Between China and ASEAN: The Dialectics of Recent Vietnamese Foreign Policy

By David Wurfel. In Carlisle Thayer and Ramses Amer, eds., Vietnamese Foreign Policy in Transition (Singapore: ISEAS, 1999), 148-169.


Despite the ideological rhetoric so common in the 1970s, Vietnamese foreign policy practised the age-old strategy of allying with a distant friend against a nearby enemy — both of whom were ideological comrades. China had become that nearby enemy when it supported the aggressively anti-Vietnamese Khmer Rouge regime. When Vietnam moved to liberate Cambodia from that bloody band in December 1978, China undertook to punish Vietnam with a massive border crossing, effectively resisted at great cost.

This sequence of events, far from solving problems, resulted in a multiplication of enemies — for the first time in history Vietnam faced enemies on both the north and the south, as well as to the west. This was a low point for Vietnamese foreign policy. Nevertheless, in 1979 that policy was aimed simply at getting diplomatic recognition for the status quo, i.e. Vietnamese domination in Cambodia. In fact, the brief incursion into Thai territory by the Vietnamese army in 1980 further hardened ASEAN opposition to Vietnam, and made it easier for the Thai to move closer to China with ASEAN approval.

By the mid-1980s there began to be tectonic changes in world politics. Gorbachev was re-evaluating the Soviet role in Asia, which also required rethinking in Hanoi. This rethinking was initiated in large part by the very bright, cosmopolitan foreign minister, Nguyen Co Thach. He saw the need to make accommodations in Cambodia especially to end the embargo and speed normalization of relations with the United States. By 1988 the whole Politburo was moving in this direction, as embodied in Resolution no. 13, which “held that the SRV should establish a new balance in relations with major powers”.1 A decision was also made to try to normalize relations with China. Vietnam was forced into accommodation with neighbours when the “distant friend” showed a desire to withdraw from South East Asia. However, these new policy principles were not easy to translate into action, and in any case, there was considerable disagreement within the policy-making elite about what action should be taken.

The purpose of this chapter is to show how the method of, and justification for, rapprochement with China developed and how it was related to the slightly later initiatives towards ASEAN. A brief comparison of Vietnam’s China policy with those of its Southeast Asian neighbours notes the interaction of regime maintenance and national security goals. Finally, an evaluation is offered as to whether this combination of policies towards neighbours large and smaller might be characterized as “enmeshment” or “containment”, or some mix of the two, and what its prospects of long-term success may be. So far, Vietnam’s utilization of ASEAN may have helped to some extent to discourage Chinese expansionism, but whether an “ASEAN Ten” will be of further assistance in this regard is doubtful.

I. How to approach China

The period 1988-June 1991

After Resolution no. 13, a series of events occurred around the world which were surely cataclysmic in the view of Hanoi leaders: the Tiananmen Square massacre, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union and its ruling party. The international conditions for a multidirectional foreign policy had changed. Some had adopted a kind of bunker mentality and wanted to return to the eternal verities of Marxism-Leninism, which, it was thought, would help protect the regime. Others continued to put emphasis on accommodation with the West that would permit the lifting of the American embargo on trade and investment, thus facilitating economic growth under the new policy of renovation. At the ninth plenum of the Central Committee of the Vietnam Communist Party in August 1990 Foreign Minister Thach was attacked as a rightist, partly because the military withdrawal from Cambodia had not achIeved the early lifting of the embargo, which he had foreseen.(He was also involved in a larger power cum ideological struggle within the leadership, and was known as a friend of Tran Xuan Thach, who was removed from the Politburo after being accused of advocating pluralism.)2

This attack on Thach was in part the fallout from his very tough stance in informal talks with the Chinese, which began to take place in 1989. The fourth round of talks in Hanoi with the Chinese Vice Foreign Minister was partlcularly stormy. Nevertheless a switch in U.S. policy in July 1990 caused the Chinese to become more accommosating, as they saw new possibilities for an Indochina settlement.

They agreed to a summit meeting in September 1990 in Chengdu attended by premiers and party heads. Thach, at the request of the Chinese, was excluded. The Chengdu summit marked the start of Sino)- Vietnamese normalization; there was substantial agreement on the outlines of a Cambodian settlement.3

Vietnamese Party leaders were also very much interested in a Chinese suggestion that they would be willing to resume economic aid to Vietnam after a settlement in Cambodia was implemented and nornlalization with Vietnam was finalized. There was a strong hint, hovwever, that aid would be linked to co-ordination of Chinese and Vietnamese foreign policies. After the Chengdu summit this approach was opposed by other Politburo members, especially Thach.4 Nevertheless at the January 1991 eleventh plenum of the Ceatral Committee there was again support for drawing closer to China, in the wake of the shocking events in the Soviet Union; the same group reiterated attacks on Thach. The imperative of regime maintenance temporarily strengthened some key elements of the old Vietnamese world-view.5 In the seventh party congress in June, Foreign Minister Thach counter-attacked with a strong speech criticizing China. This proved his undoing. He was then removed from both the Politburo and the Central Committee, and later from the foreign ministry. Too much co-operation with capitalist countries which Thach symbolized-would lead to increased pressure on Vietnam’s one-party system, it was feared. The goal of regime maintenance dominated foreign policy strategizing.

Between 1991-93, control over policy relating to Cambodia and China was handed to the defence minister, General Le Duc Anh, the second-ranking member of the Politburo, thus marking the end of the transition to a different foreign policy orientation. In July General Anh travelled to Beijing for more discussions, defining further agreement on all outstanding issues, but finding Chinese willingness to offer aid waning.6 Perhaps they were getting sufficient Vietnamese co-operation without it. In any case, contacts between party officials of the two countries multiplied at all levels. Finally in November 1991, Vietnamese leaders went to Beijing for a summit which completed the normalization process. A communique rejected hegemonism; reiterated Vietnamese commitment to one China, including Taiwan; and affirmed support for the Paris agreement of 3 October on Cambodia. Vietnamese requests for secunty guarantees from China within the framework of a military alliance indicated that a closer relationship with China was clearly still the desire of the dominant group in the VCP Politburo-but China rebuffed it. Ideological comraderie with a powerful, but very similar regime was needed by those in Hanoi fearful of international trends.

