In October 2023, Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party adopted a ‘Strategy for Safeguarding the Fatherland in the New Situation’. Reiterating an appraisal underlying all Vietnamese grand strategies since the late 1980s and confirmed by the 13th Party Congress in 2021, the strategy asserts that ‘peace, cooperation and development remain the major world trends’.
The United States declared in its October 2022 National Security Strategy that ‘the post-Cold War era is definitively over’. In January 2021, Chinese President Xi Jinping remarked that ‘the world is undergoing profound changes unseen in a century’. This assessment has become a catchphrase in Chinese high-level speeches since. But the Vietnamese strategy sees no fundamental differences between the world of today and that of three decades ago.
In this spirit, the year 2023 marked the culmination of Vietnam’s efforts to weave its safety net in the international arena. In September, US–Vietnam relations were elevated from a mere ‘comprehensive partnership’ to a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’. In November, Vietnam and Japan also strengthened their ties to a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’. These upgrades catapulted Vietnam into the role of ‘comprehensive strategic partner’ for all major powers in the Asia Pacific — China, Russia, India, South Korea, the United States and Japan, with Australia pending in 2024 — a feat that has no equal.
To balance these upgrades in the spirit of its ‘bamboo diplomacy’, Vietnam agreed in December to join China’s ‘community of common destiny’, which Beijing translated into foreign languages as a ‘community with a shared future’. This put an end to Hanoi’s years-long resistance to Chinese pressure to take Beijing’s side, during which China intensified its encroachment into Vietnam’s waters in the South China Sea. In June 2023, when asked about a month-long operation of Chinese survey and law enforcement ships inside Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin responded that ‘there is no such thing as entering other countries’ exclusive economic zones’.
Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea remained unabated after Beijing and Hanoi pledged to build a ‘community with a shared future’. In the weeks before and after Xi’s visit to Hanoi in December, the 12,000-ton China Coast Guard 5901, the world’s largest coast guard ship, conducted intrusive patrols of Vietnam’s oil and gas fields off the southern Vietnamese coast.
The China–Vietnam ‘community with a shared future’ is tantamount to Hanoi’s acceptance of Beijing’s ‘new normal’ in the South China Sea and gives Beijing strong leverage to further press Hanoi on various issues. Yet the US–Vietnam ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’ reinforces Washington’s respect for Hanoi’s sovereign choices and promises to turn Vietnam into a high-tech and semiconductor hub in the global supply chain. Scores of senior US high-tech industry executives visited Vietnam several times in 2023, with Amkor Technology inaugurating a chip factory worth US$1.6 billion near Hanoi in October.
While guiding Vietnam’s ‘dance with the giants’ is the imperative of maintaining a peaceful environment for economic development, the highest objective of Vietnam’s domestic policies is preserving Communist Party rule. Hanoi’s main way to achieve this goal is to crack down on corruption. In 2023, the Party continued its anti-graft drive, even sacking the state president and jailing several high-ranking officials.
As the anti-graft campaign enters its 13th year, corruption shows no sign of declining. Instead of boosting the public’s trust in the regime as the campaign intends, it benefits mostly the regime’s law enforcement branch while paralysing the government bureaucracy as officials tend to play it safe and refuse to make decisions when they do not benefit personally.
Repressing the fledgling civil society is another major line of Hanoi’s effort to uphold Communist Party rule. Citizens were arrested and received heavy sentences for ‘taking advantage of the rights of freedom and democracy’ and ‘spreading anti-government propaganda’. When these charges were found to be too far from the facts — as was the case with activists and experts working on environmental and energy issues — authorities instead accused them of tax evasion.
The arrests of these activists and experts in the last few years followed Vietnam’s pledges, in the EU–Vietnam Free Trade Agreement, to allow civil society organisations to monitor the implementation of the agreement, and in the Just Energy Transition Partnership, to involve the whole of civil society in the green transition.
These arrests have effectively removed some of the last mechanisms for accountability. Authorities detained Vice-Head of the National Assembly’s Ombudsman Committee Luu Binh Nhuong in November 2023 for allegedly aiding and abetting extortion. A former lawmaker, Nhuong is widely known for speaking out against law enforcement agencies.
Vietnam’s leaders see the Russia–Ukraine war, the US–China rivalry, and tensions over Taiwan and the South China Sea as warnings of big storms to come. They are bracing for the bad weather by acting like bamboo in the international environment and like a hammer in domestic politics. But they are ill-prepared for the future. The Vietnamese bamboo risks being eaten by the Chinese panda, while the Party hammer risks breaking Vietnam’s dynamism and resilience.
Alexander L Vuving is Professor at the Daniel K Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Honolulu.
All views expressed in this article are entirely the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of DKI APCSS, the US Department of Defense or the US government.
This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2023 in review and the year ahead.