Vietnam’s Management of China’s Maritime Assertiveness in the Post-Cold War Period

1In May 2014, China deployed a giant oil rig, Haiyang Shiyou 981 (HYSY 981), and a flotilla of more than 100 vessels to the area that Vietnam claims as its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).2 Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh protested loudly, declaring that “all necessary measures” would be taken to protect his country’s legitimate rights.3 Quite the reverse, in a speech at the 2014 Shangri-La Dialogue, Minister of Defense Phung Quang Thanh stated that Vietnam-China relations remains in good shape. He also likened the ongoing oil rig row to an “intra-family disagreement.”4 Interestingly, once China withdrew its oil rig, it was Hanoi that took the first conciliatory move to fix the relationship. This episode exhibits Vietnam’s typical response to China’s assertive actions in the South China Sea: a mixture of defiance and deference, which arouses confusion among Vietnam observers. China is perceived as the greatest threat in terms of its intention to dominate the sea and its capabilities to do so, but Vietnam persistently works to preserve its ties with China and stick to an autonomous defense posture.This article examines how Vietnam has managed the South China Sea disputes, seeking the logic behind its ambivalent actions.


Shifting Strategic Interests and Maritime Objectives

In the mid-1970s, the victory in the Second Indochina War and the odyssey of successive resistance against four great powers—Japan, France, the United States, and China—gave communist leaders in Hanoi illusions about the superiority of their military power and the righteousness of their revolutionary mission. This misperception diverted them from the pressing task of consolidating sovereignty and autonomy to engage in competition with China for primacy over the South China Sea and Indochina. From a geostrategic point of view, Vietnam naturally saw Indochina as a single strategic unit during its wars. Its long, thin mainland deprives it of strategic depth, arousing a sense of insecurity from its maritime east.5 Therefore, when China and Cambodia turned hostile to Vietnam in the second half of the 1970s, Hanoi felt threatened. Vietnam then sought an alliance with the Soviet Union, while strengthening its special relations with Laos. It took military actions to overthrow the China-backed Khmer Rouge regime and expanded its physical presence in the Spratlys.
These hard-nosed acts put Vietnam in a severe strategic quandary. They provoked China into waging a border war to “teach the small hegemon a lesson” in January 1979. Countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Western world were also alienated from Vietnam for its military adventurism in Cambodia. Despite withstanding the border war and managing to gain control of Cambodia, Hanoi realized that prolonged confrontation with its big neighbor China was untenable and jeopardized its ability to defend basic territorial integrity and communist rule. In 1989, Vietnam withdrew all its troops from Cambodia and Laos, making space for détente with China, ASEAN countries, and Western powers.6
Since the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Vietnam’s overarching strategic interest has been confined to preserving sovereignty and a peaceful milieu for the sake of economic development. Consequently, it has shifted its maritime focus to defending its positions in the Spratlys and advancing its maritime rights as allowed by international law, while striving to manage and, hopefully, resolve the existing territorial disputes peacefully. Given the importance of this maritime domain to Vietnam’s security and development, Hanoi would by no means acquiesce to China’s claims to appease Beijing. Though overwhelmed by Chinese naval power, it has no interest in engaging in balance-of-power politics either; that would destabilize its relations with China. The key strategic challenge for Vietnam in the South China Sea remains to achieve twin goals simultaneously: to protect what it assumes to be its legitimate sovereign and maritime interests and to maintain friendship with China. If one goal were more favored than the other, it would be much easier for Vietnamese politicians to decide.

