(Mainichi: January 4, 2016 – p. 3)
As tensions rise over territorial disputes, the Vietnamese government’s policy toward China is also changing. While securing the benefits of economic cooperation, Vietnam is slowly starting to put some distance between itself and China.
The lessons of sharing a border with a superpower for more than 2,000 years has crystalized into a hard-nosed foreign policy in which Vietnam balances China and the United States, both of which it has fought wars against in the past.
In July 2015, the United States and Vietnam held historic talks in Washington, D.C., giving the impression of a sudden rapprochement between the two nations. Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong traveled to the United States as that nation’s top leader for the first time since the end of the Vietnam War 40 years ago and had talks with U.S. President Barack Obama. The U.S.-Vietnam Joint Vision Statement issued by the two leaders included the terms “South China Sea” and the “Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement,” suggesting that the rise of China was a “magnet” drawing the two nations together.
Participation in the TPP can be considered a symbol of Vietnam’s “distancing of itself from China.” This is because the TPP is a core component of the Obama administration’s policy to “rebalance” toward Asia, and Vietnam’s participation in the trade pact signifies a declaration in support of a U.S.-led world order.
Moreover, the TPP contains rules of origin, and Vietnam cannot reap the benefits of the removal of tariffs if it does not shift from its current industrial structure, which depends on China for raw materials. The greatest merit of the TPP for Vietnam is expected to be the expansion of sewn goods exports to the United States.
Vietnam is unique among the countries participating in the TPP. It is the only Communist autocracy, and it has a variety of issues, including state control of the economy and society. Behind the U.S.’s invitation to Vietnam to join the TPP despite those factors is the hope that Vietnamese participation in the trade pact will drive a “wedge” between Vietnam and China.
Vietnam’s relationship with Japan is also spreading from the economic arena to the field of security. With its eye on South China Sea issues, Japan has started delivering to Vietnam used boats that can be converted into patrol boats. Japan is considering providing new patrol boats as well.
[Chinese President] Xi Jinping gave a speech to Vietnam’s National Assembly on Nov. 6, 2015. Also in Hanoi that day, the Japanese and Vietnamese heads of defense held talks and agreed to allow Japan Maritime Self-Defense Forces warships to make port calls in Cam Ranh Bay in central Vietnam, and they also decided to hold a joint naval exercise between the MSDF and the Vietnamese navy. The events held on this day symbolized how Vietnamese foreign policy balances China and Japan and the United States.
A former key official involved in Vietnam’s foreign policy spoke about the “ironclad rule” for policy toward China. “If we square off one-on-one, it plays right into China’s hands. We must make every issue, including territorial disputes, into an international issue.” (Abridged)