The US, Vietnam and Shifting Alliances in Asia

The budding alliance between Russia and China may be redrawing old battles. The Soviet Union has long since collapsed, China has jettisoned much of its communist ideology, and the Soviet–Sino split has been relegated to another chapter of the Cold War. Certainly the frequency of Russia–China summit meetings suggests that these two countries have grown to become more than cordial neighbors.

In this second decade of the 21st century, Moscow and Beijing may, once more, have bonded over their opposition to a Western-led (specifically, US-dominated) world order. With the US especially vocal and active in imposing sanctions against Russia over the Ukrainian conflict, and the US’ strategic rebalance to Asia-Pacific seen as an attempt to contain China, it is no wonder that Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have sought out one another.

Last week, the two presidents met in Dushanbe, Tajikistan for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) regional summit, which also included leaders from Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The meeting between the two leaders at the summit follows after bilateral talks held earlier.

At the SCO, Russia and China affirmed ongoing cooperation in important fields such as oil and gas, with the China–Russia East Route used as an example of such cooperation. Construction on the joint-venture pipeline began on September 1 after the $400 billion agreement was signed in May, and is expected to pump 38 billion cubic meters of gas every year starting in 2018.

Despite sanctions, Europe continues to consume and rely on Russian energy; however, deteriorating relations between Russia and Europe has forced Moscow to look elsewhere. China, with its growing energy demands, was ready and waiting.

There is little the US can do to deter or impede Russian–Chinese relations. There is no Soviet–Sino split to exploit. Circumstances have since changed since President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972.

With the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) terrorizing Iraq and the Iraqi people, and President Obama’s recent address to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIL, to say nothing of the ongoing and bloody civil strife in Syria, America’s attention will remain in the Middle East for the foreseeable future.

US–Vietnam Partnership

However, Moscow and Beijing’s warming relationship is not merely a concern for the US but also regional countries, particularly Vietnam. For Hanoi, which has historically viewed China as a threat and Russia (then-Soviet Union during the Cold War) as a counterweight, any outcome where Russia and China are allies is undesirable.

A potential alliance between Russia and China is a concern for Vietnam, which has relied on the former for armaments. Through Russia, Vietnam has acquired six Kilo-class submarines and six light frigates, as well as a shipment of modern SU-30 fighter jets to bolster Vietnam’s aging air force. Suffice it to say, without Russian technology, Vietnam’s military would have long since fallen into obsolescence.

While Moscow and Beijing have in the past butted heads over Russia’s interests in the South China Sea, it is not inconceivable that the two governments will find some way to resolve their differences given their shared interests in opposing US advances in their respective backyards.

Consequently, ties between Russia and Vietnam, at least with respect to the sale of weapons technologies, may cool at the behest of China. Russia, of course, must walk a fine line between respecting China’s concerns while advancing Russian interests, for Moscow maintains positive relations with many countries in Southeast Asia, some of whom who do not feel the same with China. Russia may not, if ever, abandon Vietnam, but there can be no doubt that any potential future conflict between Vietnam and China will force Moscow to react accordingly.

In an effort to diversify, Hanoi has looked to the US to balance against China and may ultimately encourage an American presence in the region to counter its northern neighbor. Although the US maintains an embargo on the sale of lethal weapons to Vietnam, recent comments by Senator John McCain and the US nominee for ambassador to Vietnam, Ted Osius, suggest that an easing of restrictions may be on the horizon.

The foundations for a US–Vietnam strategic partnership are certainly in place. Already the two countries have inked a comprehensive partnership, detailing areas in which the US and Vietnam will cooperate, including such fields as maritime capacity building, strengthening economic and commercial ties, and tackling climate change and environmental challenges, as well as education and promoting human rights. Some effort has been made by the US to guide Vietnam out from beneath China’s shadow.

There are, of course, far too many differences between the US and Vietnam for these two countries to become allies in the truest sense. The arms embargo on Vietnam remains in place due in part to Hanoi’s poor human rights record. Ever the advocate for democracy and human rights in Vietnam, Senator McCain made clear that any complete lifting of the arms embargo will depend on much needed human rights reform from Hanoi.

Nevertheless, political realities may dictate otherwise if the US finds itself out of options in Asia-Pacific. A need to develop Vietnam as a strategic partner to advance US interests in the region may outweigh human rights reform if Washington deems such a compromise necessary. As a matter of principle, however, one can only hope that a compromise will not be required.

Khanh Vu Duc is a lawyer and part-time law professor at the University of Ottawa. His research covers Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law. Duvien Tran is a special research associate at VDK Law Office in Ottawa, focusing on foreign policy and South China Sea security issues.