Subsequent events, however, made such a partnership more and more difficult to achieve. Those with a more pragmatic, less ideological approach to international affairs would thus be given another chance to play an important role in foreign policy making.

On the one hand, the fruits of a Cambodian settlement-which Thach had promised, somewhat prematurely — began to emerge. Prospects of membership in ASEAN and normalization with the United States improved. At the same time, economic progress under doi moi increased regime legitimacy and reduced the chances of a repeat of Eastern European events. But Chinese actions at variance with words were crucial.

In February 1992 China promulgated a law claiming as Chinese territory almost the entire South China Sea. When the matter was referred to the National Assembly in Hanoi, there was a stormy, unpublicized debate. Some delegates advocated economic, even military retaliation, but finally-with advice from the External Affairs Commission of the Party Central Committee-the Assembly adopted an appropriate response: a mild, but firm, declaration. In May Nguyen Van Linh, by then Senior Adviser to the Central Committee, again visited Beijing to hold discussions with Chinese leaders. Only hours before he was ushered into the Great Hall of the People, the Chinese, at the same spot, signed an agreement with Crestone Energy Corporation to engage in exploratory drilling on the Vietnamese continental shelf. Thus, not surprisingly, at the June 1992 third plenum of the party Central Committee, the debate on whether China constituted a long-term threat to Vietnam security was reopened. Those who continued to advocate an alliance with China advised the party to ignore small conflicts.7 Others were less patient; even Do Muoi was reported to have called China expansionist — a good indication of how the debate was going.8

However, the issue was not settled; one source from inside the party reported that as late as the latter part of 1992 the Central Committee adopted a secret resolution ranking Vietnam’s foreign relations in five different priorities, with China and other Marxist-Leninist states first, and the United States last. ASEAN neighbours who have to be won over to co-operate were in the middle.9

Efforts to deal with China at the highest level continued. In December 199x Premier Li Peng visited Hanoi, assuring his listeners that China would never become a hegemonistic and expansionist power. In a final joint communique agreed to speed up negotiations on territorial disputes, on land and in the Gulf of Tonkin, and to refrain from developmental activities in the disputed area pending a final accord. (At this point the South China Sea was excluded from the understanding.) In November 1993 President Le Duc Anh went to Beijing — the first Vietnamese president to do so in thirty-eight years. While finding consensus on the importance of expanding economic relations, he could not secure agreement on conflicting claims in the South China Sea.10

In the meantime, the Chinese had been active. For instance, in May 1993, less than six months after Li Peng agreed to the contrary, a Chinese drilling rig entered Vietnamese territorial waters, only to be withdrawn on the eve of a visit to Vietnam by China’s defence minister-following a pattern to be repeated. And while Chinese behaviour undermined the position of those favouring an alliance, new options opened up, particularly that of ASEAN. ASEAN foreign ministers, meeting in Manila in July 1992, issued a declaration on the South China Sea calling for restraint by all parties. China, while not mentioned by name, was clearly the target.11 Vietnam, which had just signed the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, quickly endorsed the declaration. In Manila during the same year, Vo Van Kiet and President Cory Aquino had jointly expressed their commit ment to the peaceful settlement of the Spratlys dispute.12 Thus the Vietnamese leadership, which in 1991 had wanted an alliance with China, became more aware of the opportunity to find allies to the south who had a common interest in opposing Chinese incursions.

Said one foreign ministry official in 1993 in an interview with Carlyle Thayer, “we tried for a full year to forge new relations with China, but we failed … They will always pressure us and try to dominate Southeast Asia”.13

Thus two or three years before Vietnam became a member of ASEAN, most Hanoi policy makers had abandoned the quest for a China alliance; this successful regional organization was beginning to play a major role in Vietnamese elite thinking. Those in Hanoi who favoured membership must have felt that the decision for ASEAN was vindicated by the results of the China-ASEAN Dialogue in Hangzhou, China, in April 1995. There, for the first time in a multilateral setting, ASEAN officials raised the Spratly issue with the Chinese. ASEAN concerns were expressed in terms that were unusually forceful, according to Philippine Foreign Affairs Under-secretary Rodolfo Severino.14

Studies were also undertaken which validated the decision to join. Fear of exploitation by other wore advanced ASEAN members was countered with the conclusion that experiences from other economic co-operation organizations have shown that new members with a lower level of economic development often get more benefits than the more developed countries.15 In the security area It was argued that “any attempt at military and security cooperation would require a certain commonality in strategic outlook and threat perception … The possibility is there”.16 As early as 1992 a Vietnamese foreign ministry official spelled out the new rationale in a Singapore publication: “Sino-Vietnamese relations will be meshed within the much larger regional network of interlocking economic and political interests. It is an arrangement whereby anybody wanting to violate Vietnam’s sovereignty would be violating the interest of other countries as well. This is the ideal strategic option for Vietnam. It is also the most practical”.17 This is a more straightforward formulation than one has heard recently.

Vietnamese China policy in comparative perspective

Fear and distrust of China must surely be the most important emotional foundation of Vietnamese foreign policy, a feeling much older than the ideological camaraderie of the 1950s and 1960s-the revival of which in 1991 was so short-lived. Yet that feeling, quite realistic in view of recent experience, is veiled when officials speak. The manifestation of growing Chinese power and self-confidence has taught them that verbal barbs are quite counterproductive.

China is probably perceived as a greater problem for Vietnam than it is for other Southeast Asian countries, but their policies towards the colossus of the north can be analysed in a common set of categories. First is regime affinity, an influence so powerful at one point in Vietnam as to change the direction of policy. This has also been a strong factor for Laos, Cambodia, and especially Burma. Second is an historical/cultural factor, the size and political/social role of ethnic Chinese minorities and their perceived link with external threats.

