Implications of the "One Depend" Policy for Vietnam-US relations: Opportunities and constraints

When Vietnam’s latest defence white paper was released in 2019, many regarded it as a new era in Vietnam’s strategic outlook. Vietnam’s strategic orthodoxy of the “Three No’s” policy underwent a shake-up: adding to it a new “No” and “One Depend”. The latter was widely regarded as a ‘trump card’ to get closer to the US and quickly became the focus of raised expectations that the US-Vietnam relationship would grow.

However, this “One Depend”, despite a promising beginning, has not lived up to the hype. Vietnam has remained steadfast in its non-alignment approach and is yet to question its validity as the primary way to protect sovereign integrity. As a result, today the Hanoi-Washington relationship is still treading water. The pull of shifting tides in the US-China trade war and the recent war in Ukraine begs the question: will Vietnam ever make use of its “One Depend” policy?

The introduction of a new “No” marked a significant change in the long-established “Three Nos” policy: “no using force or threatening to use force in international relations”; however, “depending on circumstances and specific conditions, Vietnam will consider developing necessary, appropriate defence and military relations with other countries”. This indicates a causal linkage between threats to Vietnam’s security and defence cooperation with other nations.

VIETNAM’S STRATEGIC ENGAGEMENT HAS LONG BEEN DEFINED AGAINST THE BACKDROP OF GREAT POWER COMPETITION

It is also worth noting that this “One Depend” was released when a stark contradiction existed between the Vietnam-China and Vietnam-US relationships. The former turned sour due to the standoff at the Vanguard Bank, which was considered the worst standoff in the South China Sea since the 2014 confrontations in waters near Paracel Islands.

Meanwhile, Hanoi and Washington made remarkable progress in strengthening the relationship, notably, a joint dioxin remediation project at the Bien Hoa Air Base and US Ambassador to Vietnam Daniel Kritenbrink’s visit to the Truong Son national cemetery in 2019. This progress demonstrated a mutual effort to reconcile and resolve the legacies of war, further strengthened by the establishment of the Vietnam-US comprehensive energy cooperation partnership later that year.

The juxtaposition of these opposite dynamics signalled a bolder Vietnam to challenge China and evoked a willingness to level up its relationship with the US. The “One Depend” policy magnified this idea and fostered a possible interpretation:

“If China keeps pushing Vietnam around, Vietnam might level up a ‘strategic partnership’ with the US to balance against China.”

Strictly sticking to the “Three No’s” policy for a long time, Vietnam has hesitated to deepen its cooperation with the US for fear of provoking China. As a result, outcomes from this relationship have largely been symbolic rather than creating any meaningful developments in US-Vietnam military cooperation. Vietnam’s cautious approach has limited potential security initiatives and legal support by the US in the South China Sea to challenge China’s assertiveness, resulting in a gridlock in the decision-making process and lack communication between governmentsi.

VIETNAM HAS SIGNALLED A GREATER WILLINGNESS TO ALIGN WITH THE US MORE CLOSELY

Experts expect the “One Depend” policy opens new doors to enhance Vietnam-US security relations without specifically mentioning the US and thus preserving relations with China. However, hurdles remain for Vietnam to overcome to embrace this new pillar of its policy.

The “One Depend” principle provides flexibility for Vietnam to manoeuvre, opening up options to align itself with the US. Arguably this is tempting given China’s increasing assertiveness, especially in the contested waters of the South China Sea. However, allying with one great power against another has never been a safe journey for Vietnam. The Soviet-China rapprochement in 1986 remains a painful lessonii, leaving Vietnam vigilant to becoming a strategic pawn in the major power competition.

Hanoi is skeptical of the security benefits of aligning with the US and keen to avoid offending China as great power rivalry intensifies.

Moving closer to the US also leaves Vietnam’s economy exposed to Chinese retaliation. For example, following Vietnam’s positive attitude toward the Quad and AUKUS, China allegedly delayed clearing customs along the border trading points as part of its coercive diplomacy, leaving exporters with a loss of up to $175 million.

“Putting aside ecoomic dynamics, geographical proximity and ideological alignment make it difficult for Vietnam to get out of China’s orbit.”

During the phone conversation between Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Vietnamese Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son on April 14th, 2022, Wang toned down the discord between the two countries in the disputed South China Sea, instead opting to discuss the Ukraine war as a springboard to signal the US’s Indo-Pacific strategy as a disturbance in the region. Notably, Wang criticised the US by claiming it had intervened in regional stability and promoted bloc confrontation. Meanwhile, he stressed socialism as the greatest similarity between China and Vietnam and that the two countries should continue a “friendly tradition featuring comradeship and brotherhood”.

Keeping a delicate balancing act, Bui emphasised the continuous development of the Vietnam-China comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership to be of top priority in Vietnam’s foreign policy. Although Vietnam still views China’s assertiveness with deep suspicion, and overlapping concerns in the South China Sea present a strategic opportunity for Vietnam-US ties, shared ideological values are likely to outweigh shared security interests, resulting in the “One Depend” being largely secondary to the “Four No’s”.

In terms of US-Vietnam ties – the relationship itself has been up and down since the establishment of a comprehensive partnership establishment in 2013. For example, the former Secretary of State Pompeo’s comment that “communists almost always lie” is a reminder that a fundamentally different ideology is a difficult starting point for the relationship. President Trump’s allegations of currency manipulation caused more friction in Vietnam and the US trading relationship.

