Bamboo diplomacy: Vietnam’s foreign policy balancing act in a turbulent world

Vietnam’s diplomatic strategy (“Bamboo Diplomacy”) navigates the challenges of a polarized international environment by balancing competing geopolitical interests.

‘Bamboo diplomacy’ has become a focal point in Vietnam’s foreign policy discourse, encapsulating the nation’s adept navigation of competing geopolitical interests since the 1986 doi moi reform. This metaphorical term underscores Vietnam’s diplomatic approach, drawing parallels with the flexibility, resilience, and strength of bamboo. Vietnam has skillfully executed a balancing act, maintaining relationships with major powers such as the United States, China, and Russia without aligning too closely with any single bloc. The country’s commitment to economic diplomacy has been evident in its active pursuit of trade and investment relationships, contributing significantly to its economic growth. Engaging actively in regional cooperation, particularly through organizations like ASEAN, Vietnam has strengthened its position in Southeast Asia. Leveraging its soft power, the nation has promoted cultural diplomacy and portrayed itself as a responsible and peace-loving actor on the global stage. The reference to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine underscores the broader applicability of ‘bamboo diplomacy,’ suggesting that Vietnam’s experience holds valuable lessons for small states facing geopolitical challenges. The term emphasizes adaptability, pragmatism, and a balanced approach as key elements for success in the complex and polarized international environment. Overall, ‘bamboo diplomacy’ serves as a compelling framework to understand Vietnam’s diplomatic achievements and offers insights for other nations, particularly smaller states, seeking effective strategies in the realm of global diplomacy.

 

China

Vietnam and China share a two-tier relationship, characterized by both party-to-party ties and broader diplomatic engagements. The party-to-party ties between the Communist Parties of both nations have been historically cordial, with a significant milestone being General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong’s visit to Beijing in late October of the previous year. Notably, this visit occurred immediately following the conclusion of Vietnam’s 20th National Party Congress. During this visit, General Secretary Trong held a meeting with President Xi Jinping, marking a symbolic and substantial moment in the diplomatic relations between the two nations.

The meeting was not only symbolic but also reflected the deep and fraternal ties between Vietnam and China. General Secretary Trong’s visit was significant as he became the first foreign leader to meet with President Xi Jinping after the latter assumed leadership for a third term. The symbolism of this meeting underscored the importance both nations place on their relationship and the high-level exchanges between their leadership.

The fraternal ties between Vietnam and China have evolved, and despite historical complexities, both nations have found common ground as the world’s two most successful communist states. The efficient adaptation of their political and economic systems to the forces of globalization has allowed them to derive developmental benefits. While differences and historical issues exist, the party-to-party ties have played a role in maintaining a channel for dialogue and cooperation between Vietnam and China.

In the face of escalating great power competitions, particularly China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, Vietnam has demonstrated adaptability by strengthening ties with Western nations while maintaining a resolute commitment to its ‘four Nos’ outlined in the 2019 Defence White Paper. These principles include a refusal to engage in military alliances, take sides, allow foreign powers to use Vietnam as a military base, and use force in international relations. This steadfast stance underscores Vietnam’s dedication to its independent foreign policy.

 

Russia

The Russia-Ukraine war has introduced unexpected complexities into the dynamics of Vietnam’s foreign policy, particularly in its relationship with the United States. The escalation of tensions following the invasion in February 2022 disrupted the anticipated trajectory of Vietnam-U.S. cooperation, which was on the path to achieving the status of a “comprehensive strategic partnership.” The conflict placed Hanoi in a challenging position, forcing it to abstain from voting on three UN General Assembly resolutions regarding the situation in Ukraine. This decision generated concern among Western allies, including the U.S. and European policymakers, who had considered Vietnam a potential bulwark against the growing influence of Russia and China.

The West, including the U.S., had expressed unease over the positions taken by some of its Asian allies, notably India and Vietnam, during the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Both countries, perceived as staunch allies in countering China’s rise, created a dilemma for Western nations. However, there was a quick reassessment, leading to a reaffirmation of support for India and Vietnam despite their divergence on the Russia-Ukraine war.

Despite geopolitical tensions, Vietnam and Russia have continued to strengthen their cooperation on non-sensitive matters, particularly in energy security, humanitarian assistance, science, and education. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Chernyshenko’s visit in April showcased the depth of the bilateral relationship, with notable collaborations in cultural, educational, and nuclear research fields. The AS Pushkin Institute is set to be upgraded to a regional centre for the study of the Russian language in Southeast Asia. Notably, the agreement to establish the Nuclear Science and Technology Centre in Dong Nai, the first Russian nuclear research centre in ASEAN, is a significant milestone, reflecting the resilience of Vietnam-Russia ties despite global geopolitical challenges.

During his visit, Chernyshenko emphasized that the long-standing relationship between Vietnam and Russia, spanning over 70 years, remains unchanged. He reiterated Russia’s commitment to maintaining and strengthening a comprehensive strategic partnership with Vietnam, emphasizing the country’s importance as one of Russia’s leading partners.

