New and core elements of superpower competition Vietnam could face in 2022

By Viet Anh   January 10, 2022 | 06:37 pm PT
New and core elements of superpower competition Vietnam could face in 2022
The flags of the United States and China fly from a lamppost in the Chinatown neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., November 1, 2021. Photo by Reuters/Brian Snyder
Vietnam needs to handle new challenges thrown up by the intensifying U.S.-China rivalry in the new year, experts have said.

"The most significant new element in the U.S.-China competition in the Indo-Pacific is the tightening of the multipolar system," Carlyle Thayer, emeritus professor, University of New South Wales Canberra at the Australian Defense Force Academy, told VnExpress International.

He explained that in the past, the regional system was "a loose form" of multipolarity and this favored Vietnam's policy of diversifying and multilateralizing its external relations.

However, the U.S. and its allies have now come closer together, the obvious examples being the AUKUS and to a lesser extent the Quad, and Australia and Japan have strengthened defense relations through the Reciprocal Access Agreement, and China and Russia have moved closer in response, he said.

These developments mean that Vietnam has less room to leverage its relations among the major powers, he said.

In his view, if U.S. - China relations deteriorate and become "cold", Vietnam will find it more difficult to leverage relations with Beijing and Washington.

For Vietnam, continuing to promote bilateral relations with China and the U.S. and multilateral relations through ASEAN and ASEAN-led regional mechanisms is not sufficient, and one option is to enhance the role of the East Asia Summit as a multilateral security forum, he said.

"Vietnam should give serious consideration to becoming a middle power with the capacity to build coalitions, initiate diplomatic settlement of disputes, and influence the regional security agenda."

Prof Alexander Vuving of the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii, the U.S., noted that the cyber domain is a major new element of great power competition. He predicted that the U.S. and China will intensify their strategic competition in the cyberspace and that this competition will be more consequential than the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

The cyber domain provides a "gray zone" for conflict, he said. Cyberattacks and fake news are just some "popular faces" of gray zone conflict. Vietnam must brace itself to all possible "gray zone" attacks, subversions, and manipulations. Two features of "gray zone operations" are deniability and stealth.

"You don’t know who the culprit is; sometimes you don’t even know that you are attacked," he said.

He pointed to the vulnerability of Vietnam’s connection to the Internet, which is conducted through submarine cables. Relying on only seven cable systems to get to the world-wide web, Vietnam is one of the most vulnerable countries in Asia. In the last years, regarding its connections to the undersea cables, Vietnam has registered on average 10 disruptions a year, each of which lasted for a month.

Gray zone operations will also be a major form of the strategic competition between China and the U.S. since both nuclear-armed powers will try to avoid a direct war between them, which would be hugely disastrous for both, they have to resort to the "gray zone" between war and peace to conduct their competition, Vuving explained.

"War and peace" between the U.S. and China could be "mixed" and may not be clearly separated. "In that context, Vietnam must be ready to cope with new kinds of conflict," he said.

Lucio Blanco Pitlo III, a research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation in the Philippines, said that in 2022 the competition to develop cutting-edge technologies and set the norms and standards for their use would be a major source of great-power friction.

Vietnam should provide a fast growing alternative destination for foreign capital including in the technology sector, which could help develop advanced manufacturing domestically and secure access to western markets, he said.

But it could also just be a matter of time before Vietnam's huge exports to the west raise issues of industrial planning, subsidies and support to state-owned enterprises, he pointed out.

Carl Schuster, a visiting professor at Hawaii Pacific University, the U.S., said Vietnam needs to create "new elements" to address "old issues" in the new year.

It could undertake naval exercises with partners "outside the South China Sea" so that China does not see it as "taking sides to provoke tension," he said.

For instance, it could hold drills with India and other friends in the Indian Ocean, and then China would not have reason to ask Vietnam to stop the exercises and might "reconsider bullying" it, he said.

He suggested that Vietnam should enhance cooperation with claimants in ASEAN to consolidate unity in the association in addressing disputes with China.

