Balance of Power in Southeast Asia: Vietnam’s Strategy

Southeast Asia is economically booming, with a flood of foreign investment and a 5 per cent growth rate expected for 2016. A slowing Chinese economy does not even seem to break this good momentum. Politically however, things are not so positive. Southeast Asia is buying considerable amounts of weapons in its increasingly tense regional environment. Geographically and politically central to the region is the South China Sea—a crossroad of claims of sovereignty over tiny uninhabited archipelagos and exclusive economic zones between Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines. Most important is the fact that China’s claims over the whole sea encroach on virtually everyone else, while the ongoing upgrades of the Chinese navy spawns a general feeling of insecurity across the region.

Image courtesy of Adam Bodley-Tickell ©2008, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Adam Bodley-Tickell ©2008, some rights reserved.

For Vietnam, concerns are certainly not coming from its buoyant economy or internal stability, but rather from its immediate neighbourhood. Hanoi is literally on the front line of the regional diplomatic and military struggle against China. Vietnamese claims in South China Sea, most notably upon the Spratly Islands, clash directly with China’s economic and military activity in the region. The situation has deteriorated rapidly since 2011, the lowest point being in May 2014 when a Chinese company moved an oil-rig into Vietnam’s declared territorial waters. According to Joshua Kurlantzick of the Council of Foreign Relations, neither external intervention nor ASEAN-limited mediation capabilities were able to prevent a naval conflict.[1] Peace only prevailed because of the priority of both parties to avoid an outright war. But how long will the status quo endure?

To address this dilemma, Vietnam has fiercely engaged in a diplomatic effort aimed at balancing China’s regional power. This effort is grounded on two fundamental convictions. The first conviction is that Beijing’s grand strategy in the South China Sea is a threat for Vietnam’s mere existence. As asserted by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in a May 2014 press conference, Vietnam, ‘will resolutely defend its sovereignty and legitimate interest because territorial sovereignty, including sovereignty on its maritime zones and islands is sacred.’[2] The second is that, considering the massive imbalance between China and Vietnam in terms of military power and economical weight, Hanoi has a lot to win in bringing the rest of the world into the dispute. Hence the frantic Vietnamese diplomatic activism these past few years targeted to such powers as Russia, the United States, India, and European powers.

The first step of Hanoi’s balancing strategy is the development of its military power through massive arms acquisitions. Amid the general increase of military budgets throughout Southeast Asia in the past few years, Vietnam has been one of the largest recipients of foreign-made weapons systems. As recently underscored by The Economist, ‘Vietnam’s arms imports in 2011-15 were eight times higher than in the previous five years, taking its share of the global total to 2.9 per cent.’[3] Nobody was surprised to see Vietnam relying on its historical ally, Russia, for the acquisition of six Kilo-class submarines in a massive $2 billions deal in 2009, still in the process of delivery today. But more surprising were the transfers of transport aircrafts from Canada and Spain between 2012 and 2014 or of the surface-to-air missile systems from France and Israel in order to equip SIGMA-90 Dutch-designed frigates. As forecasted by Andrew J. Pierre in the early 1980s, arms transfers are today ‘a common coin of today’s world politics […] because they are instruments of diplomacy as well as of security.’[4] For Vietnam, buying weapons is useful both to increase the cost of conflict for China, and to extend its diplomatic web.

Arms transfers might be the most visible side of Vietnam’s balancing strategy, but it should not hide the rest of its diplomatic activism. Hanoi recently committed to open its economic market in order to create new or to strengthen existing economical ties. Vietnam is part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement signed in February 2016, aimed at promoting investments and trade between 12 American and Asian countries. Illustratively, the General Secretary of Vietnam’s Communist Party Nguyen Phu Trong pledged for broader cooperation in terms of counterterrorism and maritime security with the United States during an official visit in Washington D.C. in July 2015.[5] This rapprochement between the two formerly hostile countries is significant both symbolically and materially. Washington has many interests in backing Vietnam in the perspective of containing China, currently its main challenger in the Asia-Pacific region.

Vietnam is developing partnerships and diplomatic links through arms acquisitions and multilateral trade agreements. To illustrate this activism, it is instructive to look at one niche of development in particular: space technologies. Since the mid 2000s, Hanoi has initiated joint-developments of observation satellites with the American Lockheed Martin (VINASAT model), the European Astrium (VNREDSat-1), and has negotiated with India for the construction of a satellite tracking station in Vietnam’s territory. Whether its purpose is to develop civilian technologies through joint-development, or to upgrade its military capabilities and reinforce its diplomatic ties with foreign powers, the inherent dual purpose of space programs allows Hanoi to play on both fields.

By trying to diversify its sources of support through such a wide range of different means (arms transfers, free trade agreements, joint-development), with countries who themselves have divergent interests, Vietnam endorses Stephen Walt’s notorious theory of balancing developed in the Origins of Alliances, for whom, ‘the distribution of capabilities between the superpowers is not an important factor in the alliance choices of regional states.’[6] Indeed, Vietnam has little interest in influencing the global balance of power. Its inherent status of secondary power does not predispose Hanoi to feel included in what happens outside its region. Furthermore, China’s claims are understandably translated into an existential threat for Vietnam, which feels at dangerously isolated and overwhelmed in front of the massive resources of Beijing.


[1] Joshua Kurlantzick, “A China-Vietnam Military Clash,” in Contingency Planning Memorandum No. 26 (Washington: Concil on Foreign Relations, 2015).

[2] Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Vietnam.

[3] Banyan, “Taking arms,” The Economist, 27 February 2016.

[4] Andrew J. Pierre, “Arms Sales: The New Diplomacy,” Foreign Affairs 59:2 (1981).

[5] Prashanth Parameswaran, “US and Vietnam Should Boost Defense, Economic Ties, Says Communist Party Leader,” The Diplomat, 9 July 2015.

[6] Stephen M. Walt, The Origins of Alliances (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987): 161.