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Commentary: Vietnam's 'bamboo policy’ is an asset as the US, China come calling

SINGAPORE: Vietnam has become the flavour of the year for the world’s geopolitical rivals. In September, US President Joe Biden visited the Southeast Asian powerhouse, signing a comprehensive strategic partnership that places Washington’s relations with Vietnam on par with Beijing’s.

This week, China’s leader Xi Jinping has followed suit, with the two nations signing 37 agreements, including China funding a cross-border railway and holding joint maritime patrols. The neighbours also agreed on a three-year plan to boost trade.  

Both the US and China are eager to drag Hanoi to their side –  but the Communist country should stick to its long stance of non-alignment and act in its own best interests. This multipolar foreign-policy strategy will ensure the nation exerts agency in dealing with the two largest economies. It could also use the influence it has with both to bring them closer together and work on issues of global importance, such as climate change, future pandemics, and the use of nuclear weapons. 

It makes sense for the US and China to court Vietnam, one of the region’s most dynamic economies. This year, it is expected to post about 5 per cent growth, better than many others. Foreign direct investment until October surged 14.7 per cent from the same period last year. 

The manufacturing hub benefits from being integrated with China’s economy, but also attracts investment from companies like Intel, and suppliers to Apple and Nvidia. During his visit, Biden elevated US ties with Hanoi to the highest diplomatic level, describing the push as the “beginning of a great era of cooperation”. Xi emphasised the importance of building a “community of common destiny” together.  

CAMARADERIE AND BROTHERHOOD

China is watching its Communist neighbour’s increasingly closer relations with Washington with interest. After Biden’s visit, Vietnamese President Vo Van Thuong travelled to Beijing in October to meet with Xi. The Chinese leader told him that the two countries have developed a deep friendship of “camaraderie and brotherhood”, and that they should regard the bilateral relationship as a priority in their respective foreign policies – a veiled reference, or a reminder perhaps, of keeping ties strong, no matter how much the US comes knocking.  

Beijing has long-standing economic relations with Hanoi, but could do more to bring big-name Chinese companies to invest, Nguyen Quoc Cuong, a former Vietnamese ambassador to the US, told me from Hanoi.

“China is lagging behind some other countries, namely the US, in this regard. Personally, I would like to see big names like the Chinese versions of Apple or Intel in the high tech space, and the digital economy investing more here.”

But while using economic incentives to gain political leverage may be what the great powers are trying, it’s unlikely the strategy will be that straightforward. Vietnam will continue to be guided by a foreign policy that has allowed it to strike relationships with countries that are often at odds with one another. 

It’s not just about managing the US and China, Lye Liang Fook, senior fellow at the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, told me.

“There is a new upgraded relationship with Japan as well. This visit by Xi is another indication of Vietnam’s delicate balancing act, but it also shows how the country has been been striking a healthy equilibrium with the major powers.”

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