Divergent Views on How to Manage Relations with China

In the late 1980s, the occurrence of a series of velvet revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe and the Tiananmen crisis sparked fears within conservative political circles in Hanoi about regime insecurity. They believed that Vietnam should cooperate with China to defend socialism. In that vein, they pushed for accommodation on the Cambodian issue to facilitate rapprochement between Vietnam and China. On the other side, pragmatist leaders, particularly Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach, maintained the conviction that China was essentially expansionist. They advocated crossing the ideological line, reaching out to capitalist powers to find a solution to the Cambodia conflict as a way to force China to moderate its hard-line position against Vietnam.7
The end of the Cold War, which resulted in a more uncertain strategic environment for Vietnam, accentuated what Carlyle A. Thayer called a “loss of orientation” or “crisis of faith in its foreign relations.”8 The disagreement between the conservative and pragmatist political elites in foreign relations has persisted. The former have preferred bandwagoning—to forge intimate strategic and political relations—with China on the basis of shared ideology. This is in line with Brantly Womack’s modality of “asymmetric relationship,” in which the weaker Vietnam must pay deference to China’s greater power in return for Chinese recognition of Vietnam’s autonomy.9
In contrast, the pragmatists, suspicious of China’s geopolitical ambitions, have supported hedging through diversification and multilateralization of foreign relations. In their view, the threat emanating from China is “multidimensional, genuine, and present-day.”10 To cope with it, they advocate a hedging strategy, “keeping open more than one strategic option against the possibility of a future security threat.”11 In this vein, Vietnam needs to engage with China while seeking “more friends,” which could help it develop and resist China’s pressures if necessary.12
Regarding existing territorial disputes, including ones in the South China Sea, the conservative ideologues argue that disputes can be managed satisfactorily and better resolved in the context of the fraternal socialist ties between Hanoi and Beijing. In their perspective, Hanoi should cultivate relations with Beijing, defending its own interests in a manner that should not destabilize overall relations. In contrast, the pragmatists are distrustful and believe that China would eventually seek exclusive control of the South China Sea and hegemony over Southeast Asia. The best way to cope, they argue, is to work with Southeast Asian states, the United States, Japan, and other powers to constrain China’s expansionism.

Bilateral Engagement with China for Managing or Resolving Territorial and Maritime Disputes

In 1990, in spite of opposition from pragmatist leaders, Vietnam’s party chief and defense minister decided to bet all their chips on China in the hope of rolling back relations to a socialist alliance as in the period between 1949 and 1970. To this end, they bypassed the Foreign Ministry to accede to China’s demands on Cambodia in exchange for normalization, expecting Beijing’s cooperation on the basis of socialist solidarity. Upon diplomatic normalization in November 1991, China turned down the request to revive the old-style ideology-based alliance. However, Hanoi secured Beijing’s pledge to peaceful resolution of existing territorial disputes, or what they referred to as “historical differences,” and self-restraint to avoid further complications.
After normalization, Vietnamese conservative leaders continued to advocate bandwagoning with China through strong institutionalized party-to-party and state-to-state connections. Between 1991 and 2005, the two countries’ party chiefs and heads of governments alternately visited each other’s capitals annually and adopted joint statements which outlined the key directions and principles to regulate the relations. Lower-level officials also met regularly to discuss ways to implement high-level agreements as guided by the high-level leaders’ agreements.13
These regular meetings were important to both countries, providing leaders access to each other’s decision-making circle. Through this channel, Beijing tried to influence Vietnam’s internal affairs and foreign policy, while Hanoi emphasized common interests in defending socialism and communicated its concerns. According to Brantly Womack, through these routine dialogues, the asymmetrical relationship between the two became stabilized, as structural misperceptions from both sides were avoided and confidence built up.14 They served as diplomatic rituals in which the two sides stressed shared interest in promoting their relations, China reaffirmed its peaceful intentions toward Vietnam, and Vietnam reassured China of its deference in terms of its non-aligned strategic posture.
In October 1993, the two countries reached an agreement on the basic principles for settling the disputes over their land border and the Gulf of Tonkin, which included: 1) renunciation of threats or use of force, 2) recognition of the restraining effects of the disputes on bilateral relations, and 3) self-restraint and conflict avoidance.15 They established intergovernmental commissions to foster cooperation and expert-level committees or joint working groups on territorial disputes. Between 1992 and 1995, three working groups were established to discuss the land border, the maritime delimitation in the Gulf of Tonkin, and the “maritime issues” beyond this gulf. Set to meet once or twice a year, they were tasked with discussing technical issues in light of the agreed principles.
During the 1990s, as both China and Vietnam were interested in a stable neighborhood, these bilateral mechanisms facilitated resolution of longstanding disputes and neutralization of the areas of potential conflict. They managed to reach agreement on the land border and boundary delimitation in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1999 and 2000, respectively. In contrast, for 10 years after its inception, the joint working group on maritime issues made no progress; the two disagreed on whether to discuss the Paracel Islands and a legal regime applied to the insular Paracel and Spratly features. Hanoi insisted on including the Paracels in the agenda while Beijing refuted this claim. China simply does not want to recognize a dispute over the Paracels after it secured total control of the area since 1974. In contrast, Beijing wants to discuss the maritime zones generated by the Paracels and Spratlys, while Hanoi has tried to avoid such discussions as they may imply Vietnam’s recognition of China’s sovereignty over these island chains.16
Though such routinized meetings on maritime issues proved to be futile, not even agreeing on the agenda, Vietnam still wanted to maintain them as a tool to manage ongoing incidents, control escalation, and ease emerging tensions if necessary. As the joint working groups are usually the first to deal with incidents from a technical point of views, they help depoliticize problems and find temporary solutions acceptable to both sides. Such bilateral interactions are usually the most important channel for Hanoi to deal with frictions, as it wants stable relations with China. Bilateralism deals with the direct causes of tensions and avoids escalation and unnecessary complications by the involvement of domestic politics and third parties. However, the intractable nature of the South China Sea disputes dashed the hopes of conservatives about amicable socialist ties and proved that deference has not been rewarded by constraining China.
Managing China’s Assertiveness through ASEAN Multilateralism