Indonesia has a large, unassimilated Chinese minority that in 1965 was thought to be linked to foreign intervention, and is still suspect. Desplte normalization, Indonesia’s relations with China are not warm.

In the Philippines, past suspicion of local Chinese complicity in Beijing’s aid to insurgents has waned as the reality of such linkage has faded and as local Chinese have better assimilated into Philippine society. Thus closer relations with China in the 1980s became Possible, despite memories that linger. In Thailand high levels of Chinese assimilation into both the economic and political elites facilitate good China relations. Vietnam is the only Southeast Asian country to experience repeated Chinese invasions, the most recent in 1979. Suspicion of local Chinese because of links with China are still strong.18 This was a cause as well as consequence of the 1979 confrontation with China. Third, the geopolitical/strategic factors, which seem to be most important, are the nature of historical and contemporary relations with neighbours, and with other great powers.

When immediate neighbours are seen as threats, then this creates the opportunity for China to play the role of protector, as with Cambodia. This was most obvious in the Khmer Rouge era, but may be re-emerging with Hun Sen, reinforced by regime affinity. Thailand moved closest to China when Vietnamese troops were on its border. For Vietnam, on the other hand, China itself is the threatening neighbour.

Friendship with a great power which itself has an antagonistic relationship with China should allow a Southeast Asian state to stand up to China, though the USSR was not of much assistance to Vietnam in 1979, and the United States insists that the mutual defence agreement with the Philippines does not cover the disputed Spratlys.

The United States, whatever its intentions may be, is now the only power in Asia with the military capacity to contain China, and is thus quietly courted by both the Philippines and Vietnam. Nevertheless, the realistic limitations on its likely actions cause those two states to seek a degree of accommodation with China as well. Both welcome closer economic ties with Japan, even though, besides economic, Japanese support can be, at most, diplomatic. Fourth, economic factors may influence policy towards China in more than one direction. Investment from Southeast Asia in China, very substantial in the case of Thailand and Malaysia, is appreciated; it is the kind of engagement that fosters closer relations. For those sharing land borders with China, trade-often in the form of smuggling may as well be a cause of friction as of friendship. This is the Vietnamese case. When relations with China involve major territorial disputes, economic factors are likely to be of secondary importance in determining the tone and direction of foreign relations.

Regardless of the role of local Chinese, the historical memory of frequent Chinese invasion among both elite and populace makes the Vietnamese image of China unique. Thus it is understandable for Vietnam to look to other great powers as a source of some kind of protection against a renewed China threat. Yet Vietnam’s approach to China is still moderated by the recognition of regime affinity and the potentially positive consequence this could have for regime maintenance in Hanoi. Thus there may still be debate between ideologues and disciples of realpolitik. Though Vietnamese officials will, understandably, deny the existence of factions in foreign policy making, as Brantley Womack has said, immobilism — which he describes as the character of present day elite politics in Hanoi — “is a measure of the severity of factional differences”.19 What is very new about the current era of Vietnamese foreign policy is the recognition that not only great powers, but also small and medium powers within the region, if banded together in a vigorous regional organization, may also have a role to play in dealing with China.

The China policy of Vietnam in ASEAN

There was, of course, some opposition to Vietnam’s membership in ASEAN, especially by Thailand, because of a fear that Hanoi was all too eager to use ASEAN as a club against China. One Vietnamese scholar/official recognized in 1994 that “in the short period after joining, it would be difficult for Vietnam to take the lead or put forward its own initiative on security issues as Hanoi needs to learn the mechanism of ASEAN co-operation, and for their part, some ASEAN members might not want to see Vietnam do so”.20 Thus for the first year Vietnam did indeed maintain a low profile. Staff was being trained in English, and in the structures and processes of ASEAN. At the same time, as we shall see, Vietnamese participants in ASEAN seemed to be learning a great deal as well about its political dynamics.

Meanwhile, Vietnam needed to deal with its mammoth neighbour one on one, which was the way China preferred. On the surface it appeared that relations were improving. Rail links were re-established in early 1996, while in June Premier Li Peng attended the Eighth Vietnam Communist Party Congress in Hanoi, the highestranked Chinese leader to do so in more than thirty years. Ten rounds of negotiations on border disputes were held, but without any agreements. As Foreign Minister Nguyen Manh Cam said in an interview, “We strive to accelerate all existing ties with China. These ties have created benefits for both countries… Some issues, however, still remain unsolved …”21 In any case, trade in 1996 reached US$1 billion. Military exchanges continued with a group of Chinese officers, including the commander of the PLA Navy Air Force, visiting Vietnam-as well as Malaysia and Singapore-in late February 1997.22 In April a Vietnamese military delegation was received in Beijing by the Chinese Defence Minister, who in his welcome speech said, “The two countries share a common belief and common goals, and both are faced with the challenge of securing peace and development”.23 There seemed to be some attempt to sustain ideological ties.

Other aspects of the relationship were entirely devoid of ideological overtones. To counter a similar tactic used earlier by China, in April 1996 Vietnam awarded a contract for oil exploration in the South China Sea to Conoco-in an area also claimed by Chinawhich China protested. But no drilling has been undertaken. Less than a year later China undertook bolder steps, commencing exploratory drilling on the Vietnamese continental shelf less than sixty-five nautical miles from Vietnam’s coast, in an area not covered by claims of any other ASEAN members (and thus designed to antagonize them less). This was despite an October 1993 agreement between the two powers, which said that “while negotiating to settle the [territorial] issues, the two sides shall not conduct activities that may further complicate the disputes”.24 The oil rig began drilling, according to Vietnamese authorities, on 7 March. Vietnam unsuccessfully tried quiet diplomacy before going public with its protest nearly two weeks later. An unnamed official in Hanoi used uncharacteristically strong words: “This action has added another example that the Chinese expansionist policy has remained unchanged”.25 The diplomatic note handed to the Chinese ambassador merely said: “This act of violation runs counter to the good trend in which bilateral relations of friendship and cooperation are developing”.26 Vietnam insisted that China withdraw the rig and discuss the disputed maritime claims. On 7 April it was announced that the rig had been withdrawn; discussions on the claims began in Beijing two days later. The Vietnamese press, however, barely mentioned this apparent diplomatic victory. There was a reason for their reticence; they had boldly played the ASEAN card and wanted to avoid antagonizing China further by gloating over their success. This marked a new stage in Sino-Vietnamese, and in ASEAN-Vietnamese relations.

