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Is Vietnam Spinning Out of China’s Orbit?


Deputy Defense Minister Sen. Lieut. Gen. Do Ba Ty – the Vietnam People’s Army Chief of General Staff – standing with U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Army General Martin Dempsey (VOV).

Beijing’s formidable display of aggression this year is backfiring, as its neighbors scramble to beef up their military capabilities and forge defensive alliances both within and outside the region. One such notable alliance making the headlines this past week is between the U.S. and Vietnam. Vietnam, much like U.S. allies Japan and the Philippines, is locked in maritime territorial disputes with an increasingly assertive China. Vietnam’s latest dispute with China stems from the deployment in May of an offshore oil drilling rig within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone. Beijing’s blatant action set off a wave of Vietnamese nationalism, numerous collisions between Vietnamese and Chinese naval vessels, and deadly anti-Chinese riots in May, before the rig was finally removed July 16.

In light of China’s increasing aggressiveness, and eager to reinvigorate alliances in the Asia-Pacific region, the Obama Administration has been on the diplomatic offensive in Vietnam, part of the U.S. “pivot to Asia.” The diplomatic offensive included a visit on Thursday by U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, who held talks with Vietnamese officials aimed at boosting military ties between the former foes. His visit marks the first by an American chairman of the joint chiefs of staff since 1971, held during the Vietnam War.  Speaking with Lt. Gen. Do Ba Ty, Chief of the General Staff of the Vietnam People’s Army cum Deputy Defense Minister, Dempsey said both President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told him: “The place for you right now is Vietnam.”

The weekend before, two prominent American diplomats, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Senator John McCain, arrived separately in the region. Both men are veterans of the war in Vietnam, and building support for the normalization of relations between the two nations is high on their agendas. Also on the agenda of Washington is the inclusion of Vietnam in the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal — a trade pact covering a third of global trade. (China is not among the dozen countries involved in talks since 2009.)

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s trip took him to Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital, on Saturday for the ASEAN Regional Forum, where he joined foreign ministers from Southeast Asia and other top diplomats from China, Russia, Japan, India, Australia and the European Union. While Kerry’s proposal for a freeze on provocative acts in the South China Sea got a cool response from China and some Southeast Asian nations, it may be quietly winning hearts and minds in China’s other neighbors, such as Vietnam. While in Naypyidaw, Kerry met his Vietnamese counterpart Pham Binh Minh and praised work “to really bring this relationship to its full blossom”, while continuing to press for improvements in Vietnam’s human rights.

Bringing the same message to Hanoi were U.S. Senator John McCain and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who arrived last Friday and met with Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and the Communist Party’s Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong. Both senators believe recent improvements in human rights justified more military support from Washington, with McCain stressing his confidence of bipartisan support in Washington for the easing of three-decade old restrictions on arms sales to Vietnam as early as next month. Last year, the two countries established the U.S.-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership, which aims to increase maritime capacity and further bilateral economic ties.

Neatly preceding the visit of the Americans, 61 prominent members of Vietnam’s Communist Party sent an open letter to Vietnam’s leadership, urging the development of “a truly democratic, law-abiding state,” greater freedom of political speech, and efforts to “get out of China’s orbit.” The letter reflects the sentiment among a growing number of party members that the government kowtowed to pressure from Beijing, and was not forceful enough in confronting China over the oil rig. The letter also calls on Vietnam to take legal action against China — which Vietnamese authorities have been threatening since the deployment of the rig — for which Beijing would surely retaliate.

One of the letter’s three co-authors, Chu Hao, former vice minister of science and technology, echoed what many Vietnamese are thinking or whispering. “The Party needs to get rid of Marxism-Leninism and get out of China’s orbit,” he said in a telephone interview, adding “It is very high time for the party to make a thorough transformation.”

Whether or not Vietnam’s leadership, which did not publicly acknowledge the letter, is likely to heed the call for radical reform or a “thorough transformation” is debatable. What is more likely, given the Party’s desire to maintain power, is a slow experimental opening up, similar to that undertaken by China. From the statements of both Kerry and McCain, a slow opening up and ongoing efforts to improve human rights may be sufficient for the easing of restrictions on arms sales.

Despite McCain’s call for Vietnam and the U.S. to “take a gigantic leap together”, and internal calls to “get out of China’s orbit,” incremental changes will be the norm. The Vietnamese leadership is testing the waters — using the U.S. as an economic and security hedge against Chinese influence in Vietnam — and will play these two powerful nations off against each other to Vietnam’s own benefit. Yet even small changes will certainly catch the eye of the Chinese leadership, whether or not the threat of enhanced ties with Washington will stop Beijing in the near future from sending additional rigs or large fishing fleets into the disputed waters with Vietnam is unlikely. With the removal of the rig, apparently either to completion of their work or an impending typhoon, Vietnamese authorities can ill afford to relax — the next niggling show of Chinese force will be coming soon.



Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Twitter@ForeignDevil666