China and Vietnam have for decades shared a complicated relationship which has more recently begun showcasing the underlying discontent between the two countries. Apart from the trade imbalance that has led Vietnam to be significantly dependent on Chinese trade, emerging conflicts such as the South-China Sea dispute have further soared the bilateral relations in some recent years.
Moreover, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) significant control over the political decision-making within Vietnam’s domestic politics has also come to be seen as exerting unwarranted control by Vietnam’s younger domestic population. The aspects of interfering in its domestic politics are also evident in the close ties shared between the CCP and the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV), which has also been a point of contention in the country’s domestic politics in recent years. The two parties have constantly maintained regular high-level exchanges and collaboration, which has invariably had its implications for Vietnam’s decision-making processes. China’s influence has been known to increase significantly during times of political transition or when major policy decisions are made, leading many observers to belive that Beijing finds Hanoi as an essential aspect in its foreign policy calculations. This influence has also often shaped Vietnam’s foreign policy and strategic alignment, mostly leading to a pro-China tilt while costing its strategic independence.
In the wake of Vietnam’s growing regional identity, its political discourse has recently begun taking a wider shift from its pro-China stand on various issues. Vietnam’s attempt to pursue strategies to counterbalance China’s dominance, however, would still require greater attempts of not only politically decouple from Beijing’s assertion, but also find alternative economic and trade routes to prevent any form of pushback from China in the process. Beijing’s global economic initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) have also further contributed to its dominance over Vietnam. Through BRI projects, China aims to enhance its connectivity with Southeast Asian countries including Vietnam, by investing in infrastructure and developmental projects. Such enormous fundings have invariably resulted in Vietnam’s economy being heavily dependent on debt relief from Beijing and has also caused significant economic downturns within its domestic economy. Although such Chinese investments at the face of it, claim to bring economic benefits to participating countries, they have throughout nations ended up creating concerns about debt dependency and the economic leverage granted to China to wield influence over the recipient countries. Vietnam in such cases has been no exception and has faced significant competition domestically from Chinese industries that have been set-up as part of Beijing’s economic coercive means.
These prospects have therefore invariably fuelled Vietnam’s attempt to diversify its economic partnerships by strengthening ties with other countries, including the United States, Japan, and India. Vietnam’s participation in regional multilateral organizations such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has provided it a platform to engage with other nations and jointly address regional challenges as well. A priority in such matters has been the territorial disputes that Beijing has unilaterally provoked by altering the status quo of the South China Sea. These issues have significantly strained and threatened China-Vietnam relations and demonstrated China’s assertiveness for control in its neighbourhood. Beijing’s increasing military presence and construction of artificial islands in disputed waters have challenged many of the ASEAN countries territorial claims and has propelled tensions by raising concerns about countries sovereignty, including that of Vietnam. Its assertiveness in the South China Sea and an ever-expanding military capability have given Beijing a significant advantage over Vietnam in terms of strategic dominance and has provoked many of the Southeast Asian countries to dwindle down a competitive path.
Vietnam has also experienced intensified Chinese overlays especially in the maritime domain. Vietnam has in particular been at the forefront of China’s coercive behaviour in the South China Sea leading it to fend off Chinese naval troops. However, at the same time Vietnam also remains amongst the first ones to pursue its claims and resist Beijing’s pressure tactics in the maritime domain. Hanoi has over the years also been vary of empty promises made by China in attempts to resolve the South China Sea dispute by diplomatically countering Beijing’s assertive behaviour through various international forums.
Apart from countering China’s hawkish approach, Vietnam has also resisted Chinese firms such as Huawei and other from entering the countries domestic market making it amongst the first ones in Southeast Asian countries to do so due to national security reasons. This has also been complemented from the fact that China is now widely being seen as a larger aggressor within Hanoi’s security circles. A wider understanding in Beijing’s authoritative nature is not only pivotal for Vietnam in countering China, but is also essential for safeguarding its interests in the region and more importantly in both the Indo-Pacific region as well as the South China Sea. Therefore, Vietnam’s timely decoupling in terms of its economic dependency as well as resisting political infiltrations from the CCP are important markers of such an endeavour. Apart from the fact that Southeast Asian countries are beginning to realise the expansionist tendencies the CCP is showcasing, Vietnam is expected to play a far greater role in preventing Beijing’s aggressive approach in and around its neighbourhood.