What Will Vietnam's Next Foreign Policy Turning Point Be?
Beyond episodic events like South China Sea tensions or the U.S.-Vietnam double upgrade, what lies ahead for Vietnam's approach to the world?
A new book examines how Vietnam is likely to approach its foreign policy in the coming years as it faces manifold challenges including intensifying U.S.-China competition and escalating societal, economic and environmental pressures.
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What Will Vietnam’s Next Foreign Policy Turning Point Be?
Beyond episodic events like the double upgrade in U.S.-Vietnam ties or Sino-Vietnamese tensions in the South China Sea, Vietnam’s transition from decades of conflict during the Cold War to one of Asia’s fastest-growing and diplomatically active countries in the twenty-first century is arguably one of the most notable recent national transformations in Southeast Asia. Yet that transition has also been far from even. While Vietnam’s Doi Moi economic reforms paved the way for more growth and foreign investment in the decades since, deepening corruption remains an issue, and there are heightening societal demands that challenge the political control traditionally exercised by the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV). This unevenness at times plays out in Vietnam’s foreign relations, from past protests against Chinese special economic zones to the ongoing challenges in the Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) that was signed last year and is being co-led by the European Union and the United Kingdom.
A new edited volume by former Swedish ambassador to Vietnam Borge Ljunggren and Harvard professor Dwight Perkins paints a rich picture of Vietnam’s international orientation, with the three chapters on foreign affairs by Bill Hayton, Edward Miller and Alexander Vuving suggesting a complex interplay between shifting regional and global developments, evolving national objectives and internal domestic debates1. Several other chapters in the book, entitled , Vietnam: Navigating a Rapidly Changing Economy, Society and Political Order, also touch on aspects of Vietnam’s international context, including the role of the party-state, its economic growth experience and foreign direct investment (see table below for a selection of chapters and issues covered).
Select Book Chapters and Areas Examined
The book presents several useful frameworks to help make sense of Vietnam’s complex foreign policy orientatation. For example, Hayton’s periodized description of Vietnam’s ties with China as calibration between strategic autonomy and domestic legitimacy acknowledges that China can be both a threat to Vietnam’s sovereignty on issues like the South China Sea but also an opportunity for the CPV to learn as a fellow one-party communist state, including through party exchanges that help manage periods of tension2. Similarly, Miller’s examination of U.S.-Vietnam relations from the perspective of multiphased peacemaking — from trust and restraint on low stakes issues to closer social and economic integration and on to new narratives and identities — allows for a richer appreciation of the highly contingent nature of U.S.-Vietnam reconciliation, taking into account the role of Vietnam’s own reforms undertaken in the 1980s and U.S. popularity among the Vietnamese people (which continues to rank among the highest in Southeast Asia, in contrast to the cautious approach taken by the CPV in engaging with Washington)3.
The book also provides a sense of how Vietnam’s foreign policy may evolve in the coming years, which will be of use to those interested in forecasting. Here, Vuving’s description in his chapter of key turning points in Vietnam’s international outlook and how it affects factional debates within the country’s leadership is useful as it raises the question of where the next turning point might originate from. Vuving suggests that some past turning points such as the collapse of Communist regimes in the late 1980s led to a greater dominance by anti-Westerners and rent-seekers over modernizers within Vietnam’s leadership, and others like China’s aggressive expansionism displayed in Beijing’s movement of an oil rig into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone in 2014 leading to the rise of moderates and the fall of anti-Westerners4. The end of the chapter contains a series of scenarios for the next turning point in Vietnamese foreign policy sorted by likelihood, international causes, domestic effects and foreign policy implications (see table below for select examples).