The South China Sea has been an intractable issue in Vietnam-China relations in the post-Cold War. The leadership’s hopes for a trouble-free relationship with the northern neighbor after normalization soon dissipated. Just three months after the historic meeting on normalization in Beijing, in February 1992, China adopted the “Law Concerning Territorial Waters and Adjacent Regions,” reasserting claims over the Paracels, Spratlys, and Macclesfield Bank and reserving the right to use force to protect its sovereignty. At the same time, Chinese forces tried to land on Da Ba Dau rock in the Spratlys. To preserve the newly normalized relations, Hanoi refrained from taking these cases to the public, just registering its protests through diplomatic channels.17
A bigger shockwave struck Hanoi three months later when China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) offered concessions to a small US-based oil firm Crestone to explore a vast maritime area of Vanguard Bank, known as Wan An Bei-21 in China and Tu Chinh in Vietnam. China’s move startled and angered leaders in Hanoi since the area, just about 200 nautical miles from its shore while 650 nautical miles from China’s Hainan Island, is believed to be well within its EEZ. In the Vietnamese view, China’s encroachment upon Vietnam’s potential oil-rich maritime area was indicative of old-style Chinese imperialism. Even the most conservative figure within the leadership, the party chief Do Muoi, regarded China as “expansionist.” The Foreign Ministry was now allowed to make public protests.18
Vietnam protested China’s claim to Tu Chinh and defied its threat to use force. It has relied on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to claim the Vanguard Bank as part of its EEZ and backed the claim with a contract with US-based Mobil to explore the Thanh Long area, adjacent to Tu Chinh. Two standoffs occurred between the two navies and the exploration teams led by Crestone and Mobil in April and July 1994.19 Not long after, in early 1995, China’s silent occupation of Mischief Reef was revealed, setting off alarms across Southeast Asia about China’s maritime ambition.
These developments provided Hanoi’s pragmatist leaders with stronger reasons to seek more friends and broaden the range of options. They believed that China did not want to confront the United States and was afraid of Southeast Asian countries sticking together.20 From this vantage point, they advocated rapprochement with ASEAN countries, the United States, Japan, and Western European countries. The conservative elements were afraid that greater engagement with these countries would threaten political stability in Vietnam. China’s claim to the Tu Chinh area and periodical assertive actions undermined their argument. By July 1995, Vietnam had managed to normalize relations with the United States, gain admission to ASEAN, and sign a framework cooperation agreement with the European Union (EU).
ASEAN membership has provided Hanoi a pathway to multilateralize its South China Sea problem. On March 7, 1997, China deployed the Kantan-03 oil rig to the area between the Vietnamese central coast and Hainan Island beyond the equidistance line. After two weeks of private communications with Beijing with no concrete results, Hanoi went public to criticize China and turned to ASEAN countries to seek help. The deputy foreign minister summoned all ASEAN ambassadors in Hanoi to notify them about the drilling incident and clarify Vietnam’s stance. Though it was ostensibly a bilateral problem between Vietnam and China, Hanoi won ASEAN sympathy and prompted the group to collectively raise the issue with China in an ASEAN-China meeting. By late March, China unilaterally withdrew the oil rig.21
After familiarizing itself with ASEAN processes, Vietnam became more active behind ASEAN’s effort to build a code of conduct (COC) for the South China Sea. As others, Hanoi looked for a temporary arrangement to draw a line for China’s activities because final settlements of disputes were not seen in the immediate future. Beyond this common line, Hanoi wanted to include the Paracels in the geographical scope of the COC. China opposed this, while other ASEAN countries were reluctant to get entangled in the Vietnam-China dispute over the Paracels. China and the Philippines disagreed on the set of activities that should be banned. Without any prospect of reconciliation, negotiators finally accepted a non-binding Declaration on Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) without mentioning specific island chains.
After the DOC was signed, Vietnam continued to consider ASEAN multilateralism as a platform to deal with China. It engaged with other ASEAN members to draft the guidelines to implement the DOC and pushed for a binding COC. This did not mean that Vietnam pursued multilateralism at the expense of its bilateralism with China. In fact, since 1995, Vietnam has engaged China both bilaterally and multilaterally to manage the South China Sea disputes. As China quickly grew stronger and more influential, Hanoi became concerned as ASEAN’s processes and bilateral pledges were no longer effective in constraining it. Hanoi then had little choice but to reach out beyond ASEAN to hedge against the uncertain future of China’s rise.
