Since taking power in October 2018, following the death in office of his predecessor, Vietnam’s President Nguyễn Phú Trọng faces a foreign policy situation made increasingly worrisome by an apparent containment strategy from China. In July 2019, reports indicated that China’s maritime forces, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), secured exclusive access for 30 years, with automatic renewals every 10 years after that, to one-third of Ream Naval Base. The naval base is operated by the Royal Cambodian Navy and located a little more than 60 kilometers from the Vietnamese island of Phú Quốc. This would be China’s second permanent overseas military presence, following the establishment in 2017 of China’s naval base in Djibouti. Beyond the Ream Naval Base agreement, Chinese entities have acquired a 99-year lease for Dara Sakor, a region encompassing roughly 20% of the Cambodian coastline.
Cambodia’s efforts to attract Chinese investment have compromised Vietnam’s southwestern flank and further eroded what limited capacity for collective defence the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) offered. Whereas most analyses of these recent developments discuss them in the context of China-India relations and China’s alleged “String of Pearls” strategy, it is important to recognize the geopolitical pressure that would be placed on Vietnam by an overt Chinese military presence in Cambodia. In 2018, China rapidly deployed a series of structures to the Paracel Islands, located to the east of Vietnam and which are subject to rival claims from China, Taiwan, and Vietnam. As has also been widely reported, over the past few years, China has aggressively been building a series of bases in the Spratly Islands, which are located to Vietnam’s southeast.
US officials fear the Chinese-built Dara Sakor International Airport in Cambodia could be used by China’s military
Combined with the militarization of these features and harassment from maritime militia based in Hainan Island’s Sanya City, located to Vietnam’s northeast, a PLAN presence at Ream Naval Base would complete the Chinese encirclement of Vietnam’s maritime forces. This will inevitably lead to more brazen encounters, like the Haiyang Dizhi 8 incident, in which a Chinese oil survey vessel by that designation entered Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in July 2019 and engaged in a weeks-long standoff with Vietnamese forces. Such encounters serve to further strengthen China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea while also demonstrating to regional neighbours their limited capacity to preserve their sovereignty.
Calls for closer defence ties between Vietnam and India pre-suppose that the over-arching Chinese motivation for establishing a presence in Cambodia is to add another link in the “String of Pearls”. Such an initiative would also not serve to break the Chinese encirclement of Vietnam. Rather, Vietnam needs more friends to the east of the Strait of Malacca. The establishment in June 2019 of a formal defence dialogue with Indonesia is a promising sign, and Vietnamese policymakers should seek to leverage this relationship as a counter to Chinese pressure on each of the two countries. This could include offering reciprocal recognition of territorial claims, with Vietnam declaring its support for Indonesia’s claims on the waters surrounding the Natuna Islands, in exchange for Indonesia more explicitly condemning China’s actions in the Spratly Islands. Vietnam could also offer to support Indonesia’s long-mulled idea of a military base in the Natuna Islands.
Royal Canadian Navy’s HMCS Regina (left) and MV Asterix are docked at Cam Ranh port, Vietnam, in June 2019. It is the first-ever Canadian port call at a Vietnam naval base.
In August 2019, Hanoi also hosted Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, the first time an Australian head of government has travelled to Vietnam on a bilateral visit in 25 years. If this political overture were to be followed by a series of initiatives geared toward enhancing defence cooperation, such as joint exercises between the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and the Vietnam People’s Navy (VPN), this could also give China pause before it presses home any advantage its encirclement is meant to secure. The signing in November 2018 of a “Declaration on Joint Visions for Enhancing Defense Cooperation” between Vietnamese and Australian policymakers certainly seems to suggest that this is the direction in which the two countries are heading.
The relationship with the United States will also be crucial. Vietnam has already curried favour with the Trump Administration for hosting the second round of talks between US President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in February 2019. While in Hanoi for that summit, Trump also met with Vietnam’s new President. However, Trump has yet to return the favour by hosting President Trong in Washington, DC, although it is difficult to say whether this has been through a lack of diplomatic effort by Vietnam or the absence of an invitation from the American side. In any case, it should be a priority of Vietnamese foreign policy in the next few years to cultivate stronger personal ties with key figures in the Trump Administration and with whatever regime might emerge from the US elections in 2020. Even as the US has its disputes with China, the US Navy’s freedom of navigation patrols can help to alleviate the pressure on Vietnam by directing PLAN’s focus outward, toward external challenges to its dominance in the South China Sea rather than inward to Vietnamese defiance.
Another port call: in May 2019, the large French anti-air frigate Forbin docked at Hiep Phuoc port in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Recognizing the seriousness of China’s encirclement, Vietnamese policymakers should also revisit the country’s “three no’s” principle: no military alliances, no foreign troops stationed on Vietnamese soil, and no partnering with a foreign power to combat another. The first and third no’s limit Vietnam’s capacity to manoeuvre in an otherwise increasingly constrained geopolitical environment. Vietnam does not need to seek a NATO-like regional arrangement in an effort to safeguard against future Chinese aggression. However, signaling that the three no’s no longer apply to Vietnam’s security situation would show existing or potential partners – like the US, Australia, Indonesia, and even India – that Vietnam would be willing to go “all the way” against a military threat from China or another aggressor. So long as the Vietnamese leadership continues to uphold the “three no’s”, China will know that Vietnam will be unwilling to escalate if attacked. Safe in that knowledge, provocations like the Haiyang Dizhi 8 incident will continue.