HANOI — Vietnam used to think it could count on the Philippines to stand up against Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea with U.S. help.
But Manila’s turn away from the U.S. under new President Rodrigo Duterte complicates Vietnam’s efforts to steer a course between rising Asian power China and the U.S., with which it has sought to deepen ties.
Wavering, Vietnam dispatched a senior Communist Party official to China last month. Dinh The Huynh ranks fifth in the party’s hierarchy and is a powerful force in the 19-member Politburo. He is seen as a potential successor to General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, the party’s supreme leader.
Vietnam’s historical and economic ties with China run deep. But the two countries are also embroiled in territorial disputes. Huynh told Chinese President Xi Jinping in an Oct. 20 meeting that it has been Vietnam’s consistent strategy to strengthen relations with China. Two days later, Vietnam allowed Chinese warships to enter Cam Ranh Bay for the first time.
Occupying one of the most strategic locations on the South China Sea, the bay sits just 550km from the Spratly Islands, the object of territorial disputes among a number of states, including Vietnam, China and the Philippines. The three Chinese navy ships simply made a port call, but Hanoi could have refused them entry out of deference to the U.S.
President Barack Obama, visiting Vietnam in May, announced that the U.S. would fully lift a four-decade-old arms embargo on the Southeast Asian nation. This opens up the possibility of the Vietnamese military adopting American-made weapons to replace the Russian gear it has long depended on. On Oct. 2, U.S. Navy ships entered Cam Ranh Bay for the first time since the end of the Vietnam War — a historic event seen as a precursor to deeper military cooperation between the two countries.
“This was a major course change for Vietnam and a manifestation of a conscious effort to strike a balance between the U.S. and China,” a government source said.
As if trying to embody this idea, Huynh jetted off to America after visiting China. During his nine-day trip — unusually long for a Communist Party official — he met with Secretary of State John Kerry and was apparently accompanied by Ted Osius, the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam. A Vietnam-based American journalist suspects Huynh was there to reassure U.S. officials about the bilateral relationship following the Chinese warships’ Cam Ranh port call.
Vietnam’s rapprochement with the U.S., which also included joining the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade initiative, came as then-Philippine President Benigno Aquino’s administration pushed back against China’s growing blue-water presence.
The Aquino government sought arbitration in The Hague over the Philippines’ maritime dispute with China, and in July received a favorable decision from an international tribunal. Back in 2014, Manila and Washington concluded a defense cooperation pact that was seen leading to a de facto return of U.S. forces to the Philippines for the first time in 25 years.
Vietnam took comfort in these developments, gaining the confidence that it, too, despite its lesser voice in international affairs, could resist China. But Hanoi did not suspect that Aquino’s successor would goad America this far. Declaring a “separation” from the U.S., Duterte has vowed to end joint military exercises and wants “foreign” troops to leave the Philippines in two years. How much of this is bluster remains unclear. But Vietnam’s assurance in the steadiness of the Philippines has slipped.
How Vietnam proceeds now will depend to a large extent on whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump wins Tuesday’s U.S. presidential election. Huynh, who may one day lead his own country, no doubt had that on his mind during his U.S. trip.