technologies. Deterrence involves clearly communicating Vietnam’s national interests on critical issues such as the South China Sea dispute, modernising armed forces, maintaining a robust presence in the South China Sea, and forging diverse defence partnerships.

Vietnam has managed to develop an extensive network of partnerships, including 7 comprehensive strategic partnerships, 11 strategic partnerships, and 12 comprehensive partnerships. Vietnam is also a member of more than 70 regional and international mechanisms, a proactive member within ASEAN, and a party to 16 free trade agreements. These figures demonstrate Vietnam’s pursuit of strategic autonomy amidst strategic uncertainties.

These uncertainties include geopolitical implications of great power competition, the return of geostrategic conflicts, the emergence of non-traditional security threats, and the impact of emerging technologies on governance and international affairs. In such a context, managing relations with major powers in a harmonious and balanced way is critical for Vietnam. Thus, in recent years, Vietnam has elevated its ties with various major powers, including the United States, China, Australia, Japan, and South Korea. Dr Hoang argued that the concept of strategic autonomy better explains Vietnam’s foreign policy behaviour than the often-used concept of balance of power.

He concluded that in an era marked by increasing strategic uncertainty, the pursuit of strategic autonomy has emerged as a fundamental necessity for states to navigate the complex geopolitical landscape and safeguard their national interests. Ultimately, attaining strategic autonomy requires developing comprehensive national power and maintaining the political will to act independently when necessary while actively engaging with the international community to shape a stable and predictable environment conducive to peace and prosperity.

In the Q&A session, Dr Hoang answered the audience’s questions related to his five-level framework as well as those related to the case of Vietnam, including Vietnam’s position on the spectrum of autonomy, Vietnam’s responses to challenges posed by the Russia-Ukraine war, the relevance of the term “bamboo diplomacy”, Vietnam’s relations with the United States if Donald Trump is re-elected as president, and prospects for Vietnam’s strategic autonomy in the near to medium term.