II. Vietnam and ASEAN

Vietnam’s remarkable diplomatic coup in March 1997 was built on the cultivation of relations with key ASEAN members for some time before that. To review those relationships is a necessary prelude to understanding the events of March.


Indonesia had long been Vietnam’s best friend among the noncommunist states in Southeast Asia. Indonesia had recognized the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam before 1975 and became the crucial liaison between Vietnam and ASEAN in preparation for a settlement of the Cambodian crisis. Indonesia shared Vietnam’s fear of China, even though it had no claims in the South China Sea that were threatened by China-until a careful reading of Beijing’s 1992 legislation. Despite some degree of regime affinity with China, Indonesia was sympathetic with Vietnam’s position.


Singapore was a major trading partner and source of investment for Vietnam. Lee Kuan Yew had even been invited several times to Hanoi as a senior adviser. Despite somewhat different views of China, Singapore still could appreciate Vietnam’s situation.


Malaysia’s foreign policy has been determined in the last decade largely by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s personal views, which have shifted. While in the early 1990s he was still talking about his concern for the long term threat of China, recently he has been saying there was nothing to fear from either Japan or China.

The Chinese have been supportive of the prime minister’s proposal for an East Asian Economic Group. Relations with Vietnam had been particularly rocky in the period of the boat people.


Thailand had traditionally been an enemy of Vietnam, particularly on matters concerning Cambodia. Until Premier Chatichai took office, Thailand led the hard-line faction in ASEAN on negotiations for a Cambodian settlement, even joining an alliance with China, receiving Chinese military assistance and allowing transport of supplies from China across Thai territory to the Khmer Rouge. After Vietnam’s withdrawal from Cambodia, the Thai began to look at economic opportunities (without abandoning military links with China, which were profitable for the Thai high command). More than US$1 billion was invested in Vietnam (much less than in China), and trade expanded greatly-some illegally transiting Cambodia.

Thai-Vietnamese relations improved further after Vietnam joined ASEAN. Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh’s March 1997 state visit to Hanoi — one of several high-level exchanges — was described by the Bangkok press “as a part of Thailand’s quest to be treated seriously by Hanoi as an economic partner”.27 That visit also had to deal with serious conflict, derived from overlapping claims to 14,000 square kilometres of the Gulf of Thailand. The Vietnamese had arrested hundreds of Thai fishermen whom they claimed were illegally in Vietnamese waters. Prospects of oil intensified the conflict. In January the Thai Cabinet, on Chavalit’s initiative, had unilaterally declared an extension of the Thai continental shelf, over the protest of neighbouring countries. (Perhaps the Thai had learned some techniques from the Chinese.) In fact, the King was so concerned about the impact of this move on relations with Thailand’s neighbours that he summoned the Premier to an audience to discuss the matter.28 The March trip by Chavalit to Hanoi could not resolve this problem, but the two sides agreed that “if agreement cannot be reached, then a joint committee will be established”.29 By April they were talking about joint naval patrols in the disputed area.30 The constructive approach to bilateral issues was especially impressive for two countries which were traditional enemies and had such different feelings about China.

When Prime Minister Chavalit visited China in early April, he was greeted by the Chinese defence minister with the plea: “China is hopeful that Thailand will help create understanding with neighbouring countries”, which probably meant help against the buildup of antipathy towards China within ASEAN. Chavalit responded with effusive praise for China’s support of the Thai military, which had just been offered additional Chinese aid. Professor Kusuma Snitwongse of Chulalongkorn University, an experienced observer of Thai foreign policy, commented: “Thailand wants a lead role in ASEAN, and Thailand can act as a bridge to China”-which was denied by foreign ministry officials wary of upsetting ASEAN partners.31


The Philippines, which had been one of only two Southeast Asian members of the South-East Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) that had sent troops to help South Vietnam during the Vietnam War and which had had a virulent streak of anti-communism in domestic politics but warmed to China during the Aquino presidency, seemed an unlikely ally for Vietnam. The close relations that have, in fact, developed are a tribute to the potency of a common perception of threat.

Even before the completion of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) mission in Cambodia, Vo Van Kiet visited the Philippines in 1992. He and President Aquino “expressed their commitment to the peaceful settlement of the Spratlys dispute”.32 In 1993 the Vietnamese foreign ministry showed special favours to the Philippines as it was expanding its embassy.

There was already an awareness of common problems with China. The Philippines strongly supported Vietnam’s admission to ASEAN even before Vietnam officially applied for membership. In March 1994 President Ramos went to Hanoi, where he “sought to strengthen the strategic partnership between the Philippines and Vietnam”.33 A Joint Commission for Bilateral Cooperation was created.

Co-operation intensified after discovery of the Chinese occupation of Mischief Reef in 1995. The Philippines was quite explicit in stating its disappointment with the level of ASEAN support at the time of this incident, and obviously an ASEAN that included Vietnam would have a somewhat different outlook. Vietnam President Le Duc Anh visited Manila later in 1995. In April 1996 Vietnam and the Philippines signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Joint Oceanographic and Marine Scientific Research in the South China Sea. Said Ambassador Rosalinda Tirona, “The example set by the Philippines and Vietnam through this initiative is concrete evidence that despite conflicting territorial claims, states can still cooperate”.34

Was China listening? The first research project undertaken was in the vicinity of Mischief Reef. In January 1997 the commander of the Vietnam People’s Navy visited the Philippines to meet the Secretary of National Defense and the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, among others. The stage had been well set for the way in which the Philippines would react to incidents involving China in 1997.

