Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 21 Issue 1
Author: Riccardo Rossi
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has embarked on a wide-ranging foreign policy plan called China Dream, aimed at restoring its leading role in the Asia-Pacific, particularly in the South China Sea and South-East Asia, and has focused most of its attention on Vietnam to increase its influence in the country.
The United States has identified the PRC as the main culprit of the growing instability in the Asia-Pacific, considering the Chinese attempt at political-economic penetration in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam as a danger to the stability of the country and South-East Asia.
The analysis aims to understand the geopolitical importance that Vietnam plays in China and United States’ regional strategy in the Asia-Pacific.
Sino-Washington competition for Vietnam
The People’s Republic of China and the United States regard Vietnam as an area of great geopolitical interest because of Hanoi’s geographical position in Southeast Asia and its shoreline segment. Beijing and Washington consider particularly important:
1 – The Gulf of Tonkin. It is located on the northern coastal side of Vietnam and separates Hanoi from the PRC. Due to its length of 240 km and proximity to the Chinese territories of the Laizhou Peninsula and Hananin Island. President Xi Jinping considers Tonkin one of the most important bays on the Asian coast.
2 – Cam Ranh Bay. Located in Khanh Hoa province, 450 miles south of the PRC border, it was used by the US Navy during the Vietnam conflict as a base for its surface ships. The geophysical peculiarity of this gulf lies in its being surrounded by 400-metre-high mountain ranges that protect it from strong sea winds, a depth ranging from 16 to 32 metres, and its proximity to the Paracelsus Archipelago and the Straits of Malacca and Luzon.
Hanoi’s coastline conditions have influenced the relations with Washington and Beijing and their geopolitical strategies.
The Socialist Republic of Vietnam revised, with the publication in 2019 of the Defence White Paper, the historic neutrality strategy summarised in the ‘three no’s policy:
«no alliances, no forward basing in Vietnam, and no aligning with a second country against a third».
Hanoi declared its opposition to the use of force but stated its readiness to enter partnerships with other countries:
«Depending on circumstances and specific conditions, Viet Nam will consider developing necessary, appropriate defence and military relations with other countries on the basis of respecting each other’s independence, sovereignty, territorial unity and integrity as well as fundamental principles of international law, cooperation for mutual benefits and common interests of the region and international community».
The United States saw this prospect of Hanoi as an opportunity to strengthen its presence in the Asia-Pacific and contain Beijing’s political-military expansion in the South China Sea. Therefore, The United States ratified important agreements with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, such as:
1 – The 2011 Memorandum of Understanding on Advancing Bilateral Defence Cooperation on defence, maritime security, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
2 – The 2013 Comprehensive Partnership Agreement was signed in Washington between President Obama and Vietnamese Truong Tan San and was described as:
« […] a milestone reflecting the new levels of confidence and trust between the former adversaries and paving the way for further efforts to deepen the relationship».
3 – In 2015 in Washington, US President Barack Obama and Vietnamese Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong ratified the Joint Vision Statement, which confirmed and strengthened cooperation between the White House and Hanoi in economics, trade, education and security.
These three agreements allowed the United States to increase the volume of economic and military aid supporting Hanoi. In terms of the economic dimension, in 2022, trade in goods and services between the United States and Vietnam was around 92.2 billion dollars, of which 12.1 billion dollars was in exports and 80.1 billion dollars in imports. US foreign direct investments (FDIs) in Vietnam in 2020 were 2.8 billion dollars, down 2.2% from 2019, due to the Covid-19 pandemic. During the pandemic, the United States supported the Vietnamese government by providing BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine doses through the COVAX International Vaccine Alliance.
In addition to economic support, Washington has perfected military cooperation with Hanoi, leading the Obama and Trump administrations to make it a priority:
«[…] prioritised bilateral maritime assistance, including providing 24 new coast guard patrol vessels, aerial drones, coastal radar, and two decommissioned US Coast Guard Hamilton-class cutters, Vietnam’s largest coast guard ships. Bilateral cooperation increased in other areas from 2017 to 2021, as part of the Trump Administration’s policy of helping the Vietnamese military “develop the ability to challenge China’s power projection capabilities.” In March 2018, the Carl Vinson made the first port call to Vietnam by a US aircraft carrier since the Vietnam War. In February 2020, the Theodore Roosevelt made the second such visit».
