Tuong Vu on the Significance of Vietnam’s 2019 Defense White Paper

Tuong Vu is professor of Political Science and director of Asian Studies at the University of Oregon. He has held visiting appointments at Princeton University and National University of Singapore and taught at the Naval Postgraduate School. Vu is the author or editor of five books, including The Republic of Vietnam, 1955-1975: Vietnamese Perspectives on Nation-Building (Cornell, 2020), Vietnam’s Communist Revolution: The Power and Limits of Ideology (Cambridge, 2017), Paths to Development in Asia: South Korea, Vietnam, China, and Indonesia (Cambridge, 2010), Dynamics of the Cold War in Asia: Ideology, Identity, and Culture (Palgrave, 2009), and Southeast Asia in Political Science: Theory, Region, and Qualitative Analysis (Stanford, 2008). He has also authored numerous articles on the politics of nationalism, revolution, and state-building in East and Southeast Asia.
Shreya Bhatnagar CMC '20 interviewed Tuong Vu on Feb 20, 2020.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Vu on behalf of University of Oregon.

In the 2019 defense white paper released by the Vietnam government, you mention the “three no’s” that Vietnam is signaling to the world--no foreign base on Vietnam, no military alliance, and no siding with a foreign power against another. Is there any significant change from the previous policy? How far do you see this policy being turned into action?

The “three no’s” is a long-standing policy from the 1990s when Vietnam survived the collapse of the communist bloc and was trying to join the rest of the world. It is possible that the policy was a pledge Vietnam made with China when leaders of the two countries met secretly in Chengdu in 1990. After a decade of war between the two neighbors, Hanoi may have made the pledge so that China would agree to normalize relations and form an alliance with Vietnam to defend world communism.

While China agreed only to normalize relations, Vietnam has remained committed to the three-no’s policy ever since. Hanoi has not allowed foreign countries to establish military bases and has resisted overtures from the U.S. since the Clinton administration for closer defense cooperation. Despite US desire to move forward more quickly, Vietnam has been reluctant to modify this policy.

The “three no’s” policy remains a cornerstone of Vietnam’s foreign policy today despite the volatility in the South China Sea. Vietnamese leaders have not changed the policy but sought to manipulate its relationship with Washington to send signals to China. Whenever they strongly disagreed with China’s actions in the South China Sea, they have invited foreign and especially US warships to visit Vietnamese ports.  

You pointed to the Hanoi symposium on October 6th, 2018 as having played a significant role in the release of the latest white paper. Could you explain why this symposium was unprecedented?

In this symposium, a retired general of Vietnamese People's Army (VPA) criticized Vietnam’s foreign policy as too timid towards China. He also accused the top brass of the VPA of being interested only in money while not too concerned about defending Vietnam's sovereignty in the South China Sea. 

The general’s bold criticisms seemed to have rattled the leadership, causing them to fear a loss of legitimacy. The general spoke for many veterans of Vietnam’s past wars, who are in the millions and for the most part have been loyal to the Party. Many were former local or national officials whose voices still carry some weight in local communities and with the national leadership. 

The government perhaps did not expect the criticisms to go that far, but then they did, challenging the authority and legitimacy of the leaders and the party. This was certainly not the first time such criticisms were made, but the first time they were made in a public meeting and a video clip of the event was posted online.

The government’s decision to release the white paper was partly a response to these internal criticisms, and partly a response to Chinese encroachments on Vietnam’s sovereignty in the South China Sea in the past two years that have caused Vietnam to lose millions of dollars for the cancellation of oil exploration contracts with foreign companies. 

The white paper also does not discuss in detail Vietnam's dispute with China in the South China Seas. Instead, it points to other 'big powers' including the US, India, and Japan.  How does Vietnam perceive the role of these three powers in the region?  