III. Multilateral approaches

On 20 March at the same time that Vietnam went public in its protest against the Chinese oil rig, the deputy foreign minister, Vu Khoan, quietly called together the ASEAN ambassadors to explain Hanoi’s position, an event unprecedented in the history of ASEAN.35

Basically Vietnam was trying to convince other ASEAN members that “if China behaves this way to Vietnam, it could behave the same way towards [them]”.36 The restraint practised by Vietnam within ASEAN up to this point had apparently been helpful. ASEAN diplomats were swayed. A senior ASEAN official noted: “We don’t recognize any Chinese rights to Vietnam’s continental shelf, nor do we recognize the right of the Chinese to do what they did. Now we’re all in this together”.37

While the Vietnamese tactic may have been helpful in regard to the oil rig, at the same time, China was playing host to a conference on regional security under the auspices of ARF, where it mounted a strident attack on U.S. military presence in the region. And at that conference China refused a request to sign the 1992 Manila Declaration on the South China Sea, which pledged the signatories to use only peaceful means to settle their disputes. There, Beijing had not yet gotten the message from ASEAN.

If ASEAN protests in confidential diplomatic notes did indeed cause the Chinese to withdraw their oil rig shortly after this conference closed, as Vietnamese officials now suggest,38 then some notes must have been quite forceful, for it appears that only the Philippines released a critical public statement. Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Rodolfo Severino said that his government “is very much concerned over China’s reported oil exploration on the Vietnamese continental shelf”.39 On the other hand, when asked to comment on a Chinese oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam, Thai Premier Chavalit carefully said that “both China and Vietnam are friends of Thailand “.40

A more important indicator of the accomplishments of Vietnam’s strategy was the outcome of the annual China-ASEAN dialogue in mid-April held at the Chinese mountain resort of Huangshan. There issues in the South China Sea were raised forcefully, and for the first time China agreed to talk about the ASEAN member’s claims in a multilateral setting. Beijing also offered to negotiate a code of conduct governing ties with ASEAN.41 At the same time, to mollify China, and in their own interests, Vietnam and Indonesia praised China for fending off a vote on human rights pushed by the West in the United Nations. All agreed that “certain Western powers” were trying to drive a wedge between China and ASEAN-just as China was trying to do to U.S.-ASEAN relations.

Then soon after this somewhat conciliatory conference behaviour, the Chinese again moved assertively in the South China Sea. At the end of April, Chinese vessels appeared near an islet claimed by the Philippines, which quickly deployed air force jets in the area.42 In addition to making a diplomatic protest to China the presidential palace informed other ASEAN members of the events.43 Within a few days the vessels did withdraw. The Chinese had first said that navy ships involved were doing “marine survey measurements”, but later contended that they were fishing boats approaching the shoal as part of “youth non-government organization” activities!44 Later research revealed that the ships, belonging to the State Oceanic Administration, carried an international group of short wave radio hams, including both Americans and Japanese, who wanted to broadcast from a new and exotic call sign-which just happened to be designated as “Chinese territory”.45 To re-emphasize their position, the Philippine Navy arrested Chinese fishermen in the vicinity, part of the Philippine Economic Zone, a few weeks later-even though international experts now say that the Chinese territorial claim to the islet, far north of the Spratlys, was probably valid.

Nevertheless, this followed a pattern of inconsistency between diplomatic words and seaborne action. Filipino statements regarding what ASEAN should do have been the most open, and blunt, of any from ASEAN members. Said General Arnulfo Acedero, Armed Forces Chief of Staff, in Bangkok, “China is asserting itself too much … It is about time we put China in its proper place” through diplomatic means.46 Defense Secretary Renato de Villa put it more cautiously: ASEAN members should allot more time “to take stock of the real situation in the area, with the end in view of enhancing the strength of its defenses, if necessary”. Foreign Secretary Domingo Siazon also raised the question of ASEAN involvement with Japan, and the foreign ministry in Tokyo agreed to raise the question of armed Chinese vessels in disputed water of the South China Sea at the ARF meeting in Kuala Lumpur on 27 July 1997.47

There is no prospect that ARF would discuss enhancing the strength of ASEAN defences. ASEAN is not a military alliance. Nevertheless, de Villa’s comment is interesting because it brings to the fore the question of bilateral military co-operation between ASEAN members, which is already taking place. To a degree one could hardly have expected two years ago, Vietnam itself is involved in this process. Said a leading foreign ministry official, “Integration in South East Asia is the wave of the future … [It] has both economic and political, i.e. security, aspects. Vietnam has exchanged military delegations with ASEAN countries and joined in military exercises. This helps to maintain Vietnam’s security, since Vietnam cannot fight alone”.48

Vietnam, however, has a problem with confidence building measures (CBMs), the rubric under which so much military dialogue takes place. For it requires transparency, the release of information on military budgets and weapons acquisitions. Said a leading Vietnamese diplomat, “Vietnam is not accustomed to such procedures. If it means revealing secret information, it is very difficult. But it must be done. Even Russia will report to the UN the weapons it has sold to Vietnam”.49 In fact, a Russian scholar/general has already reported that Vietnam was one of the top six purchasers of Russian arms in 1995.50 Still, among older Party leaders, and, of course, the military, greater transparency is seen as having limited feasibility. Thus Vietnam’s military co-ordination with ASEAN will also be limited. This would seem to imply a fairly low priority for such activity.51

China and ASEAN: balance or enmeshment?

How then is the role of ASEAN, ARF, and individual ASEAN members, in Vietnamese foreign policy to be evaluated? What is the underlying strategy? Let us first look at Vietnamese views and then at those of observers and analysts from other countries. One senior Party foreign affairs analyst,52 who revealed himself as being rather conservative on other issues, said that too much cannot be expected of ASEAN. Each country has its own interests and would not join with Vietnam if real action is required. Yet this view was expressed at the same time that he was confident that the Chinese oil rig was withdrawn as a result of protests by most ASEAN members. A younger, U .S. trained foreign ministry official was both more cautious and more positive about ASEAN’s role. Said he: “ASEAN protest probably helped in removal of the Chinese oil rig. Some other ASEAN members had a common interest with Vietnam to challenge Chinese territorial claims. ASEAN membership has given Vietnam some comfort in dealing with China, even though ASEAN can never balance China.53

In a lecture at the Institute of International Relations in Hanoi, the head of the policy planning staff of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was even more straightforward in rejecting the concept of ASEAN as balance: “ASEAN does not have the purpose of balancing China. In fact, it cannot, since China is becoming a superpower. But tighter ASEAN integration can strengthen the region’s bargaining position with all great powers.” He went on to say, “after more than one year it is clear that Vietnam’s decision to join ASEAN was correct. Now big powers must deal with Vietnam as a member of ASEAN”.

