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Vietnam’s Dangerous Courtship with Washington

On the eve of Obama's visit to Vietnam events point towards moves for a realignment of Hanoi's policies away from Russia and China.

President Obama’s upcoming visit to Vietnam will take place amidst increasing American tensions with China. Beijing recently scrambled a couple of fighter jets after an American naval ship sailed dangerously close to one of its disputed islands in the South China Sea, which was just the latest in a series of multiple provocations that have taken place all across the region ever since the US declared its Pivot to Asia in October 2011. As part of the US’s plan to “contain” China, the Pentagon envisages constructing a multilateral “China Containment Coalition” all across East, Southeast and South Asia, with the most active core of this prospective coalition being a Vietnamese-Philippine naval alliance.

With the election of Rodrigo Duterte as the President of the Philippines and his willingness to pragmatically negotiate with China, it is looking less likely that Manila will play as critical a “containment” role as the US had initially anticipated.

In response to this surprising shift in regional geopolitics, the US is expected to intensify its military-strategic relations with Vietnam, and President Obama’s visit might be just as important a catalyst for Hanoi’s pro-American pivot as Defence Secretary Carter’s visit to India was last month. Considering this, it is important to take a look at Vietnam’s recent moves with regards to China and explore the military-related avenues that it has to expand if it is to enter into a “containment” partnership with the US.

Redirecting Away From Russia

To start off, it is important to educate the reader about Vietnam’s massive arms buildup over the past couple of years.

According to the latest report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Vietnam was the eighth-largest arms importer in the world for the period 2011-2015, importing a whopping 699% more weaponry during this same period than it did in the preceding five years.

The overwhelming majority of these weapons – 93% – were Russian-made. Moscow’s willingness to supply weapons on such a scale to Vietnam bespeaks of Moscow’s traditional role in balancing rival foes, in this case Vietnam and China.  Moscow has followed the same pattern of balancing between other regional foes such as Armenia and Azerbaijan and India and China.

In and of itself this ought to mean that Vietnam’s large increase in weapons imports should not be a cause for alarm.  This is because in line with its policy of balance Russia’s weapons supplies to Vietnam are intended to reinforce the status quo between Vietnam and China in the South China Sea rather than upset it.

What is more worrying however is that Vietnam is now beginning to look elsewhere for its weaponry, in a way that might threaten the strategic balance between Vietnam and China,  just as Dmitry Medvedev warned might happen between Armenia and Azerbaijan if either of them did something similar.

The discrete presence of leading US weapons companies such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin at a large defence-related gathering in Hanoi this week shows that the US is indeed aggressively angling to eat away at Russia’s market share in Vietnam, provided of course that the restrictions the US Congress has imposed on weapons sales to Vietnam are progressively lifted.

Vietnam is encouraging these US moves.   Its Foreign Ministry has just announced that it would “welcome the United States’ acceleration to fully lift the lethal arms sales ban”.

Following In India’s Footsteps

It’s unclear why Vietnam, which has enjoyed decades-long military-technical cooperation with Russia, should be dissatisfied with its existing Moscow-provided weapons and should feel the need to solicit more weapons from its former American foe.

In just the same way that India is slowly moving away from Russian weapons, so too Vietnam might be preparing for a similar “transition” (or “rebalancing” as Vietnam’s media and its international supporters like to call it) away from reliance on Moscow.

As the saying goes, “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it”, so it is questionable why both of these countries should feel the need to turn to the US for more weapons when arms cooperation with Russia has always been very good.

The only explanation is that Vietnam, like India, is being courted by the US as part of the “China Containment Coalition”, and that Washington wants to ‘seal the deal’ with both of its newfound partners through a series of highly profitable and symbolic arms contracts.

The restoration of full US-Vietnamese relations, including in the military sphere, might appear as a superficially welcome sign for all other countries that are currently experiencing Western sanctions.   It would however be a pyrrhic victory.   

Since there is no legitimate reason why Vietnam would resort to importing weapons from the US when it can get from Russia all the weapons it needs to maintain the strategic naval balance with China, the only reason why Hanoi is now reaching out to Washington is that it must be genuinely interested in falling in with the US anti-Chinese strategy in a way that can only upset the regional balance with China.

US-Vietnamese collaboration against China is not just occurring out of the blue.   Hanoi has already received $18 million last year to purchase US patrol boats after US Senator John McCain pushed through legislation to loosen the arms embargo. Adding another element to the mix, Vietnam is party to the restrictive TPP trading agreement that its top export partner is pushing for throughout the region.

In other words, Vietnam has already agreed to align itself with the economic component of the US’s hegemonic Pivot to Asia, so that it predictably follows that it should do so in the military sphere as well.

Losing Balance

It is too early to say Vietnam is fully pivoting towards the US at the expense of its traditional Russian ally.  Clearly however Hanoi has thrown in its lot in with Washington in pursuing the shared objective of “containing” China.

Even if Vietnam were ever to make such an anti-Russian decision, it would take a long time for it to transition its entire military from using Russian to US weapons. 

More likely, Hanoi wants to cooperate with the US to send a signal to China whilst simultaneously strengthening its future bargaining position with Moscow.  After all, if Vietnam really wanted to break with Russia, it would have complied with US’ demands last March and barred Russia from using its airfields for military refuelling.

Instead, it appears Vietnam is looking to walk a geopolitical tightrope, balancing its historical military ties with Russia with its recent economic ones with the US.

Nonetheless, though it will take time, if Vietnam’s present pro-US course continues then the two former foes could surprisingly end up very close allies in the next decade, united by a shared desire to “contain” China. The fact this is just a hyped-up marketing gimmick from the US military-industrial complex is neither here nor there.

The most logical consequence of Hanoi’s progressive shift towards Washington will be that its relations with Beijing will suffer.  As for the US, once it senses that its dominant position in Vietnam has been restored, it will inevitably pressure Vietnam to distance itself from Russia too.

Given the series of Hybrid Wars that the US has been waging all across the world lately, it is to be expected that the US will employ some elements of this strategy in one day blackmailing Vietnam to follow the course it wants for it. Although the exact scenarios cannot be foreseen, one possibility might be for the US to exploit the TPP’s on-paper labour regulations to  foment a Colour Revolution movement in Vietnam that disguises itself as a “Solidarity”-type workers’ union to exert grassroots pressure on the Vietnamese authorities.

Concluding Thoughts

Every country has the sovereign right to choose whoever it wants to cooperate with in strategic, military, economic, and other affairs.  Countries such as China and Russia cannot however help but be alarmed by Vietnam’s recent intensification of its relations with the US.

Were it not directed against any third party, then the US-Vietnamese Strategic Partnership (as historically odd as it may seem considering the Vietnam War) would not be a threat to anyone.  The trouble is that it is intended as a threat, specifically against China, but with a long-term intention of weakening Russia’s position in Southeast Asia as well.

Moscow’s and Beijing’s diplomats will react calmly, with Russia probably avoiding direct mention of these developments at all.  However there is no doubt Moscow and Beijing are worried and will be watching events closely to see what happens next.

If Washington ramps up its relations with Hanoi in response to Duterte’s victory in the Philippines, and and seeks to replace the Philippines with Vietnam in its Pivot to Asia strategy, then this could shift the centre of the regional confrontation with China that the “containment” strategy entails from the South China Sea to the Indochinese mainland.

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