In the realm of trade cooperation, the Vietnam-Russia economic roadmap to 2030 outlines ambitious goals, including doubling trade volume to $10 billion by 2025. Both countries are exploring the use of national currencies for payments, simplifying visa procedures, and enhancing logistics collaboration shortly. Despite external pressures, the commitment to deepening economic and strategic ties between Vietnam and Russia remains a consistent feature of their enduring partnership.

 

United States

The visit of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Vietnam, following closely on the heels of Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Chernyshenko’s visit from Russia, brought a notable diplomatic engagement to the forefront. While Blinken’s visit had originally been planned for the previous year, it was characterized as more subdued compared to the Russian counterpart’s visit. Despite meeting with key leaders, including General Party Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, the local media downplayed discussions regarding plans to elevate the Vietnam-U.S. relationship to a comprehensive strategic level shortly.

Blinken was quoted by Western media expressing his hope to achieve this elevation in the foreseeable future, laying the groundwork for potential developments during General Party Secretary Trong’s scheduled visit to Washington in July. Unconfirmed reports even suggested the possibility of President Joe Biden making a surprise visit to Hanoi to strengthen ties. The significance of Vietnam in the U.S. Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy was underscored, emphasizing the need for continuous adjustments in the relationship between the two countries.

In acknowledging the significance of the Vietnam-U.S. partnership, Blinken’s visit aimed to promote relations to a higher level, underscoring the pivotal role Vietnam plays in the broader geopolitical strategy of the United States. The dynamics between Washington and Hanoi are recognized as crucial, and the prospect of elevating the relationship to a comprehensive strategic level indicates a desire for a deeper and more multifaceted partnership in the future. As Vietnam continues to be a key partner in the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy, the engagement between the two nations is marked by a need for constant attention and adjustment to address evolving geopolitical realities.

 

Other Countries

Vietnam’s strategic implementation of the ‘bamboo philosophy’ has played a pivotal role in expanding its global partnerships and elevating its diplomatic standing over the past three decades. The nation’s adept use of this philosophy is evident in its comprehensive partnerships with all five UN permanent members—China, France, Russia, the UK, and the US. Vietnam has not only established diplomatic ties with 190 out of 193 UN member states but has also fostered relations with 247 political parties in 111 countries and developed parliamentary connections with the legislatures of 140 nations.

In the realm of international trade, Vietnam has witnessed a remarkable transformation, progressing from trade relations with only 30 countries and territories 30 years ago to engaging with 230 today. The country has strategically embraced free trade agreements, including the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA), and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

Demonstrating commitment to multilateral diplomacy, Vietnam actively participates in over 70 international organizations and forums, fulfilling responsibilities as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, rotating chair of ASEAN, and host of significant summits such as ASEAN, ASEM, APEC, and the World Economic Forum on ASEAN. Additionally, Vietnam has contributed personnel to UN peacekeeping forces in Africa.

Cultural diplomacy has been a powerful tool for Vietnam in enhancing its global image. The country secured a position on the Intergovernmental Committee of the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage for the 2022-2026 term, a testament to its cultural richness.

People-to-people exchanges, facilitated by the Vietnam Union of Friendship Organisations (VUFO), have played a crucial role in bilateral and multilateral relations. Notably, activities within the Vietnam-Laos, Laos-Vietnam Solidarity and Friendship Year, and the Vietnam-Cambodia Friendship Year have strengthened ties with neighbouring nations.

 

Achievements

Vietnam’s economic strategy is intricately tied to the imperative of balancing relations with three major powers: the United States, China, and Russia. The World Bank’s optimistic forecast of Vietnam’s highest economic growth in the region at 6.3% for the current year and the same rate expected in 2024 underscores the significance of these diplomatic and economic ties. As Vietnam’s largest export market, the United States holds a pivotal role in the country’s economic health, necessitating stable and positive trade relations between the two nations.

Simultaneously, Vietnam’s economic ties with China are growing, reflecting the complex dynamics of regional economic interdependence. Engaging in regional value chains, both through traditional means and newly established free trade agreements like the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), has contributed to the increasing trade volume between Vietnam and China. Given the economic importance of both the U.S. and China as major markets for Vietnamese exports, Vietnam must delicately navigate its relationships with these great powers.

While bilateral trade with Russia may be comparatively marginal in volume, Moscow holds strategic importance for Vietnam. The enduring ties between Vietnam and Russia over the past seven decades serve as a significant counterweight in the geopolitical landscape, particularly about the United States and China. This strategic value goes beyond economic considerations and contributes to Vietnam’s broader diplomatic posture.

These achievements underscore Vietnam’s rise as a promising and influential player on the international stage. The persistent application and maximization of ‘bamboo diplomacy’ have undoubtedly contributed to the country’s prosperity, and strength, and enhanced global prestige, as recognized by Party leader Trong in affirming that Vietnam has never before enjoyed such a favourable position.