At the annual conference to set guidelines for Vietnam’s diplomats last December, Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) Chairman Nguyen Phu Trong, the country’s supreme leader, compared the ideal diplomacy for Vietnam to bamboo. Bamboo is a slender plant, indicating weakness, but it’s far from weak – it’s more resilient than many other plants in the face of strong winds. Using bamboo as a metaphor, Trong advocated a foreign policy that combines flexibility in tactics and firmness in principle, leading to resilience.
The idea of ”bamboo diplomacy” has been circulating in Vietnam for decades; In fact, it was the usual way Vietnamese characterized the outward behavior of Thailand, not Vietnam. Many Vietnamese opposed bamboo diplomacy for its lack of consistency. Others, however, complained that Vietnam was not behaving like bamboo when it should be.
But Trong’s Bamboo diplomacy differs from Thailand’s in important respects. The main difference is that it has “regime stickiness” – Vietnam’s foreign policy is by the Communist Party, by the Communist Party and for the Communist Party. Beyond the stickiness of the regime, there is also what Carl Thayer called the “tyranny of geography” in the Vietnamese bamboo. More than any other Southeast Asian country, Vietnam benefited and suffered enormously from its proximity to China.
For centuries, diplomacy between China and Vietnam has been conducted under the “tribunal system,” either in its classical or neo-tributary variety. The system consists of an exchange of gifts, both material and symbolic, between the rulers of the two countries that ritualizes the power imbalance between them and reminds them of their place and duties in the hierarchical relationship. Rituals are essential to this exchange, which reflects the asymmetry of power while helping to stabilize it.
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Vietnam’s neo-tribunal-style bamboo diplomacy was on full display when Trong visited Beijing from Oct. 30 to Nov. 1. The material gifts exchanged were difficult to discern; they will come later when the agreements made during this visit are implemented. But the symbolic gifts were visible and contributed greatly to the visit.
The most important symbolic gift from Vietnam was the rule-breaking nature of Trong’s visit. The rule it broke is that a VCP chief’s first trip abroad after being elected or re-elected is usually to Laos, not China. After his election as VCP Secretary General in 1997, Le Kha Phieu visited Laos in 1998 before traveling to China in 1999. Replacing Phieu at the 9th VCP Congress in April 2001, Nong Duc Manh traveled to China in November after visiting Laos in July. Succeeding Manh at the 11th VCP Congress in January 2011, Trong also traveled to Laos in June before going to China in October. Re-elected at the 12th VCP Congress in January 2016, he visited Laos in November before traveling to China in January 2017. But Trong’s visit to China this month is his first trip abroad since the 13th VCP Congress in early 2021. As a symbolic gift, it broke an important, albeit informal, rule that had been carefully observed for decades.
True to how the tributary system worked, the gifts from Vietnam were met with generous gifts from China. Trong was the first foreign leader to meet Xi Jinping after Xi was re-elected as China’s top leader at the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. He was even placed in front of Shehbaz Sharif, the prime minister of Pakistan, China’s “all-weather ally,” who would see Xi two days later. Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany, the European Union’s leading power, was awarded a tiny fourth place when he met Xi two days after Sharif and one day after President Samia Suluhu Hassan of Tanzania, China’s newest “comprehensive strategic cooperation partner”. Xi also presented Trong with the Friendship Medal, China’s highest award for foreigners, the first recipient of which was Russian President Vladimir Putin.
These rituals were part of China’s strategy to bring Vietnam closer to its side at the expense of US-Vietnam relations. Although China has pursued this goal for decades, it is becoming more important than ever as the rivalry between China and the US has intensified. In addition, Vietnam has an elevated value in this rivalry due to its location on the central front line of the competition, which runs through the East China Sea and the South China Sea. With Japan, Taiwan, Australia and India definitely closer to the United States, while Russia, North Korea, Cambodia and Pakistan are firmly in China’s camp, Vietnam – alongside Indonesia, the Philippines and South Korea – stands out as a key swing state. in this superpower competition.
The diplomatic struggle over Vietnam between the two great powers has intensified as their rivalry has increased. As the Biden administration renewed a decades-old US bid to make US-Vietnam relations a “strategic partnership,” China stepped in and asked Vietnam to join its “strategic community with a common future.”
It is worth noting that behind China’s offer was a threat. When Vietnam’s Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son called his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in April this year to update the Chinese on Vietnam’s position on the Russia-Ukraine war, Wang took the opportunity to warn: “We cannot allow that … the tragedy of Ukraine is being repeated all around us.” For some, this was a warning of the possible consequences if Hanoi did not side with Beijing against Washington. The threat was heeded, and Trong’s irregular trip to China was in response.
The journey has broken a rule but not broken a path; In this sense, it shows how resilient the Vietnamese “bamboo” is. Though Xi subtly nudged Trong to support his signature “Community with a Common Future,” saying that China “also stands ready to cooperate with ASEAN […] actively promote the building of a community with a common future for humanity”, this sentence was missing from their joint statement.
Vietnam also bamboo-style said no to the Global Security Initiative (GSI), Xi’s latest plan for international security in an era of heightened great-power rivalry. According to the joint statement, “Vietnam takes positive note of China’s global security initiative based on the goals and principles of the UN Charter” – but makes no commitment to participate in it. To illustrate how Vietnam is “noting” the GSI in other contexts, a VCP mouthpiece published an article translated from Nikkei Asia in April that describes the GSI in a negative light, as a lure to trap other countries in a Chinese and a Luring security architecture excludes the US.
The Joint Statement announced that Vietnam “supports and stands ready to participate in the Global Development Initiative [GDI] in appropriate content and manner.” The conditions attached indicate that the GDI will share the fate of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Vietnam. Vietnam pays lip service to the BRI to honor Beijing, but public scrutiny and fears of “debt traps” prevent Vietnam from participating substantively. Almost all major infrastructure projects in Vietnam using China’s money date from before 2016. Vietnam is also one of only four Asian countries to ban China’s Huawei from their 5G networks, the other three being Japan, Taiwan and India.
Perhaps in exchange for Vietnam’s participation in the GDI, China has endorsed the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) for the first time in a joint China-Vietnam statement. The joint statement said China and Vietnam “agreed […] soon achieve a substantive and effective code of conduct for the South China Sea (COC) in accordance with international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).”
But as Vietnam pays lip service to the BRI and now the GDI, China’s endorsement of UNCLOS is more rhetorical than real. There is no sign that China is backing down from its “nine-dash line” lawsuits, which an international court has dismissed as violating UNCLOS. Indeed, a similar-sounding joint statement issued during Xi’s visit to Vietnam in November 2017 did not prevent Beijing from harassing and disrupting Vietnam’s oil and gas drilling in the South China Sea, forcing Hanoi to abandon major projects and an estimated 1 Billion dollars to be paid in breach of contract fees.
Despite the rituals and rhetoric of Trong’s visit, Vietnam has not deviated significantly from the overall direction of its policy toward China since 2014, when China shut down the giant oil rig HYSY-981 in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, sparking the worst crisis in bilateral relations and their normalization in 1991. The visit marks, at best, a truce before the next battle between Beijing and Hanoi.
Vietnam has decided it is in its best interests not to side with either China or the United States. It is thus walking a tightrope between the superpowers. But as their rivalry intensifies, Vietnam’s balancing act becomes thinner. There will probably come a time when the rope will be too thin to walk.