By cooperating with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, the United States seeks to optimise its military presence in the country, particularly in Cam Ranh Bay, due to its proximity to geo-maritime areas important to Beijing: the Spratly and Paracelsus archipelagos and the Luzon and Malacca Straits.
If Washington obtained Hanoi’s consent to permanently employ Cam Ranh as a base for the US Navy, it would gain a crucial strategic advantage in the planning and condition of air-naval patrol operations in the South China Sea.
This condition would improve the operating radius of the 7a fleet around the archipelagos of Spratly and Paracelsus and the narrows of Malacca and Luzon, obligatory checkpoints for the Sea Lines of Communications (SLOC) that interconnect China’s most important ports with international shipping lanes.
The Xi Jinping presidency assesses the United States’ posture in Vietnam as a danger to its political-economic interests in the Asia-Pacific, summarised in the 21st Maritime Skill Road (MSR) project. Presented by Xi in 2013 during a speech to the Indonesian parliament, the MSR aims to:
«[…] to serve a range of China’s core interests, these include the development of its more than $1.2 trillion blue economy, improving food and energy security, diversifying and securing sea lines of communication (SLOC), upholding territorial sovereignty and enhancing its international discourse power. The Road has the potential to expand China’s maritime strategic space far beyond its enclosed adjacent waters and allow it and Road participating states to co-shape the changing global maritime order. […] The initiative will allow China to build resilience to economic or diplomatic isolation that could negatively impact its economy and subsequently domestic stability». 
The People’s Republic of China identifies the Socialist Republic of Vietnam as an essential hub for the MSR because it is contiguous to its territory and the SLOCs that interconnect its port network to major trade routes such as the Malacca route. Beijing has increased its foreign direct investment (FDIs) to Hanoi in various industrial sectors (infrastructure, energy, high-tech, e-commerce), primarily concentrated in some regions of the country:
«[…] in 54 localities among Vietnam’s 63 provinces and cities. Binh Thuan province attracts the most Chinese investment capital, at US$2.03 billion (accounting for 18.1% of China’s total registered investment capital in Vietnam) for seven projects. Tay Ninh province ranked second with 46 projects at US$1.65 billion (accounting for 14.8% of China’s total registered investment in Vietnam). Bac Giang province ranked third with projects at US$957.56 million (accounting for more than 8.5% of China’s total registered investment capital in Vietnam)».
Thanks to the FDIs, the Xi Jimping presidency has implemented an effective soft power manoeuvre, increasing its influence on the Vietnamese economy and its dependence. Therefore, in 2020, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam exported 49.4 billion dollars worth of goods to China and imported 104 billion dollars worth of products (electronic circuits, telephone equipment and semiconductors) from Beijing.
In addition, Beijing is also increasing the capabilities of military bases in the Laizhou Peninsula, Hananin Island, and the Spratly archipelago.
In the case of the Spratly Islands, historically disputed with Hanoi, President Xi Jinping has built countless artificial military platforms in recent years. Through this action, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in the SCS are increasing their operations, countering the US presence in the Philippines and overseeing the SLOCs across the South China Sea, which are essential for 21st Maritime Skill Road (MSR) project.
In the Sino-US geopolitical competition, Vietnam represents a high geostrategic value piece for controlling the Southeast Asian region and the South China Sea (SCS) geo-maritime space.
From this assessment, it can be assumed that Washington and Beijing will increase their respective political-economic pressures on the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in the coming years. In this situation, Hanoi will have to choose its geopolitical positioning, considering that it fears the increasing militarisation of the People’s Republic of China in the South China Sea with a focus on its own territories in the Spratly archipelago.
In this scenario, it is conceivable that the Socialist Republic of Vietnam will move closer and closer to the US. For Washington, this would make it easier for the US Navy to conduct military operations to maintain sea control in key areas of the SCS: the Taiwan Straits, Luzon, Malacca and the Spratly and Paracelsus archipelagos.
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