US or China? Vietnam’s Balancing Act: An Interview with Dr Huong Le Thu

Between the US and China, there is no easy answer among Southeast Asian nation-states.

In a bid to defend individual national interests, Southeast Asian nations have adopted very different foreign policies. Particularly, Vietnam has welcomed friendship with both countries despite historical animosity, while stressing that there are “close and not so close friends”. Indeed, China’s militarization of the South China Sea seemed to nudge Vietnam towards the US, while US withdrawal from the Trans-Atlantic Partnership (TPP) has weakened her credibility in the region.

How effective is Vietnam’s balancing act between US and China? Will disparate foreign policies in Southeast Asia threaten ASEAN’s cohesion? These are some questions we posed to Dr Huong Le Thu, who studies Vietnam’s foreign policy especially in relation to major powers like China and the US. Read her response below!

Dr Le Thu is Senior Fellow at Australian Strategic Policy Institute and a visiting fellow at the SDSC, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University.

How effective is Vietnam’s balancing act between US and China?

Vietnam has no other option but get the relationship with both China and the US right. It is actively engaging bilaterally and deepening relations with both powers. Balancing act for Vietnam is particularly challenging given that both the US and China were Vietnam’s adversaries in the recent history. Moreover, they still pose large challenges to Vietnam’s security: China in its sovereignty and territorial integrity, while the US was traditionally feared to challenge the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) legitimacy.

However, Hanoi leadership has pro-actively sought engagement with Trump’s Washington as well as with Xi Jinping, also after his power consolidation in the 19th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress. Both Presidents Trump and Xi paid a state visit to Hanoi, following their participation in APEC CEO Summit in Danang in November 2017. While the recent developments are rather positive, for Vietnam, it remains a strenuous and demanding task to manage these two sets of asymmetric relationship, as both Washington and Beijing’s policies towards the region will continue to have a high degree of unpredictability. In the case of the US – Trump’s unconventional approach to foreign policy, while Xi Jinping’s policy will only get more aggressive.

As many Southeast Asian countries find their own balance in the US-China geopolitical rivalry, will this pose a threat to ASEAN’s cohesion?

Great power rivalry has always been a determining challenge for Southeast Asia. ASEAN came to life to shield the Southeast Asians from major volatilities. In recent years ASEAN’s cohesion has appeared to be challenged by the great powers’ pull. But there is a trap of putting the individual national interests versus collective interests through the ‘either-or’ lenses. It is important for the ASEAN leaders not to think so, because it would be a slippery slope to compromising collective interests – which in a long-term would be also compromising their individual national interests. In fact, I believe the ASEAN leaders should consider these challenging times as an opportunity to work even closer with each other and consolidate the spirit of solidarity.

What do you think about the Code of Conduct negotiations with China on the South China Sea dispute? Is this a sign of greater political unity in ASEAN to tackle the territorial dispute?

The Code of Conduct has been a quarter-of-century long anticipated outcome of China-ASEAN dispute managing mechanism. The CoC, however, will not resolve the maritime disputes in the South China Sea. As much as it is highly anticipated, we should not get over-enthusiastic about it. Especially that the true value of it – whether legally-binding or not – is still being disputed. It should not be hailed as a sign of political unity in ASEAN either – as it is not an internal ASEAN matter. China’s cooperation is crucial and it is the negotiation with China that decides about the real substance of the CoC.

Following Brexit and Catalonia’s referendum, other regions in Europe are also considering breakaways. If even the European Union, once thought to be the strongest bloc in the world, can fracture, do you think ASEAN will last?

Certainly Brexit and Catalonia referendum represent the current “mood for disintegration”. This trend is not singular to Europe only. But to link that to ASEAN is taking too much of a shortcut. ASEAN is not a union. ASEAN’s member states are small and middle-size powers in a very complex and demanding geo-strategic environment. It will remain to be in their interest to be a part of the grouping. In fact, there are more states wanting to join ASEAN, the current candidacy under review is Timor Leste, for example. ASEAN, despite its limits, provides a collective identity. So in this case it is actually an example of how flexibility is more resilient. The question is not whether ASEAN will last, but rather will ASEAN remain relevant.

We thank Dr Le Thu for her time and we hope her insights have given you a clearer picture of the political struggles ASEAN, and in particular – Vietnam, is currently facing. We welcome you to share your thoughts on the issue.

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