Vietnam’s Hedging through Complex Balancing
In the early 2000s, optimism about a benign China prevailed in Southeast Asia as China adopted a “charm offensive” to invalidate the “China threat” theory. China signed the DOC, joined the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, and worked with ASEAN toward a China-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (FTA). China also cleared debts for and provided aid to less-developed countries in the region. As a result, China gained influence over Southeast Asia, while the United States was distracted by the war on terror. The political elite in Hanoi witnessed this trend with anxiety and discomfort.
It should be noted that the 9th Party Congress in 2001 witnessed the demise of Le Kha Phieu and disagreement among leading ideologues, which weakened the power base of the conservative faction.22 Since then, Hanoi’s foreign policy has placed priority on pragmatism rather than socialist ideology. Though Vietnam-China relations were now in good shape, the pragmatist leaders in Hanoi were not convinced about China’s peaceful development discourse and were fearful of China’s increased power. As a result, they pushed further hedging through economic integration into the world’s economy and stronger military ties with other major powers to offset the strategic risks from China.
The strategic turning point took place in June 2003 when the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam adopted Resolution 8, which opened the door for greater engagement with the United States. Officials traveled to Washington more frequently. They privately warned their US counterparts of “China’s aggressive pursuit of influence over Southeast Asia.”23 Hanoi sent its defense minister to open up cooperation in noncombat activities and allowed US Navy ships to make port calls to Ho Chi Minh city. Recognizing the US role in maintaining regional stability, it wanted Washington to pay more attention to Asia.
Vietnam also worked in a proactive manner to forge strategic partnerships with other powers. In the period between 2001 and 2015, it established 15 strategic partnerships with Russia, Japan, India, China, South Korea, Spain, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, France, Malaysia, and the Philippines, while forging comprehensive partnerships with the United States and Australia. Strategic partnerships do not amount to military alliances, but commitments to a broad-based scope of cooperation, including political, security and military areas, and establishment of high-level mechanisms to manage bilateral relations.24 As former deputy prime minister Vu Khoan explained, these partnerships are helpful in four ways: 1) strengthening Vietnam’s international stance, 2) supporting Vietnam’s position in international forums, 3) increasing mutual interdependence with multiple countries as a way to bolster independence, and 4) paving the way to greater economic cooperation to strengthen Vietnam itself.25
The proliferation of strategic and comprehensive partnerships indicates that Vietnam is pursuing what Evelyn Goh calls complex balancing, diversifying its security ties with other major actors in regional politics to balance its relations with China.26 Unlike normal balancing where one state seeks additional capabilities through forming alliances with other countries to counter a specific threat, complex balancing is aimed at expanding room for maneuvering while preserving strategic autonomy.
Internalizing and Internationalizing the South China Sea Issue
After the signing of the DOC, there has been no prospect for an appropriate resolution or even management of South China Sea disputes. By 2004, the ASEAN-China discussion on the guidelines to implement the DOC hit a deadlock because of disagreement over the consultation formula. In September 2004, the Philippines signed a secret deal with China on a joint seismic survey in the Spratly areas, undermining ASEAN’s collective stance on the South China Sea. Bilaterally, after 11 rounds, despite Hanoi’s standing offer, the Chinese refused to attend the twelfth meeting of the joint working group on the maritime issues, due to “being busy.”27 Between December 2006 and September 2010, no high-level Chinese leaders visited Hanoi.28
At sea, tensions rose from the mid-2000s. In February 2007, Hanoi adopted a more nationalist maritime posture with a new maritime strategy, which envisaged intensification of a marine-based economy as a way to exercise the country’s maritime rights as granted by UNCLOS. The Vietnamese authorities provided support for offshore fishing and awarded concessions to foreign oil firms to explore areas they believe are part of their legitimate EEZs and continental shelves.29 In response, China started “regular rights defense patrols” in the South China Sea.30 As a result, there have been more clashes between Chinese law enforcement vessels and Vietnamese fishing fleets and exploratory vessels. Also, China privately applied pressure on international oil firms to force them out of contracts with PetroVietnam, the national oil firm of Vietnam.31