Washington’s commitment to promoting human rights further complicates the relationship. Hanoi’s record on fundamental civil and political rights violations contrasts with President Biden’s pledge to bring these issues to the centre of foreign policy, making building trust and deepening cooperation to a strategic level highly complicated.

THE UKRAINE WAR HAS BROUGHT VIETNAM’S ALIGNMENT WITH RUSSIA INTO FOCUS

Today, Vietnam’s non-alignment approach has been brought into the spotlight now that Hanoi finds itself between the US and Russia following the Ukraine war.

On the one hand, Russia was the first to establish a “strategic partnership” with Vietnam in 2001 and has been a deep-rooted strategic supporter of Vietnam. Moscow’s oil and gas development projects in the South China Sea and the lion’s share of Hanoi’s arms imports remain of value. Even now, Vietnam’s military still mostly operates using systems built by Russia or the Soviets years ago. Compared with US-made arms, Russian arms are more affordable and require no changes to the existing system to incorporate into weapon platforms.

On the other hand, the US has taken a tougher move on Russia by imposing penalties on countries buying Russian military equipment under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). Though this legislation has not been applied to Vietnam, the Ukraine war slowly but surely puts Vietnam’s arms import from Russia under pressure.

This leaves Vietnam stuck between the US and European countries and the need to maintain links with Russia. However, given Vietnam’s decision to vote against Russia’s suspension from the UN Human Rights Council, pressure from the Ukraine war has not yet been critical enough for Hanoi to call for a break with its historic strategic cooperation.

STRATEGIC CHALLENGES CLOSER TO HOME MAY FORCE VIETNAM TO MAKE A CHOICE

So how long can neutrality and multilateralism remain valid for Vietnam going forward, especially after the reveal of Beijing-funded developments of the Ream Naval Base in Cambodia?

China has funded the upgrade of Cambodia’s biggest naval base; the two countries officially launched this project at a ceremony in June 2022. Initially, the Vietnamese military has to deal with Chinese troops across the northern border and to the east in the South China Sea. A Beijing-funded naval base in southern Cambodia could mean the south and west of Vietnam are now in a vulnerable position. Chinese military presence surrounding Vietnam territory has formed a military pincer choking Vietnam’s security.

However, binding by the strict code of non-intervention in one another’s affairs as an ASEAN member and the “Four No’s” policy, Vietnam has only given mealy-mouthed responses by engaging diplomatically with its Cambodian counterpart and wishing for regional and global peace, security, stability and prosperity.

Hanoi clearly understands that it cannot stand alone to protect its national security, especially in maritime rights and interests. The “One Depend” policy opens a new direction in Vietnam defence policy that encourages increased cooperation not just with the US but potentially other countries. Leaving this condition in an ambiguous fashion, Vietnam could avoid clear-cut commitments in its future coalition while reinforcing its foreign defence cooperation.

The more national interests overlap between Vietnam and other countries, the more support for Vietnam at regional and even international levels. Taking advantage of the emphasis on more engagement to tackle non-traditional security threats in the White Paper, Vietnam could apply the “One Depend” policy to legitimise its greater cooperation with foreign powers without specifically naming China and the South China Sea disputes.

THE FUTURE OF VIETNAM’S STRATEGIC ENGAGEMENT WILL INVOLVE NEW INTERNATIONAL PARTNERSHIPS

Vietnam has been forming partnerships with many countries,  opening up the potential for cooperation on security issues. For example, India-Vietnam bilateral relations embarked on a new chapter as “comprehensive strategic” partners in 2016, or Australia and Vietnam have been working together to strengthen the Strategic Partnership since 2018.

Notably, 2020 marked Vietnam evolving relationship with the Quad when Hanoi attended the “Quad Plus” meeting in March and the elevation between Vietnam and New Zealand to “Strategic Partnership” in July. That same year, during his first overseas trip as Japanese Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga mentioned Vietnam as a crucial partner in protecting a Free and Open Indo-Pacific and agreed to step up defence and security cooperation by exporting military equipment to Vietnam.

By leaving its intention to guesses, the “One Depend” allows for greater foreign involvement and broadens Vietnam’s web of strategic and comprehensive partnerships, whether in traditional or non-traditional security matters. Dealing with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) at the forefront of its air and naval arms capabilities, vital defence partners could back up Vietnam People’s Army’s (VPA) military training and policy doctrine defectiii. Further security system enhancement will not be limited to a large-scale US involvement but more diversification in exchanges and training with other like-minded countries, potentially India, Japan, or Australiaiv.

Although the “Four No’s” is expected to be maintained in foreign policy, recent developments are a wake-up call for Vietnam to reconsider its policy. Wars may seem like distant events, but their painful memories remain with the Vietnamese people.

Security tests posed by the Ukraine war, the tension surrounding Chinese aggression toward Taiwan, and the security dilemma following the Cambodian naval base intensify uneasiness within Vietnam.

The time may have come for Vietnam to make use of its “One Depend” policy.
Vietnam has always wanted to be friends with other countries, both traditional and new friends. Being on good terms with not only the US’s close allies but also other countries beyond the region enables Vietnam to gather a backup force strong enough for the “One Depend” policy to unlock the future of a more intimate relationship between Vietnam and the US.

This article was originally published on the Perth USAsia Centre and has been republished with full permission from the author. To view the original article please click here.
Publication Date
Wednesday 23rd November, 2022