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Thayer Vietnam looking to play pivotal role with both China and US

Thayer Vietnam looking to play pivotal role with both China and US

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Published by Carlyle Alan Thayer
An critical rebuttal of an editorial in The Global Times that Vietnam should coordinate with China to limit the US pivot to Asia.
An critical rebuttal of an editorial in The Global Times that Vietnam should coordinate with China to limit the US pivot to Asia.

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Published by: Carlyle Alan Thayer on Jul 24, 2012
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Background Briefing:Vietnam is the Real PivotCarlyle A. ThayerJuly 25, 2012
Vietnam looking to play pivotal role with both China and the US,
Asian Review,
Global Times
, Beijing:QUESTIONS: How will relations between Vietnam and the US develop in the future,giving that the US is shifting its focus back to Asia and the Vietnam is in need of astrong ally to counter China's influence. We request your response to the followingquestions:1.Does the US need Vietnam's help in realizing its returning to Asia policy? And doesVietnam need the US's support to counter China on issues like territorial dispute?2. Will this mutual desire draw them closer than ever? How close will their relationsbecome? Will ideology become an obstacle?3. How will the Vietnamese government deal with political risks brought by thiscloser relationship (such as the US influence over its political system, support of political dissident, etc.)? Can the government bear these risks for external politicalgain over China?4. How will Vietnam deal with risks of getting closer to the US, such as US's influenceto its political system, support of political dissident, while maintaining a goodrelationship with the US, at the end of the last paragraph?The two paragraphs highlighted in yellow were edited out.OPINION EDITORIAL: No analyst residing in a country that has gone to war with
Vietnam can doubt Hanoi’s commitment to maintaining its own independence.
Vietnam has also learned from history that too much reliance on a major power canhave negative consequences.This historical backdrop is a necessary reminder to readers that Vietnam is notaligning with the United States to oppose China. Since 1991 Vietnam has pursued aforeign policy to diversify and multilateralize its relations and become a reliable
partner to all countries. Vietnam has achieved success. It was the Asia’s bloc
unanimous choice as its representative for a seat on the United Nations SecurityCouncil as a non-permanent member. Also Vietnam has entered into strategic
Thayer Consultancy
ABN # 65 648 097 123
partnerships with Russia, Japan, India, China, South Korea, Spain, United Kingdom,and Germany.Vietnam seeks to be the pivot in relations with China and the United States. In otherwords, Vietnam seeks to develop comprehensive ties with each and make eachbilateral relationship important in its own right. As pivot, Vietnam wants China andthe United States to accept Vietnam as a reliable partner. Vietnam wants to shape itsrelations so it does not have to ally with one side against the other.
In 2003, Vietnam’s Communist Party adopted the terms “to cooperate” and “tostruggle” to guide its relations with C
hina and the United States. This formulationovercame an apparent contradiction in Vietnamese ideological thinking: how toexplain friction and conflict with socialist China and how to explain areas of common
interests with the “imperialist” United States.
Vietnam decided to cooperate with
both but to struggle when Vietnam’s core interests were challenged.
 The United States has announced a policy of rebalancing its military presence in theAsia-Pacific. Some Chinese and regional analysts concluded that the United Stateswas attempting to contain China. As part of its rebalancing policy the U.S. has soughtto upgrade its defense relations with Vietnam. Vietnam has been receptive but onlyup to a point. For example, for the past three years Vietnam and the United Stateshave conducted joint naval activities. These are not military exercises involving theexchange of combat skills.The best way to view U.S.-Vietnam defense relations is to compare them with
China’s defense relations with Vietnam. Vietnam exchang
es high-level visits withboth countries. Vietnam conducts strategic dialogues with both countries andrecently raised the level to that of deputy defence minister with both countries.Vietnam permits all countries to make naval port visits, but restricts this to one visita year, including the United States. In 2010, for example, the USS
 John S. McCain
destroyer visited the port of Da Nang, several months later one of China’s most
modern guided missile frigates also called in.The United States would like greater access to Vietnam. Defense Secretary LeonPanetta made that clear during his recent visit to Cam Ranh Bay. But it highly unlikelythat U.S. warships will visit that port soon. Vietnam has opened the commercialrepair facilities at Cam Ranh to all navies. The U.S. was the first to take up this offerby sending three Military Sealift Command ships for minor repairs. These ships arelogistic vessels, not warships, and are crewed by civilians.
During Secretary Panetta’s talks in Hanoi Vietnam’s Defense
Minister and PrimeMinister, requested that the U.S. remove restrictions on the sale of militaryequipment contained in the International Trafficking in Arms Regulations. It shouldbe noted that China lists as one of it three obstacles to developing militarycooperation with the U.S. restrictions in the U.S. National Defense Authorization Actof FY 2000.
Vietnam’s 2009 Defense White Paper outlines its policy of maintainingindependence. I have dubbed this policy “the three no’s”: no foreign bases on
Vietnamese territory, no military alliances, and no use of a third country to oppose
another country. The U.S. may want to increase navy access to Vietnam but Hanoiwill resist a U.S. naval presence to protect its independence.In 2009 tensions rose in the South China, Vietnam responded by signalling that theysupported a U.S. navy presence to counter-balance China. Vietnam demonstratedthis in a symbolic way by flying out to U.S. aircraft carriers to observe flightoperations. In other words, Vietnam was playing the role of pivot. It enhanced itscooperation with the United States but did not align with the U.S. to confront China.Finally, there is another reason why Vietnam will impose limits on its defenserelations with the United States. A recent commentary by the
People’s Daily Online
(July 11, 2012) captures this point nicely. It stated, “Hanoi is counting on China tovindicate its political choices [“following the path of China, realizing rapiddevelopment by taking the road of gradual reform”], but also wa
nts to counter China
by leveraging US power.” The commentary notes that Vietnam has to strike a
balance between its external relations and domestic political forces.There are many political leaders in Vietnam who fear that the U.S. has the ultimateobjective of regime change through peaceful evolution. Vietnamese leaders are notof one mind on this issue and Vietnam often pursues contradictory policies. Forexample, Vietnam lobbies the U.S. to remove restrictions on arms sales whilerepressing bloggers at the same time even though the U.S. has set human rights pre-conditions on arms sales.Vietnam attempts to mitigate the risk of too close an embrace with the U.S. bystalling on many projects. Vietnam also represses pro-democracy advocates andbloggers esp
ecially those with overseas connections. And Vietnam’s party, public
security ministry and army general political department share experiences with theirChinese counterparts.
The solution to Vietnam’s dilemma, is not, as the
People’s Daily 
advocates “to
oordinate with China to limit the US pivot to Asia,” but to maintain Vietnam’s
independence by acting as the pivot between Beijing and Washington. If these
powers respect Vietnam’s core interests and independence, cooperation will trump
ed citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “
Vietnam is the Real Pivot
Thayer Consultancy Background Brief 
, July 12, 2012.

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