The Vietnamese were frustrated that China was determined to deprive Vietnam of its basic maritime rights and jurisdictions as granted by UNCLOS. Worse still, Vietnam was basically left alone to its own devices to cope with overwhelming economic power and law enforcement fleets. Between 2006 and 2008, China only browbeat Vietnam while sparing other Southeast Asian countries’ oil and gas activities in the South China Sea. The strategic community became even more fearful after China started to build a big naval base on Hainan, which would increase its maritime power projection southward.
Hanoi clearly had no intention of acquiescing. It defied China’s assertiveness in two directions, internally and internationally, pursuing internal balancing through strengthening its maritime capabilities and bolstering maritime nationalism. In mid-2009, Hanoi reportedly sealed a USD 2 billion deal to purchase six Russia-made diesel-electric Project 636 Kilo-class submarines. Subsequently, it also acquired advanced coastal defense systems, multirole airplanes, surface combat and patrol ships, missiles, and surveillance craft.32 Heavy investment in such naval modernization at a time of economic distress indicated Hanoi’s perceived urgent need in defending its maritime space and islands.
Since the end of 2008, Hanoi has drummed up maritime patriotism to find popular support for its maritime position. Before, it had tried to protect the friendly visage of Vietnam-China relations, avoiding public discussion of controversial issues such as maritime disputes. The eruption of anti-China demonstrations in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in December 2007 prompted reconsideration of this policy. Media in Vietnam are now encouraged to raise popular awareness of the country’s maritime domain; however, the officialdom clearly wants to confine nationalism to cyberspace rather than encourage people to take to the streets. Nationalism is ultimately a display of tenacity rather than a real driver of the policy. In July 2012, despite China’s longstanding warnings, Vietnam’s National Assembly adopted the Law of the Sea of Vietnam, which codifies its maritime claims into national laws.33
Internationally, Hanoi has tried, one way or another, to publicize its South China Sea case to gather support for its legitimate rights and expose China’s legally weak claims and bullying behavior. In May 2009, it made submissions to the United Nations Commission on Limits of Continental Shelves (CLCS) to clarify the perimeters of its claimed EEZs and continental shelves as stipulated by UNCLOS. This move prompted China to step out of obscurity to make the nine-dash line claim official, which is hard to justify within the framework of UNCLOS. Vietnam used its ASEAN chairmanship to facilitate discussions on the South China Sea issue at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meeting and at the first ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus in 2010. Considering China’s claim and actions as destabilizing factors, Vietnamese leaders raised the issue in almost all meetings with the world’s leaders and asked them to voice support to UNCLOS, back ASEAN’s efforts toward a COC, and criticize China’s actions. It hoped that greater involvement of other powers would prompt China to reconsider its assertive posture.
Hanoi has also reached out to international media to gain the moral high ground—in terms of legality, transparency, and fairness—to denounce China’s actions. In the cable cutting incidents in 2011, Hanoi issued press releases and held press conferences to expose China’s coercive and illegal actions. During China’s deployment of HYSY 981, it held five press conferences and allowed foreign reporters on board its vessels to witness the square-off at sea. Vietnam’s public outcry clearly annoyed Chinese leaders. State Councilor Yang Jiechi accused Vietnam of “hyping up” the row.34 By a combination of enduring resistance, active diplomacy, and effective public relations campaigns, Vietnam tried to prove to Beijing that its encroachments upon Vietnam were politically costly and unsustainable.
Behind Vietnam’s strong display of determination, there is self-restraint to keep its reactions in appropriate bounds. Hanoi has been very cautious in handling incidents, even crises, in a way to avoid unnecessary escalation of tension and significant damage to overall Vietnam-China relations. It deliberately avoided responding with tit-for-tat actions, tirelessly protesting what it deemed to be China’s assertive actions, but also persistently calling on China for direct dialogue. During the HYSY 981 crisis, officials repeatedly requested dialogue for management of the incident. The bilateral door for party-to-party talks was always left open to defuse tension without making China lose face. When the oil rig had been withdrawn, Hanoi showed its deference by sending its senior party leader, Le Hong Anh, to Beijing to fix the relationship.35
