In the last of a four-part series on the implications of Vietnam’s recently concluded 13th Party Congress, Mr Derek Grossman examined the status of strategic engagements between the Quad members – the United States, Japan, Australia, and India – and Vietnam, and their prospects in the next five years.
VIETNAM STUDIES PROGRAMME WEBINAR
Tuesday, 16 Mar 2021 – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute organised a webinar on “Prospects of Vietnam’s Strategic Engagement with the Quad” on Tuesday, delivered by Mr Derek Grossman, a senior defence analyst at RAND Corporation. This is the last of a four-part series on the implications of Vietnam’s recently concluded 13th Party Congress.
Mr Grossman noted that Vietnam seeks to maintain a delicate balance between China and the US. However, from Hanoi’s perspective, the existence of the Quad is still desirable, especially in the context of the South China Sea dispute. Vietnam has consistently stated that the dispute should be settled peacefully through the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a position supported by Quad members. The Quad’s cooperation on regional infrastructure development may also bring Vietnam and regional countries an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Mr Grossman pointed out that a major constraint for Vietnam’s strategic cooperation with the Quad is its so-called “four no’s principle”, that is no military alliance, no foreign base on Vietnam’s soil, no relationship with one country to be used against a third country, and no use of force or threat of force in international relations. However, Vietnam’s 2019 Defence White Paper also states that “depending on the circumstances and specific conditions, Vietnam will consider developing necessary, appropriate defence and military relations with other countries”. This “one depend” therefore allows Hanoi to bend or break its ‘four no’s’ principle to elevate strategic ties with Quad members, especially if China grows more assertive in the South China Sea.
Talking about challenges in Vietnam’s relations with the Quad, Mr Grossman observed that Vietnam, as a socialist and authoritarian regime, stands out from the democratic countries which make up the Quad. This makes joining the grouping an uncomfortable proposition for both sides. Nonetheless, Vietnam joined the 2020 Quad Plus virtual meeting, alongside New Zealand and South Korea, to address the Covid-19 pandemic. Mr Grossman noted that Hanoi had probably felt it was able to so because the topic of discussion was not related to China, but this should not be interpreted as an opening step for Vietnam to formally join the Quad.
With regard to Vietnam-US relations, Mr Grossman noted that the two countries are like-minded partners, and their relations on all fronts have continued to strengthen in recent years, even in the sensitive realm of security. This momentum is likely to continue under the Biden administration. However, there are concerns that Biden’s championing of democracy and human rights, the US investigation into Vietnam’s alleged currency manipulation, and potential sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) may complicate ties.
Mr Grossman noted that Australia is an increasingly important partner for Vietnam, and that the two countries upgraded their relations to a strategic partnership in 2018. They have also consistently reiterated the intent to boost defence cooperation and uphold the freedom of navigation through UNCLOS.
India also maintains a robust relationship with Vietnam. Mr Grossman pointed out that Vietnam now perceives India as its most reliable defence partner. In 2016 Prime Minister Modi extended a US$500 million line of credit to Vietnam to buy defence equipment from India, and the two countries also upgraded their relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership that year.
Lastly, Vietnam and Japan maintain an extensive strategic partnership. Bilateral relations were particularly positive under the Abe administration, and this has continued under current Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. Mr Grossman pointed out that Hanoi benefits significantly from Tokyo’s willingness to stand up to Beijing in territorial disputes, whether in the East or South China Sea, and also from Tokyo’s advocacy for the peaceful settlement of territorial disputes based on international law. Tokyo’s own grievances with Beijing make it an ideal partner for Hanoi. Japan is also Vietnam’s largest ODA donor, ensuring that people-to-people ties between the two countries remain warm and deep.
Mr Grossman concluded by noting that even if Vietnam never formally joins the Quad, its ties with the four Quad members – including in the area of security cooperation – is exceptionally robust and growing constantly. Vietnam can also continue to participate in Quad Plus platforms and play a role in the Quad even without ever formally joining it.
The webinar closed with a Q&A session that discussed issues ranging from the fortification of land features in the South China Sea and Vietnam’s interest in India’s BrahMos missiles, to prospects of Vietnam pursuing legal options to bolster its claims in the South China Sea and competition between China’s BRI and the Quad’s Blue Dot Network.