Upgraded US-Vietnam partnership to help Hanoi escape China’s influence

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Upgraded US-Vietnam partnership to help Hanoi escape China’s influence

17 Aug 2023, 11:27 GMT+10

Hanoi [Vietnam], August 17 (ANI): An upgraded US-Vietnam partnership in response to repeated Chinese bullying at sea is a welcoming development, but as long as Beijing remains a powerful and united political entity- with a strong political will to exert its dominance over its periphery – concerns will be attached with the move, The Diplomat reported.

US President Joe Biden has recently announced that he would be going to Vietnam shortly to upgrade bilateral relations with the country.

Notably, this is a move that Washington had pushed for several times but has not eventuated due to Vietnam’s concern about China’s retaliation.

Some experts and Biden himself noted that the two countries could upgrade their”comprehensive partnership” directly to a “comprehensive strategic partnership,” bypassing the “strategic partnership,” which would put the US-Vietnam relationship on par with that between Vietnam and China, The Diplomat reported.

Vietnam may have changed its mind about the upgrade after China increased its incursions into Vietnamese waters and”harassed” Vietnamese oil and gas exploration activities in the South China Sea this year. Vietnam might still choose to align more closely with an extra-regional power once it deems that deferring to China does not help lessen “Chinese bullying”.

Amid all the discussions about Chinese bullying and the US-Vietnam upgrade, talks about Vietnam escaping China’s orbit are once again in the spotlight, as per The Diplomat.

“Escaping China’s orbit” or thoat Trung in Vietnamese, is inspired by Japanese scholar Fukuzawa Yukichi’s 1885 book “Leaving Asia,” which called for Japan to leave Asia and align with the West. The phrase is so popular in Vietnamese discourse that both state media and unaffiliated writers embrace it to discuss Vietnam’s options in the age of rising Chinese economic and military power. When China moved the Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil rig into Vietnamese waters in 2014, “escaping China’s orbit” became Vietnam’s number one topic of discussion.

There is a public consensus that Vietnam must escape China’s orbit in order to protect its sovereignty and lower its economic dependence on China. The remaining question and a major point of contention is how. Vietnam’s alignment with the United States, or the West, is seen as one of the key means by which it might escape China’s orbit because only the United States has the power to help Vietnam balance against China, according to The Diplomat.However, according to The Diplomat, the talks about Vietnam escaping China’s orbit based on the Japanese experience are devoid of a logical basis.

Many experts sensationalize the Japanese, or South Korean or Taiwanese, successes, based on a superficial analogy that an Asian country on China’s periphery can escape China’s orbit so long as it has the political will to consider itself an equal to China, adopt fundamental political reforms, and align itself with the West. This line of argument grants much agency to Vietnam and casts unjustifiable blame on the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) for its failure to escape China’s orbit when on the contrary, it is Vietnam’s geopolitical position on China’s periphery that ultimately determines whether Vietnam can escape China’s orbit.

The fact is that Vietnam under the CPV’s leadership did try to escape China’s orbit when it allied with the Soviet Union in 1978, only for such an escape to turn into an economic and political disaster due to Chinese retaliation. Vietnam had to return to China’s orbit on Chinese terms after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Vietnam’s post-Cold War independent and neutral foreign policy reflects China’s military superiority over it and China’s preference to keep its periphery free from domination by another great power, The Diplomat reported.

Notably, Vietnam is different from the other Asian countries that have successfully escaped China’s orbit because it shares a 1,400-kilometer land border with China. As a small country living next to a big country, Vietnam has few options to begin with, as China can exert its power asymmetry to shape Vietnam’s freedom of action with great consequences for Vietnam if it violates the perimeters set by China.

From the Chinese perspective, keeping peripheral states under China’s orbit is a matter of vital national security interests. Consequently, China did not shy from the use of force to push any extra-regional powers out of its periphery, most notably its massive support for North Vietnam and North Korea against the United States, and its short war against Vietnam for its alliance with the Soviet Union in 1979. It is not a surprise that no land neighbour of China is allied with the United States. Vietnam remaining in China’s orbit better reflects the asymmetric power relationship and China’s political will to keep Vietnam neutral than Vietnam’s reluctance to escape these bonds, The Diplomat reported.

If one looks at Vietnam’s past failed attempts to escape China’s orbit, geography makes such a determinative factor because of Beijing’s use of force in managing its relations with its neighbours.

The East Asian regional order is built on China’s military power, and geography matters to force projection. For a land power like China, it is easier to move forces on land than at sea. China cannot use or credibly threaten to use force against its neighbours to keep them in line when it cannot project force in the first place.

Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan can escape China’s orbit simply because they do not share a land border with China and are islands by nature or by political design, as per The Diplomat.Power projection capability also explains why the Asia-Pacific landscape is split between a land power (China) dominating the Asian landmass and a sea power (theUnited States) overlooking the Asian ocean. As China is modernizing its maritime force projection capability, the United States has a legitimate fear of being pushed out beyond the First Island Chain.

Another dimension of China’s use of force is its preference for coercion rather than brute force to achieve its objectives. As Sun Tzu noted, “to subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”Those who claim that Vietnam can and should escape China’s orbit often solely focus on Vietnam’s ability to defend itself against past Chinese invasions as a basis for defying its northern neighbour. So long as Vietnam can make a Chinese invasion costly, Vietnam does not have to be afraid of Chinese military retaliations and should be free to chart its own course.

However, this view ignores the political use of force. China does not need to invade Vietnam or occupy it to succeed in keeping Vietnam under its tutelage. The China-Vietnam power asymmetry and geographical proximity allow Beijing to dangle the threat of a costly invasion with maximum political and economic costs on Vietnam without having to actually carry out the threat. As a small power, Vietnam cannot afford to call China’s bluff because China has in the past demonstrated its ability to punish Vietnam, The Diplomat reported.

Earlier, Vietnam succeeded in stopping a Chinese invasion in 1979 by inflicting great casualties by employing a porcupine strategy. However, it is what came after the Chinese withdrawal that tells the full story.

China adopted a”bleeding Vietnam white” stra

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