A Japanese scholar has a similar view of Vietnam’s stance: “Convinced that the China threat is real, but anxious to avoid hostilities, Vietnam is … trying to draw closer to ASEAN, which shares Vietnam’s concerns about ambitions in the Spratly Islands. China, it is argued would hesitate to attack the islands of an ASEAN-related Vietnam since such an attack would antagonize the other countries of ASEAN, which China looks on … as potential allies in its struggle with the big countries in the Asia-Pacific region.”54

Donald Zagoria sees this approach as typical of Southeast Asia generally: “The South East Asian states are aware that their power resources are limited and that they will not be able to deal to their satisfaction with an aggressive China at any time soon. The best strategy is to engage China as a participant in regional affairs and to increase the incentives for China to play a peaceful and constructive role”55 An Australian-based scholar advocates such an approach to China for all states in the Asia-Pacific: “A mild form of enmeshment [or engagement], with emphasis on rewards rather than punishments, would seem the most, and really the only satisfactory option. The objective would be to convince Beijing that conciliation pays and heavy-handed unilateralism does not”.56

Vietnam, and Southeast Asia, are thus taking the liberal view that by involving a potential opponent in an international regime, that power may be persuaded to respect the values of the regime and thus modify its behavior accordingly. David Shambaugh is also supportive of this approach: “Engagement … is a … vehicle to the ultimate goal of integrating China into the existing rule-based, institutionalized, and normative international system”.57 While entering a realistic caveat, which he explains at some length: “For numerous reasons, China will be reluctant to respond positively to the policy of engagement”, he concludes, “yet this remains the best option available to the international community at present”. (ASEAN, while following the same rationale, avoids the term “engagement”, which the Chinese sometimes characterize as an American plot.)

While ASEAN diplomats and most Western scholars share a consensus that an old-fashioned balance of power approach for dealing with China today would be a great mistake — at best, ineffective power-based, realistic strategies have not disappeared from the policy horizon. As Allen Whiting puts it, “ASEAN members vary widely in their degrees of apprehension over China’s intention, but they concur on the absence of imminent threat. This provides time for a balance of politics [or enmeshment] to reduce Chinese assertiveness so that exercising the balance of power may be unnecessary”.58 This suggests that the relationship between enmeshment and power .balancing may be sequential-if the first fails, the second comes into play.

Some Chinese scholars, however, see the two as co-existing today. In an article that is generally balanced, and takes ASEAN quite seriously, Shi Yongming recognizes that “ASEAN defence capability cannot be considered strong”,59 and notes that it is precisely the weak and decentralized defence forces that have motivated ASEAN to use political means to pursue security through strengthened regional multilateral co-operation and negotiation. He adds that “on the other hand, the weak defense forces have also forced ASEAN countries to adopt the military policy of balancing superpowers, namely allowing the U.S. to exercise military functions … in South East Asia”. Even while pointing out that both United States and Japan are attempting to persuade ASEAN to become allies, Shi concludes that “maintaining a balanced relationship with various larger nations is conducive to ASEAN’s own security and regional stability” and that of the whole Asia-Pacific. If this were indeed Chinese policy then Vietnam would feel no reluctance to strengthen strategic, as well as economic, links with Japan and the United States-which is, in fact, being done.

When Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto toured Southeast Asia in January 1997, he put more emphasis on security matters than had any previous Japanese premier. While he was in Hanoi, it was reported that throughout the meeting with Premier Vo Van Kiet there were indications of both countries’ concern that China may become a common threat for Japan and ASEAN.60 In the final communique Kiet and Hashimoto agreed to promote security dialogue between their countries, at first through vice-ministerial consultations, which have, in fact, proceeded.61 During a courtesy call on Do Muoi, the Party leader told Hashimoto that it is important that Japan, the United States and China co-operate to maintain stability in the Asia-Pacific. The desire persists for a concert of powers-which plays well in Beijing, but discussions are ongoing to plan for other contingencies.

One concrete result of Hashimoto’s tour was the positive, though qualified, ASEAN response to his proposal for a regular summit meeting between ASEAN leaders and Japan.62 Some members of ASEAN were wary of agreeing to an exclusive ASEAN-JAPAN summit. An earlier proposal to include China and South Korea along with Japan in a high-level meeting was revived and later approved.

In December 1998, the first meeting of “ASEAN + 3” (China, Japan and South Korea) was held in H&noi following the conclusion of the informal ASEAN summit. This meeting represented the de facto achievement of Mahathir’s dream of an East Asian Economic Group (EAEG) which Japan had initially opposed.

Vietnam’s attentions to security relations with the United States were highlighted by the fortuitous presence in Hanoi of Admiral Joseph Prueher, U .S. Pacific Fleet Commander, at the time of the Vietnamese protest about the presence of a Chinese oil rig on their continental shelf. On the occasion of this visit, Deputy Prime Minister Tran Duc Luong praised the contribution of improved Vietnam-U.S. relations to “stability and development in the region”.63

The contribution of the relationship to “security and peace of the Asia Pacific” was reiterated in Hanoi at the time of the Senate confirmation of the new U .S. ambassador to Vietnam. Vietnamese military officers have also had a chance to visit the United States.

