The 13th National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) is scheduled to take place in January 2021. About 1,600 delegates nationwide will elect the new Party Central Committee of 180 members. In addition to the difficulty in electing the “four pillars” of Vietnamese leaders in the 2021-2025 term, the “Chinese factor” still exists in Vietnam’s foreign policy formulation for the coming years.
Beijing insists on sovereignty over most of the South China Sea (Vietnamese call it the East Sea), despite objections from some ASEAN countries, especially those along the East Sea and many countries around the world. The US condemns China’s stance, accelerates its campaigns for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and demands respect for the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
These points are stated in the Draft Political Report prepared for the 13I Communist Party Congress: “Disputes of territorial sovereignty, the sovereignty of sea and islands have been tense, complicated and drastic.. . Peace, stability, freedom, security, and safety of navigation and aviation in the East Sea face great challenges and potential conflicts. ASEAN plays an important role in maintaining peace, stability, promoting regional cooperation, but also facing many difficulties.”
China is Vietnam’s largest trading partner and has a great influence on the CPV’s leadership. However, since recent years, Hanoi has adjusted its policy to avoid over-dependence on its northern neighbor, expanding and improving diplomatic and trade relations with Western partners and democratic countries, especially the US. The fact that the US has a new government in January 2021 is very noticeable in Hanoi. The Central Commission for Propaganda and Education held an online conference on November 12 to update reporters, as well as forecasts about US foreign policy for the new term and the implications for the national situation. economic and regional.
How does “the China factor” affect Vietnam’s foreign policymaking for the coming years, in the context of a change of government in the US? RFI Vietnamese asked researcher Benoît de Tréglodé, director of Africa – Asia – Middle East region, Institute for Strategic Studies, French Military School (IRSEM).
RFI: The 13th Party Congress took place in January 2021. Is this a delicate time for Hanoi in the context of the unknown specific policy of the new US administration towards the East Sea, as well as in the region?
Benoît de Tréglodé: First of all, do not wait for profound changes. Last week, Mr. Joe Biden appointed future secretary of state in his administration. It’s a very famous figure because Antony Blinken was a former assistant security advisor under President Clinton. He also served as an assistant secretary of state during the second term of President Obama. This is indeed a central figure of the system. It was Mr. Blinken who prepared the famous “pivot to Asia” policy, so his policy towards China, towards Asia, has long been known. So it is unlikely that under Biden there would have been profound changes from the central points of American policy on Asia.
The problem for Joe Biden, with that kind of secretary of state, would of course be to bring the US back to international cooperation, as well as maintain a tough line towards Beijing, because slowly Now China is the central issue in building American identity in the international arena. It is the biggest competitor to America’s ambitions in the world. So, in my opinion, there will still be a hard line, policy toward Beijing. But this time it will be very different from the time of President Donald Trump, as the new policy will always be coordinated first and foremost with allies globally.
I know a lot of Vietnamese have special feelings for the Donald Trump administration and for the people of the 45th US President. First, because Mr. Trump knows Vietnam and visited the country twice. Second, Donald Trump is the one who encourages the Vietnamese to speak louder, louder than what they cannot say for themselves as a partner country, a neighbor of China.
Certainly with the Biden administration, the tone and style will change, language will change too. Donald Trump’s ideological Beijing policy, revolving around principles inherited from the Cold War era between the two empires of good and evil, is now with Joe Biden and Blinken, as Foreign ministers, the dominance of complex diplomacy, multilateralism, arbitration, and the search for balance, will be back at the heart of America’s confrontation with China. This is for sure!
Therefore, the return of the United States to a more complex foreign policy, with international relations, does indeed sometimes cause more complications for Vietnam. They do not directly have a stirring figure like Donald Trump to be able to hide behind and achieve success in their relations with Beijing in the South China Sea.
But again, let us not forget that the US position will not change at all. Hillary Clinton, when she was secretary of state, came to Hanoi in 2010. It was she who supported Vietnam’s stance and showed that the US would be a useful ally of Hanoi to protect its rights to freedom of navigation, opening access to the common maritime zones of Asia and promoting respect for international law in the South China Sea. That is the direction the new US administration will continue to pursue.