Vietnam's perception of other big powers is consistent with the “three no’s” policy. Vietnamese leaders consider China an ideological comrade and they have not treated China’s threat in the South China Sea on the same level as threats to the regime’s survival. For the communist regime, maintaining power is paramount, and losing some islands in the South China Sea is less important. 

The U.S., India, and Japan have come into the South China Sea dispute as balancers. These three outside powers help keep China’s ambitions in the South China Sea in check. Yet Hanoi leaders welcome these three powers only to the extent that Vietnam’s close relationship with China is not affected. If they also act too aggressively while confronting China, they could put Vietnam in a difficult position of having to choose between China and the U.S. 

In the eyes of Vietnamese leaders, their country’s relationship with the U.S. is fraught with risks. Trade with the U.S. is more important for Vietnam than with China, but Vietnamese leaders are wary about US intention to cause regime change in Vietnam and view American criticisms of human rights violations in Vietnam as subversive. 

Vietnam thus does not want tension between the U.S. and China to escalate as both are important to it in different ways. Hence the white paper talks about the threat to Vietnam coming not only from China but more importantly from those “big powers.”

Vietnam has always maintained a good relationship with China, and this paper continues that general trend. However, the last page of the paper appears to speak vaguely of China as a threat to Vietnam. What kind of threat does China pose to Vietnam?  How is Vietnam responding to that threat?

China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea are posing a double threat to Vietnam. These actions are causing Vietnam to lose revenues from oil and gas explorations while Vietnamese fishermen lose their main source of income. In the long run, China’s control of the South China Sea threatens Vietnam’s access to the ocean. 

Such Chinese actions generate another, even more critical threat, which is the demands by Vietnamese citizens that their government confront China. As I said above, Vietnam still looks to China as a comrade and does not want to do anything that might jeopardize the relationship. Yet their timid responses thus far to the increasing threat from China as perceived by many Vietnamese have resulted in widespread anti-government criticisms and protests.

The strategy of the Vietnamese government to deal with the double threat from China and domestic unrest is three-fold. First, Vietnam has expanded its military capabilities in naval warfare. Second, Vietnam has used diplomacy in the hope that international opinion will deter China from making more aggressive moves in the South China Sea. Domestically, the government has cracked down on protests and imposed heavy prison sentences on critics to silence them.

In your analysis, you mention that the paper is intended for a domestic audience rather than for the international audience. Could you elaborate for whom this document is intended?

It was intended in part to appease the restless public, especially the veterans, as I discussed above. The new defense white paper is also to appease critics of the current three-no’s policy within the leadership. Some among the top leaders would prefer a closer relationship with the U.S., but the dominant faction in the leadership still prioritizes relations with China. For the sake of internal unity to avoid a leadership split that could lead to a regime collapse, the white paper added a vague sentence about the possibility that Vietnam might modify its three-no’s policy “in certain circumstances.”

Do you have insight into the youth’s attitude toward the Communist Party?

The youth are not attracted to the party anymore. If they join the party, it is only for career advancement and not because they want to be communist. Many are turned off by the outdated ideology and the corrupt and authoritarian culture within the party. 

Party leaders have sought to modernize propaganda, renovate youth organizations, and diversify public activities to lure youth into nonpolitical pursuits such as sports. At the same time, they have set up internet firewalls and other means of online control to block or counter anti-government content. In addition, the massive public security apparatus closely monitors schools and universities and proactively suppresses any signs of dissent among teachers and students. 

Experts, including yourself, have called this paper “evasive on important issues.” What are the issues the current paper has avoided but should have addressed?

The main issue avoided related to China’s serious violations of Vietnam’s sovereignty rights in the South China Sea. The white paper tried to gloss over it. As I said above, the issue is divisive within the party itself and drives a wedge between the government and its people, so it would have been better not to dwell on it too much. Vietnamese leaders know very well the criticisms of their policy related to their policy to appease China. They themselves have not reached consensus on these issues, which is why the new defense white paper was less than clear. 

Shreya Bhatnagar CMC '20Student Journalist

dronepicr / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

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