All states are aware, therefore, that Vietnam’s aspiration is for a concert of powers, consultation, trade, the sharing of goals and the avoidance of overt conflict among the members of ARF. Vietnam will use ASEAN and ARF to raise concerns and seek consensus. When consensus within or beyond ASEAN is not possible, Vietnam will nevertheless use this channel to make protests about violations of its security. At the same time bilateral security dialogue will help prepare for eventualities that Vietnam-along with all ASEAN members-hope to avoid. Constructive dialogues with China and close consultation with ASEAN are the preferred tools by which Vietnam hopes to insure its security. Nevertheless, other courses of action are not ignored.


In July 1997 the “ASEAN Seven” became “ASEAN Nine”, with the inclusion of Laos and Myanmar. Cambodia was admitted as ASEAN’s tenth member on 30 April 1990. How will that affect the utility of Vietnam’s policy? Will ASEAN still be as likely to react towards China in a manner basically sympathetic to Vietnam’s position? Bilson Kurus, writing in 1995, took an optimistic view: “The inclusion of Vietnam and the other Indochinese states as well as Myanmar would further bolster the ability of ASEAN to deal with extra-regional actors over troublesome issues such as the conflicting claims over the Spratly Islands.”64 A Vietnamese scholar was more cautious: “even though from the prevailing ASEAN viewpoint [China] can pose a direct threat to regional security, … dealing with China in bilateral and multilateral terms will be a challenge to ASEAN solidarity in the years ahead”.65 In a more recent comment, Lee Poh Ping of the University of Malaya had similar concerns: “It will be more difficult to maintain the cohesion of ten disparate countries”.66 Vietnam itself has been quite enthusiastic about the expansion of ASEAN membership. Though unstated, it seems rather clear that this is because of regime affinity; Vietnam will be more comfortable in ASEAN with a greater preponderance of authoritarian regimes.

The special enthusiasm for Myanmar’s entry is also a reaction to U .S. opposition to that move. Vietnam wants to reinforce the principle that human rights are a matter of domestic jurisdiction. Said Foreign Minister Cam of the announcement of U.S. sanctions against Myanmar, “Vietnam shares the view of many countries that economic sanctions are imposed with the aim of interfering in the internal affairs of a nation”.67 In late May, a few weeks after the sanctions were announced, Do Muoi, with a large delegation, made a visit to Yangon.68 The Burmese were very appreciative of Vietnamese support.

Even Philippine Foreign Minister Domingo Siazon, who was under a lot of pressure at home to oppose Burma’s entry into ASEAN, supported the move, arguing that Burma’s relations with ASEAN had strategic implications, and could not exist only on one dimension, human rights.69 This furthered the argument, which had been used elsewhere, that bringing Burma into ASEAN would end its dependency on China-which is, at least, a possibility. Yet why was China itself supporting the expansion of ASEAN so vigorously? Partly, of course, to drive a wedge between ASEAN and the United States. But perhaps it was a more long term strategy. Chinese scholars recognize the fragility of ASEAN unity: “When larger nations have sharp confrontations, it is still unknown whether ASEAN as a whole can insist on neutrality”. They noted the economic dimension as well: “If Laos, Burma and Kampuchea are accepted in the ASEAN, problems caused by differences in the economic development of different nations within ASEAN will further worsen”.70

In fact, it seems unlikely that China would have supported Burma’s entry into ASEAN if it had thought that in the process it would be losing a close ally. China has also been wooing Hun Sen, Cambodia’s most powerful leader, in recent years. Even Laos is trying to end its dependence on Vietnam by building closer ties to both China and Thailand. Thailand under Chavalit has been open both about its close links to China and its desire for leadership in ASEAN.71 Therefore, in the future a smaller percentage of ASEAN members are likely to come to the support of Vietnam if it has a problem with China in the South China Sea. Cambodia has no territorial conflict with China and regards Vietnam as its traditional enemy. The two members which joined in 1997 do not have coastlines to the disputed Sea. It may be that Vietnam’s eagerness to oppose the United States on human rights and intervention in internal affairs will backfire. It may have helped create a new power structure, a new set of orientations toward China within ASEAN that will be fundamentally inimical to Vietnam’s interests.

Vietnam’s success in utilizing ASEAN engagement, or enmeshment, with China as a political defence against Chinese incursions may not be a policy with long-term viability. The reluctance of the Vietnamese military to allow greater transparency may also frustrate Vietnam’s efforts to establish closer military relations with ASEAN states. As many have said, the shifting shoals of multilateral diplomacy in a multi-polar world pose considerable risk. Putting high priority on protecting a relatively closed political system complicates an already complex diplomatic task.

The less prominent, but emerging, theme in Vietnam’s foreign policy strategy, that of seeking a more traditional form of balancing by increasing military links with Japan and the United States, is also fraught with danger. Quite aside from the question of whether either Japan or the United States has the political will to act in the defence of Vietnam, there is the problem of psychological impact on China. Any hint that neighbours may be involved in a scheme to “contain” China seems to make its government even more militant. So far the level of military contact with those two major powers is lower than that of their interaction with China itself. It is far from the overt strategic alliance with the USSR that caused so many problems for Vietnam in the 1970s. It will be a delicate maneuver indeed to maintain significant military exchanges with two great powers that have their own conflicts with China, at the same time preserving a constructive dialogue with Beijing. In any case, Vietnamese policymakers seem to be well aware of the dangers of the past, and thus may also be sensitive to the pitfalls of the future.


1 Gareth Porter, The Politics of Bureaucratic Socialism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 19931, p. 208.

2 Bui Tin, Following Ho Chi Minh (London: Hurst and Co., 1995), p.160.

3 Carlyle A. Thayer, “Sino-Vietnamese Relations: The Interplay of Ideology and National Interest”, Asian Survey 34, no. 6 (June 1994): 516-17.