RFI: Vietnam has taken a tough stance on the South China Sea in recent years. How does the administration of President Donald Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy affect this tough attitude of Hanoi over Beijing’s sovereignty claims in the South China Sea?
Benoît de Tréglodé: Under President Trump, indeed the US has truly turned strategy in the Indo-Pacific into its great dream in Asia and back in a region that is under deep competition for China’s strides. It is important to know that President Xi Jinping is not willing to compromise and that Xi has made enormous strides in Asia in recent years.
However, let us not forget that Vietnam’s policy is primarily one that seeks a lasting balance between world powers and is determined from the point of view of security policy, namely the National defense White Book which was announced at the end of 2019, the latest version of the National Defense White Paper outlines the four “No” principle in Vietnam’s foreign and security policy. These principles do not allow, or rather do not want to push Vietnam, to choose or join a military alliance against a third country, or to participate in drills directed at the third country namely China.
Therefore, the key principle in Vietnam’s diplomatic policy is to both find and maintain independence and autonomy amid the rage of the two great powers and continue to have a solid partnership with China. In terms of economy, trade, including politics, still must take a firm stance on strategic and security issues in the South China Sea. This is truly the central point in all of Vietnam’s foreign policies. And before the upcoming Party Congress with the future leadership that will run the country from January or February 2021, I don’t think there will be any dramatic change in this point.
RFI: Assuming the Vietnamese government continues this tough line, what strategy will Hanoi have to implement in the coming years? And how will it turn around in case the Joe Biden administration proves more amicable with Beijing?
Benoît de Tréglodé: The first thing to think about is that Vietnam’s foreign policy constraints or policies are built on a combination of many factors, a lasting compromise between economic reality, and geographic influence. and diplomatic considerations vary with government changes in major countries.
There is a very important event that needs to be raised, which is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) was signed on November 15, 2020 within the framework of the ASEAN Summit held by Hanoi. It is China that is the initiator and leader of this new multilateral trade agreement. Do not forget that 6 out of 10 top investors entering Vietnam are now members of the RCEP agreement, such as Japan, Singapore, China, and South Korea … I would say Korea, one of the country has invested heavily in Vietnam with more than $70 billion in investment, nearly 10 times more than the total investment of more than $7 billion of the EU’S countries in Vietnam.
This integration process of Vietnam is not new, but has been around for more than 10 years. Vietnam’s economy gradually integrates into Asia, first in Southeast Asia, and from now on East Asia. This is an important factor in understanding the progress, capacity and scope of action that the Vietnamese government may have in the future in its relationship with major powers.
RFI: The Chinese Communist Party has influence over the Communist Party of Vietnam, while the Vietnamese people are skeptical of China. How must the CPV’s leaders of the reconcile these two contradictions?
Benoît de Tréglodé: A great and enduring political experience for the Vietnamese as it approaches the Communist Party congress, which has often happened throughout the decades and really constitutes Vietnamese political life. That is the Communist Party of Vietnam, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam has always had to coordinate: choosing to follow China, a giant neighboring country, at the same time as an ideological and economic partner beneficial cards, through finding a balance thanks to the growing influence of the US. Washington also seeks to form a political coalition, and in the future, why not, in the military field with allied agreements in the South Asian region.
The question posed for both Vietnam, as well as China and the US, was how, in four years, President Trump’s Asia policy was extremely focused on ideology, but ultimately make room for China. The Trump administration focused on a bilateral settlement with each Asian partner a series of other, much more specific, and much more routine documents, which the US had set aside.
It can be said that the four-year US-China trade war during Trump’s presidency has actually damaged U.S. interests in the region and further strengthened China’s influence in dialogue with other Asian countries. Vietnam must take into account and consider this new factor. Of course, Hanoi will try the US’s card again. Mr. Joe Biden with a new leadership team will make a speech that is both tough but also more listened to the stance of all countries in the region. And the regional context is currently less favorable for American interests.