Hanoi did not miss any chance to assert the legality of its claims and challenge China’s claims. It submitted its report to the CLCS in 2009 in defiance of China’s protest. In December 2014, it also filed its legal brief to the Arbitral Tribunal at The Hague to reject China’s nine-dash claim and appealed to the tribunal to take into account Vietnam’s interests.36 Unlike the Philippines, Vietnam has not yet been willing to take China to court. There is a basic fear that such legal actions would lead to a breakdown of Vietnam-China relations.
China’s island-building has further tilted Vietnam toward hedging. It has stepped up defense cooperation with Washington and Tokyo, which offered patrol boats and other assistance to enhance its maritime capabilities.37 Vietnamese officials are more vocal in urging Washington to lift its ban on selling lethal weapons. Threatened by China’s expanding presence in the South China Sea, even most conservative leaders started turning to Washington. In July 2015, party chief Nguyen Phu Trong made a historic visit to Washington when China refused to halt its island-building.38 Most surprisingly, in November 2015, Vietnam received President Xi Jinping in Hanoi while hosting a joint military exercise with Japan in Cam Ranh Bay.39 Refusal to reschedule the visit of the Japanese warship sent a message that deference to Beijing that Vietnam should not be taken for granted.
The 12th National Party Congress in January 2016 indicates that Hanoi will stay the course for at least the next five years. Reportedly, concerns about rising maritime tensions figured significantly in the deliberations at the congress. However, the resolution adopted at the closure of the congress prescribed no change to the longstanding twin objectives of safeguarding the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and preserving regional peace and stability.40 Deputy Prime Minister cum Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh made it clear that Vietnam will persist with the policy of strategic independence and proactive international integration. In other words, Vietnam will not lean on any single power for security, but continuously develop its own capabilities and pursue broad-based engagement with all major players to enhance its international stance and discourage any attempts to encroach on its national interests.41 Though the sea is on constant boil, diplomacy is Vietnam’s first line of defense.
In the post-Cold War period, Hanoi has been increasingly interested in preserving the status quo over the Spratlys and Paracels and protecting its legitimate maritime rights without detriment to its relations with China. However, political elites differ on the best way to achieve this objective. Ideologically conservative leaders believed that bandwagoning with China on the basis of shared ideology would reap the benefit of China’s support and respect for Vietnam’s core interests, while pragmatist and reform leaders were in favor of a hedging strategy to balance Vietnam’s ties with China through greater connections with the Southeast Asian countries, the United States, and other major powers. The idea of hedging is to maximize the political and economic benefits of engaging with China while utilizing the offsetting system of big power relations to minimize risks from it.
The intractable nature of the South China Sea wrangle, China’s rapid naval modernization, and its assertive actions at sea prompted Hanoi to capitalize on a multi-component hedging strategy. It joined ASEAN and normalized relations with the United States in 1995. Since 2001, Hanoi has gradually expanded its network of strategic and comprehensive partnerships with major powers to broaden its range of options and create constraints on China’s behavior. In addition, it has undertaken internal balancing through naval modernization and patriotic campaigns.
Vietnam has handled China’s assertive behavior at sea with an adept combination of persistent defiance on core substantial interests and ritual deference, going to great lengths to physically and psychologically demonstrate its will to stick to its claims, protect its Spratly positions, and safeguard legitimate interests before China’s overwhelming power. It has shown the capacity to make the international system work in its favor and use its membership in international regimes to make and enforce rules that shield the weaker members.
The more assertive China is in the South China Sea, the more Vietnam is inclined toward hedging. China’s island-building has stirred up anxieties even within the ideologically conservative circle in Hanoi. As a result, hedging has prevailed over bandwagoning. Hanoi stepped up its security relations with China’s rivals, the United States, and Japan. However, Hanoi is unlikely to cross the line to disrupt Vietnam-China relations unless China aggressively encroaches upon the Spratly islands now under Vietnamese control. The recent National Party Congress in Hanoi signals that hedging will continue with vigor.

