For at least the past three generations, Vietnam has been a serious noise in Asian security. You might think that throwing off the Japanese, the French and then the USA was impressive enough. With its large educated population and cohesive national culture, Vietnam then threatened to dominate the rest of continental S. E. Asia, prompting a military intervention by neighbor and historical rival China in 1979. The war in Cambodia and the demise of its Soviet patron brought isolation, but this ended in the late 1980s, when Vietnam began to opened up again. Soon it entered ASEAN and took its place in the global economic supply chain.
When it comes to contemporary Asian security, Vietnam is again in the thick of it. Its location gives it unique geopolitical significance with a border with China, deep port facilities and long coastline on the South China Sea (SCS). Economic growth is supplying the means for military modernization. Gas reserves give it a stake in deals with the big commercial and sovereign energy firms. Its weight in ASEAN is enough to sway other nations in the region. It is becoming the pivotal middle power in the regional balance.
As in the past, tension with China is a persistent theme, but this time Hanoi’s strategic approach is different. As Sr. Lt Gen. Nguyen Chi Vinh expressed it at the Shangri La dialogue in 2013 –
“It is clearly seen that the trend for cooperation, including the Asia-Pacific defence cooperation, takes place more vigorously than any other regions in the world. A few decades ago, the cooperation was limited to some countries, mainly bilateral ones or in some particular spheres. However, the defense cooperation has nowadays been expanded multilaterally and in various areas. Even some nations which used to face contradiction or confrontation are now moving forward to the defense cooperation more obviously. Thanks to this trend, we have made massive progress in confidence building and preventive diplomacy, which is a key factor to reduce the risks of conflicts and contribute to the maintenance of peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific for more than 3 decades.”
Partnerships with others in the Asia-Pacific are very much a part of it (with the USA, Russia, India, Japan, Singapore, the Philippines and, yes, China), but Europe is also included. Hanoi’s growing network of defence cooperation and security relations promises to tell us something very interesting about Europe’s emerging role in Asian security. Here is a sample of recent evidence on the number of European nations cementing defence ties with Vietnam:
Although the EU has restricted its role in SCS security to mediation, it has become a major partner with Vietnam in the economic sphere. Here are a couple of extracts from a very useful article “Vietnam’s strategic hedging vis-à-vis China: the roles of the European Union and Russia” :
Pressed to diversify its investments in order to prevent itself from being exploited and dominated by Chinese investors, Vietnam has been seeking more investments coming from the EU. The EU has been attributed a special role in this regard, as the total FDI inflow to Vietnam coming from the EU between 2002 and 2009 amounts to US$ 4,7 billion (as compared to US$ 649,9 million coming from China), which makes the EU the second largest external investor in Vietnam, just after the US.40 In 2011, the EU’s FDI in Vietnam was US$ 32 billion, encompassing 1,687 projects41, which amounted to more than 12% of Vietnam’s total FDI.42 This was ten times bigger that the FDI coming from China, which covered 805 projects with a total pledged investment capital of US$ 3.184 billion. This position of the EU has been reinforced in 2012, with an FDI record of US$ 1 billion.43 The EU has also remained the main provider of development aid to Vietnam.
The subtext here is that Vietnam is using investment and trade to draw Europeans into the East Asian geopolitical game:
The EU is currently Vietnam’s second trading partner, with bilateral trade amounting to US$ 24.29 billion in 2011. Vietnam’s exports to the EU have increased by 33.5% in 2011. In addition, large EU-based energy companies such as BP have been involved in oil and gas exploitation and drilling in the region. The considerable trade turnover between the European companies and the regional states, including Vietnam, is closely connected to the freedom of navigation and the stability of the SCS. This fact has urged stronger EU engagement in regional security matters, and especially into the maritime security in the SCS. Along these lines, whilst it is clear that the EU’s economic presence in the SEA is growing at a fast pace, it is also true that this circumstance has been particularly promoted by the Vietnamese authorities since it enhances the country’s capacity to address the complex challenges and pressures stemming from the rise of China.
This is a dimension of Vietnam’s broad “equidistancing” strategy (expressed by its policy on Cam Ranh bay here):
Regarding the Itar-Tass’s question about the use of Vietnam’s Cam Ranh military naval port, General Phung Quang Thanh reiterated Vietnam’s viewpoint that the country does not let any country set its military base there. The country will build a logistic service centre, managed by Vietnam, to receive trading and military vessels from other countries to come for repair or maintenance services and provide logistic – technical, relaxation, and health services for the crews, based on economic contracts signed with them.
Brussels clearly feels it is worth investing in this relationship. In June this year they launched the EU-Vietnam strategic dialogue facility to support the EU – Vietnam Partnership Cooperation Agreement (PCA) signed last year in Brussels.
“Together with a wide range of Vietnamese partners from academia, civil society and government, the facility will allow Europe and Vietnam to exchange best practices and experiences on issues of mutual interest under the PCA. It will fund policy-oriented research and studies and organize conferences, high-level meetings and trainings with European and international experts”.
So it looks like this is the deal on Euro-Asia security relations: the hard security goes bilaterally, the economic and strategic package follows up from Brussels. It could work.