Vietnamese Prime Minister attends the virtual 16th EAS Asia Summit on October 27, 2021. Photo by Vietnam News Agency

Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh attends the virtual 16th EAS Asia Summit on October 27, 2021. Photo by Vietnam News Agency

U.S. - China rivalry could last till one exhausted

Since war is not the "final arbiter" between the two nuclear-armed states, Vuving argued that the superpower competition could last several decades until one of them is exhausted. This would make the U.S.-China rivalry look similar to the Cold War.

"But what’s most relevant to Vietnam is their difference in terms of the central frontline of the superpower contest."

During the Cold War, the two superpowers concentrated their rivalry most intensely in Central Europe. Today, the key frontlines of the U.S.-China competition run through the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, the East China Sea and the cyber domain.

Vuving said World War III is unlikely, but local conventional war is possible while "gray zone operations" and "war by other means" will be the "new normal" in the next decades, he predicted. Keeping a fully peaceful environment may be likened to the "zero Covid" strategy.

"What if Vietnam cannot prevent military clashes from happening? It must be prepared for the possibility that peace and stability in the region cannot be maintained."

Vietnam can shape its international environment by nurturing its resilience, being flexible, and deepening cooperation with those that share its strategic interests, he said.

Thayer said China’s Xi Jinping views the current domestic polarization of politics in the U.S. as likely to intensify in the run-up to the midterm elections in November and hasten the ongoing "decline of American power and influence globally and in the Indo-Pacific Region."

Xi's assessment that the U.S is in decline is bolstered by the pace of Chinese military modernization including the construction of more warships, aircraft and missiles and the expansion of their capabilities.

"U.S.-China competition will intensify this year and take the form of an intense action-reaction cycle. In other words, each country will respond to the actions of the other."

Pitlo said the U.S.'s growing support for Taipei as it loses more diplomatic space would trouble relations between the competing rivals.

Vietnam could benefit from increasing U.S. investments to develop more resilient supply chains free from potential state interference, and from growing security engagement with the U.S. to access arms and training and obtain diplomatic support for its position in the South China Sea and concern about massive dam building in the upper reaches of the Mekong River, he said.

On the other hand, despite maritime disputes and irritants in its relations with China, economic engagement remains important given its market size and production inputs and massive capital, he pointed out.

"Expanding economic ties with the two rivals and other partners like Japan, Europe and its ASEAN neighbors will avoid over-reliance on a single market or investor."

Schuster said China could look for expanded Belt and Road projects in the region, seeking to tie Vietnam's economy closer to its own, and so Vietnam should consider expanding trade with Australia and India to diversify options, ensuring no country could gain decisive leverage over its economy.

Collin Koh Swee Lea, a research fellow at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said given its geostrategic position and the geopolitical leverage it holds, Vietnam would continue to be courted by both China and the U.S., if not to bring the country into their "camp," to at least refrain from choosing sides.

This is probably what Vietnam needs to continue doing while maintaining the traditional principles of non-alignment and non-alliances in its foreign policy approach to also ensure strategic flexibility, he said.

He said maintaining the traditional principles means creating more room to maneuver, and this could be done by cultivating closer ties with both fellow ASEAN members and other external powers, he suggested.

Not being positioned in one single geopolitical camp gives Vietnam a great deal of strategic flexibility to pursue its national interests, while minimizing the risk of blowback from any one party, he said.

Beijing could be wary of Vietnam’s growing ties with its rivals such as India, Japan and the U.S., but is unable to fully determine it is firmly in the China-containment camp.

In this regard, Vietnam has calibrated its engagements with these friendly powers very carefully while displaying a level of geopolitical sensitivity toward its immediate neighborly ties, not least China, and not least of course its support for ASEAN centrality, and this principled approach is the way to go, he said.

"While Vietnam may still find itself under pressure at times, maintaining this consistent and principled approach allows the country to continue to exercise agency, and hence safeguard strategic autonomy."

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