Where Is Vietnam on the Sino-U.S. Spectrum?

July 2023 marks two decades of Vietnam’s grand strategic adjustment (a change within a grand strategy) of cooperation and struggle, which was expected to position the country equidistantly between China and the United States. Like other Southeast Asian capitals, Hanoi does not want to choose a side. However, even after 20 years of implementing the 2003 adjustment, Vietnam remains closer to the Chinese side of the Sino-U.S. spectrum.

During the 8th National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam in 1996, Vietnamese leaders announced, for the first time, a “foreign policy of independence, self-reliance, openness, multilateralization, and diversification of foreign relations,” (author’s translation). These five sometimes conflicting principles constitute Vietnam’s grand strategy, despite the country never explicitly claiming or acknowledging its existence.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc in Eastern Europe, China and Vietnam are among the five remaining communist regimes in the world, alongside Cuba, Laos, and North Korea. Vietnamese and Chinese leaders view the survival of their regimes as aligned with their national security interests. Vietnam had considered China a de facto ally that would protect socialism, while perceiving the United States as an archenemy leading imperialist forces with the intention of overthrowing communist regimes worldwide. However, Vietnamese leaders increasingly struggled to reconcile this view with the changing strategic environment in the late 1990s.

In July 2003, the Communist Party of Vietnam issued the Resolution on Strategy to Protect the Fatherland in the New Situation, which introduced the concepts of partners of cooperation and objects of struggle. With this new approach, Vietnamese leaders no longer view any country solely as a partner or an adversary but as a combination of both (a change in threat perception). Through the grand strategic adjustment, Hanoi cooperates with Beijing on specific political, economic, and security issues. Simultaneously, Vietnam struggles against China in the South China Sea and the Mekong Basin, while aiming to reduce its trade dependence on the Chinese economy. Notably, Vietnam prioritizes the modernization of its naval and air forces, as well as the deepening of defense cooperation with like-minded partners such as India, Japan, and the United States to better protect its interests in the South China Sea.

The 2003 grand strategic adjustment of cooperation and struggle paved the way for Vietnam to strengthen its relations with the United States, despite their differences. This adjustment also enables Vietnam to further integrate into the Western-dominated global economy, expanding its markets and benefiting from capital resources, technologies, and advanced management methods from more economically developed countries to foster economic development. However, Hanoi has disagreements with Washington on various issues, including U.S. concerns about Vietnam’s human rights practices, Vietnamese leaders’ suspicions regarding U.S. intentions for regime change, Vietnam’s nonmarket economy status under U.S. law, U.S. politicization of trade deficits, and U.S. accusations of Vietnam’s currency manipulation (the last two occurring during the Trump administration).

Although the grand strategic adjustment has led Vietnam to pursue a more balanced approach between the two great powers, the Southeast Asian country remains closer to China than to the United States. Vietnam agreed to form a comprehensive strategic partnership with China in 2008—the highest level of cooperation in Hanoi’s diplomatic arsenal. However, it took Vietnam an additional five years to sign a comprehensive partnership—the lowest level—with the United States in 2013. In recent years, the United States has consistently urged Vietnam to upgrade their partnership to a strategic level, but Vietnamese leaders have not responded positively. Hanoi might agree to elevate the partnership with Washington later this year to celebrate 10 years of their comprehensive partnership, but it would remain one level lower than Hanoi’s partnership with Beijing. While the titles do not always reflect the true contents of the partnerships, as political statements, they at least show that Vietnam is closer to China diplomatically. Furthermore, U.S.-Vietnam trade in 2022 was $123.3 billion, still lower than China-Vietnam trade at $177.3 billion.

Several factors could explain why Vietnam has been slow to formally upgrade the relationship with the United States to a strategic partnership. First, the geographical proximity and the shared long border of 1,306 kilometers with China, which is physically much larger, economically stronger, and militarily more powerful than Vietnam, have made China loom large in the minds of Vietnamese leaders. Amid the intensified strategic competition between China and the United States, Hanoi feels uncomfortable explicitly moving closer to Washington.

Second, a strategic partnership with the United States would lead to higher expectations regarding human rights, which Hanoi might find threatening to its regime survival. Lastly, there are logistical and protocol difficulties in carrying out the upgrade. The two countries have discussed an official visit by their top leaders, but it has not come to fruition. Some observers speculate that the U.S.-Vietnam strategic partnership would be signed by the U.S. president and the general secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party. However, the comprehensive partnership between the two countries was signed by their presidents. It would be more appropriate if President Vo Van Thuong and President Joe Biden were to carry out the upgrade. Nonetheless, the dominance of General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong in Vietnam’s political system complicates the protocols.

Looking ahead, Vietnam’s strategic norm of nonalignment based on the "Four No's" defense principles creates challenges for the United States in strengthening security ties with Vietnam to counter Chinese coercion in the South China Sea and the broader Indo-Pacific region. Vietnam's first “no” of not forming military alliances makes it impossible for the country to establish an alliance with the United States. While Singapore, also a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, has granted the United States access, basing, and overflight privileges, Vietnam will not follow suit due to its second “no” of no foreign bases on its territory. Despite the Soviet and Russian use of Vietnam's naval base at Cam Ranh Bay from 1978 to 2002, it is highly unlikely that Vietnam will grant the United States access to its military bases. Moreover, the Vietnamese government’s stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which is similar to Beijing’s approach, presents new obstacles to its relations with the West.

Nonetheless, there are other ways for the United States to enhance security cooperation with Vietnam. Washington can convince Hanoi to regularize visits by the U.S. Navy in line with Vietnam’s policy of one port call per year per country. By focusing on improving Vietnam’s self-defense capabilities and by engaging with Hanoi within the frameworks of multilateral organizations, Washington can counter Beijing without violating Hanoi’s principle of nonalignment. Recognizing Vietnam’s close ties with Russia and its approach to the Ukraine crisis, the United States should engage Vietnam on areas of common concern, while also addressing differences in a constructive and respectful manner. By taking a nuanced and multifaceted approach, the United States can find avenues to strengthen security ties with Vietnam.

Bich Tran is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Bich Tran
Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Southeast Asia Program