As Xi and Biden court the Southeast Asian nation, Hanoi should stay focused on a multipolar foreign policy

Vietnam has become the flavor of the year for the world’s geopolitical rivals.
In September, U.S. President Joe Biden visited the Southeast Asian powerhouse, signing a comprehensive strategic partnership that places Washington’s relations with Vietnam on par with Beijing’s. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, earlier this month followed suit, with the two nations signing 37 agreements, including China funding a cross-border railway and holding joint maritime patrols. The neighbors also agreed on a three-year plan to boost trade.

Both the U.S. and China are eager to drag Hanoi to their side — but the communist country should stick to its long stance of nonalignment and act in its own best interests. This multipolar foreign-policy strategy will ensure the nation exerts agency in dealing with the two largest economies. It could also use the influence it has with both to bring them closer together and work on issues of global importance, such as climate change, future pandemics and the use of nuclear weapons.

It makes sense for the U.S. and China to court Vietnam, one of the region’s most dynamic economies. This year, it is expected to post about 5% growth, better than many others. Foreign direct investment until October surged 14.7% from the same period last year. The manufacturing hub benefits from being integrated with China’s economy, but also attracts investment from companies like Intel and suppliers to Apple and Nvidia.

During his visit, Biden elevated U.S. ties with Hanoi to the highest diplomatic level, describing the push as the “beginning of a great era of cooperation.” Xi emphasized the importance of building a “community of common destiny” together.

China is watching its communist neighbor’s increasingly closer relations with Washington with interest. After Biden’s visit, Vietnamese President Vo Van Thuong traveled to Beijing in October to meet with Xi. The Chinese leader told him that the two countries have developed a deep friendship of “camaraderie and brotherhood,” and that they should regard the bilateral relationship as a priority in their respective foreign policies — a veiled reference, or a reminder perhaps, of keeping ties strong, no matter how much the U.S. comes knocking.

Beijing has long-standing economic relations with Hanoi, but could do more to bring big-name Chinese companies to invest, Nguyen Quoc Cuong, a former Vietnamese ambassador to the U.S., told me from Hanoi. “China is lagging behind some other countries, namely the U.S., in this regard. Personally, I would like to see big names like the Chinese versions of Apple or Intel in the high tech space and the digital economy investing more here.”

But while using economic incentives to gain political leverage may be what the great powers are trying, it’s unlikely the strategy will be that straightforward. Vietnam will continue to be guided by a foreign policy that has allowed it to strike relationships with countries that are often at odds with one another.

It’s not just about managing the U.S. and China, Lye Liang Fook, senior fellow at the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, told me. “There is a new upgraded relationship with Japan as well. This visit by Xi is another indication of Vietnam’s delicate balancing act, but it also shows how the country has been been striking a healthy equilibrium with the major powers.”

This equilibrium is what is often referred to as Vietnam’s “bamboo diplomacy,” or its experience in balancing competing geopolitical interests in the past three decades. The policy takes its name from the attributes of the bamboo plant: strong and durable, yet flexible and adaptable.

Although already in practice for several years, the term was first officially coined by the leader of the Communist Party of Vietnam, Nguyen Phu Trong, in 2016, and since then has been a hallmark of how the once-impoverished nation deals with its neighbors. The central purpose is to avoid conflict and promote peace. Hanoi has shaped a deft and strategic network of relationships with both large and small powers that has allowed Vietnam to balance not just the interests of the U.S. and China, but also to navigate Russia, which assisted in its postwar reconstruction era.

Trade has been a vital part of outreach. Three decades ago, isolated and slowly emerging from the ravages of the Vietnam War, the nation had business relations with only about 30 countries and territories. Today, that figure is at more than 150 and includes a number of free-trade agreements.

Hanoi should continue using both trade and bamboo diplomacy, even as geopolitics become more complex and the superpowers compete for influence and investment.

Xi’s visit was his second since 2017, when he went to Danang for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. I observed the Chinese leader’s calm and composed speech pitching the Chinese Dream — his vision for economic and military rejuvenation. He was following then-U.S. President Donald Trump, whose remarks in contrast promoted the concept of “America First.” The competition between the two countries, despite the change in leadership in Washington, has only become more acute today.

Which is why Vietnam’s strategy of looking after its own interests first will ensure it maintains influence as well as economic and political success. It is a major stakeholder in the South China Sea.

While Beijing has historically bristled at the notion of any interference in the contested waterway it says China mostly owns, it has not deployed the forceful response to Hanoi’s objections the way it has with the Philippines, partly because of Vietnam’s independent foreign strategy. Cooperation rather than conflict has been a key part of how Vietnam has engaged with competing interests and not just survived, but thrived. Other countries would be wise to learn from Hanoi’s example.

Source: Bloomberg News


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