1. This article is based on the author’s paper presentation at the conference on “Southeast Asian Strategies towards Great Powers” organized by Evelyn Goh to launch the Graduate Research and Development Network in Asian Security (GRASNAD), Australian National University, September 7, 2015.

2. The author would like to thank Evelyn Goh, Carlyle A. Thayer, and Leszek Buszynski for their critical comments that helped improve the quality of the analysis. The views and all shortcomings in the article are the author’s own.

3. “Vietnam Steps Up Protests against Chinese Oilrig Incursion,” Thanh Nien News, May 7, 2014.

4. Jonathan London, “Vietnamese Defence Minister’s Shangri-La Speech Prompts Fierce Debate Back Home,” CSIS CogitASIA, June 3, 2014.

5. Richard K. Betts, “The Strategic Predicament,” in Vietnam Joins the World, eds. James William Morley and Masashi Nishihara (Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1997), 99.

6. Raphael Cung, “Vietnam in the Nineties,” SAIS Review 11, no. 2 (1991).

7. Tran Quang Co, Hoi Uc Va Suy Nghi (Hanoi, 2003), chaps. 5-6, Tran Quang Co (1927-2015) served as deputy foreign minister in the late 1980s and early 1990s. His monograph provides his views about a range of Vietnam’s foreign affairs over this period.

8. Carlyle A. Thayer, “Vietnamese Foreign Policy: Multilateralism and the Threat of Peaceful
Evolution,” in Vietnamese Foreign Policy in Transition, eds. Carlyle A. Thayer and Ramses Amer (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1999), 18.

9. Brantly Womack, China and Vietnam: The Politics of Asymmetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 77-92.

10. Co, Hoi Uc Va Suy Nghi, chap. 21.

11. Denny Roy, “Southeast Asia and China: Balancing or Bandwagoning,” Contemporary Southeast Asia 27, no. 2 (2005): 306.

12. Co, Hoi Uc Va Suy Nghi, chap. 21.

13. J. Y. S. Cheng, “Sino-Vietnamese Relations in the Early Twenty-first Century,” Asian Survey 51, no. 2 (2011): 382.

14. Womack, China and Vietnam: The Politics of Asymmetry, 91.

15. Ang Cheng Guan, “Vietnam-China Relations since the End of the Cold War,” Asian Survey 38, no. 12 (1998): 1130.

16. Ramses Amer, “Assessing Sino-Vietnamese Relations through Management of Contentious Issues,” Contemporary Southeast Asia 26, no.2 (2004): 320-345.

17. Carlyle A. Thayer, “Vietnam: Coping with China,” Southeast Asian Affairs (1994): 356.

18. Carlyle A. Thayer, “Sino-Vietnamese Relations: The Interplay of Ideology and National Interest,” Asian Survey 34, no. 6 (1994): 525.