4 Ibid., p. 518.

5 Porter, The Politics of Bureaucratic Socialism, op. cit., p. 193.

6 Bui Tin, Following Ho Chi Minh, p. 188.

7 Murray Hiebert, Far Eastern Economic Review, 16 July 1992, p. 21.

8 Thayer, “Sino-Vietnamese Relations”, op. cit., p. 525.

9 Bui Tin, Following Ho Chi Minh, op. cit., p. 191.

10 Thayer, “Sino-Vietnamese Relations”, op. cit., p. 527.

11 Mark Valencia, “The Spratly Embroglio in the Post-Cold War Era”, in David Wurfel and Bruce Burton, eds., Southeast Asia in the New World Order (London: Macmillan, 19961, pp. 248-49.

12 Donald Zagoria, “Joining ASEAN”, in James W. Morley and Masashi Nishihara, eds., Vietnam Joins the World INew York: M.E. Sharpe, 1997), p. 167.

13 Thayer, “Sino-Vietnamese Relations”, p. 528.

14 Quoted in Zagoria, “Joining ASEAN”, op. cit., p. 158.

15 Hoang Anh Than, “Vietnam’s Membership in ASEAN: Economic, Political and Security Implications”, Contemporary Southeast Asia 16, no. 3 (December 1994): 263.

16 Ibid., p. 266.

17 Nguyen Hong Thach, quoted in Thayer, “Sino-Vietnamese Relations”, op. cit., p. 528.

18 Interview by the author with a party official in Hanoi, 28 March 1997.

19 Brantley Womack, “Vietnam 1996: Reform Immobilism”, Asian Survey 37, no. 1 (January 1997): 86.

20 Hoang Anh Than, “Vietnam’s Membership in ASEAN”, op. cit., p.267.

21 Saigon Giai Phong, 5 April 1997 in FBIS-EAS-97-105.

22 Xinhua, Beijing, 27 February 1997 in FBIS-CHI-97-039.

23 Xinhua, Beijing, 9 April 1997.

24 Agence France-Presse (AFP), 31 March 1997, in FBIS-EAS-97-090.

25 Vietnam Investment Review, 31 March 1997, in FBIS-EAS-97-093.

26 Michael Vatikiotis, Far Eastern Economic Review, 3 April 1997, p. 15.

27 The Nation (Bangkok), 26 March 1997, in FBIS-EAS-97-058.

28 Naeo Na, 31 January 1997, in FBIS-EAS-97-026.

29 Bangkok Business Day, 1 April 1997.

30 Bangkok Post, 26 April 1997, in FBIS-EAS-97-116.

31 Michael Vatikiotis, Far Eastern Economic Review, 17 April 1997, p. 20.

32 Quoted in Zagoria, “Joining ASEAN”, op. cit., p. 167.

33 Statement by the Philippines Embassy, Hanoi, 12 July 1996.

34 Vietnam-Southeast Asia Today (Hanoi), July 1996, p. 10.

35 Bangkok Post, 21 March 1997, in FBIS-EAS-97-079.

36 Michael Vatikiotis, Far Eastern Economic Review, 3 April 1997, p. 14.

37 Ibid.

38 Interviews with the author, Hanoi, April 1997.

39 Business World, 31 March 1997, in FBIS-EAS-97-090.

40 Quoted in Far Eastern Economic Review, 17 April 1997, p. 20.

41 Michael Vatikiotis, Far Eastern Economic Review, 8 May 1997, p. 15.

42 AFP, 30 April, 3 May 1997 in FBIS-EAS-97-120, FBIS-CHI-97-123.

43 International Herald Tribune, 30 April 1997.

44 AFP, 10 May 1997, in FBIS-EAS-97-130.

45 Andrew Sherry and Rogoberto Tiglao, Far Eastern Economic Review, 12 June 1997, pp. 17-21

46 Business World, 21 May 1997, in FBIS-EAS-97-141.

47 Kyodo, 16 May 1997, in FBIS-EAS-97-136.

48 Interview with the author, Hanoi, 9 April 1997.

49 Ibid.

50 A. Kotelkin, “Russia and the World Arms Market”, International Affairs (1996): 34.

51 Interview with the author, Hanoi, 10 April 1997.

52 Interview with the author, Hanoi, 10 April 1997.

53 Interview with the author, Hanoi, 11 April 1997.

54 Tatsumi Okabe, “Coping with China” in Morley and Nishihara, eds., Vietnam Joins the World, op. cit., p. 129.

55 Zagoria, “Joining ASEAN”, op. cit., p. 157.

56 Denny Roy, “The China Threat Issue: Major Arguments”, Asian Survey 36, no. 8 (August 1966): 770.

57 David Shambaugh, “Containment or Engagement of China?”, International Security 21, no. 2 (Fall 1996!: 181.

58 Quoted in Far Eastern Economic Review, 24 April 1997, p. 28.

59 Shi Yongming, “The Elevated Status and Influence of the ASEAN after the Cold War”, Guoji Wenti Yanjiu [International Studies]. 13 January 1997, 29-33, in FBIS-CHI-97-077.

60 Mainichi Shimbun, 13 January 1997, in FBIS-EAS-97-008.

61 Kyodo, 11 January 1997, in FBIS-EAS-97-008.

62 Kyodo, 26 March 1997, in FBIS-EAS-97-085.

63 Quan Doi Nhan Dan, 28 March 1997, in FBIS-EAS-97-087.

64 Bilson Kurus, “ASEAN-izing Southeast Asia”, in Derek da Cunha, ed., The Evolving Pacific Power Structure (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 19961, p. 75.

65 Hoang Anh Than, “ASEAN Dispute Management: Implications for Vietnam and an Expanded ASEAN”, Asian Survey 18, no. 1 (June 1996): 77.

66 Quoted in Far Eastern Economic Review, 12 June 1997, p. 15.

67 New Light of Myanmar, 17 May 1997, in FBIS-EAS-97-140.

68 Rangoon Radio, 22 May 1997, in FBIS-EAS-97-143.

69 The Nation (Bangkok), 30 April 1997, in FBIS-EAS-97-120.

70 Shi Yongming, “The Elevated Status and Influence of the ASEAN after the Cold War”, in FBIS-CHI-97-077.

71 See Thailand Times, 16 March 1997, in FBIS-EAS-97-075.

Categories Vietnam, Postwar Vietnam