19. Bill Hayton, The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), 124-130.

20. Co, Hoi Uc Va Suy Nghi, chap. 21.

21. David Wurfel, “Between China and ASEAN,” in Thayer and Ramses, Vietnamese Foreign Policy in Transition, 158-159.

22. Zachary Abuza, “The Lessons of Le Kha Phieu: Changing Rules in Vietnamese Politics,” Contemporary Southeast Asia 24, no. 1 (2002): 121-145.

23. US Embassy in Hanoi, “Final Thoughts from Hanoi,” Wikileaks cable 04HANOI2438, September 4, 2004 (accessed August 12, 2015).

24. Carlyle A. Thayer, “Vietnam on the Road to Global Integration: Forging Strategic Partnership through International Security Cooperation” (Paper presented at the Fourth International Vietnam Studies Conference, Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences and Vietnam National University, November 26-30, 2012), 30-34.

25. Huynh Phan, “Viet-Trung: Song Gio Chang Loi Cho Ai,” Vietnamnet, December 20, 2013,—trung–song-gio-chang-co-loi-cho-ai-.html. Interview with former deputy minister Vu Khoan (accessed August 22, 2015).

26. Evelyn Goh, “Great Power and Hierarchical Order in Southeast Asia: Analysing Regional Security Strategies,” International Security 32, no. 3 (2007/2008): 139-144.

27. US Embassy in Hanoi, “Some in GVN Apparently Unworried about Situation in South China Sea,” Wikileaks cable 08HANOI464_a, April 22, 2008, (accessed August 25, 2015).

28. Le Hong Hiep, “Vietnam’s Hedging Strategy against China since Normalization,” Contemporary Southeast Asia 35, no. 3 (2013): 347-348.

29. US Embassy in Hanoi, “Foreign Ministry Summons Ambassador to Discuss Sino-Vietnam South China Sea Dispute,” Wikileaks cable 07HANOI1623_a, September 11, 2007, (accessed August 14, 2015).

30. Andrew Chubb, “China’s expansion of ‘Regular Rights Defence Patrols’ in the South China Sea: A Map, Courtesy of CCTV,” South China Sea Conversations, (accessed August 25, 2015).

31. Tran Truong Thuy, “Recent Developments in the South China Sea: Implications for Regional Security and Cooperation” (Presentation, CSIS Conference on South China Sea, June 29, 2011), (accessed August 25, 2015).

32. Le Hong Hiep, “Vietnam’s Hedging Strategy against China since Normalization,” 354-355.

33. Kien Long, “Khang Dinh Chu Quyen–Co So Phat Trien Kinh Te Bien (IV),”, August 8, 2012, (accessed August 29, 2015). This bill was introduced in 1988, but was delayed several times because of China’s opposition.

34. Ho Binh Minh and Ben Blanchard, “China Scolds Vietnam for ‘Hyping’ South China Sea Row,” Reuters, June 18, 2014,

35. Carlyle A. Thayer, “China and Vietnam Eschew Megaphone Diplomacy,” The Diplomat, January 2, 2015.

36. John Roberts, “Vietnam Backs Philippine Case against Chinese Maritime Claims,” World Socialist, December 30, 2014, (accessed August 30, 2015).

37. Prashanth Parameswaran, “US, Vietnam Deepen Defense Ties,” The Diplomat, June 5, 2015, (accessed August 31, 2015).

38. James Hookway, “Vietnam Party Chief Balances Ties between US, China,” The Wall Street Journal, July 3, 2015,; Krinstine Kwok, “Vietnam’s Communist Party Chief’s Visit to White House ‘Rich in Symbolism,’” South China Morning Post, June 28, 2015,

39. Martin Petty, “Vietnam Talks Trust with China, Inviting Japanese Warship,” Reuters, November 6, 2015.

40. “Toan Van Nghi Quyet Dai Hoi Lan Thu XII Cua Dang,” The Voice of Vietnam, January 29, 2016.

41. Phuc Hung and Anh The, “Pho Thu Tuong Pham Binh Minh: Khong Nga Ve Ben Nay, Ben Khac,” Dan Tri, January 22, 2016.