How to Read Vietnam’s Latest Defense White Paper: A Message to Great Powers

Esper Vietnam

Ten years is a long time to wait for anything, but the release of Vietnam’s latest defense white paper on Nov. 25 — the first since 2009 and fourth since Hanoi began issuing white papers in 1998 — was certainly worthwhile. Vietnam’s defense white papers have traditionally served as generic, non-offensive policy statements on external threats to Vietnamese security and an explanation of how the Ministry of National Defense is addressing them. Wrapped in Marxist-Leninist ideological narrative and steeped in subtlety, ambiguity, and coded language, it is typically difficult to determine a clear message from these documents. However, the latest defense white paper represents Hanoi’s clearest warning yet to China — Vietnam’s near-exclusive security threat and one it perpetually attempts to both engage and balance against on multiple fronts — that Vietnam might have to strengthen defense ties with the United States if Beijing’s bad behavior persists in the South China Sea. That is a message with significant implications for Washington’s Indo-Pacific Strategy to keep the region “free and open” from coercion.

A Warning to China

Vietnam’s bilateral ties with China are often complex and contradictory. On the one hand, Vietnam treats China with great respect and attempts to work with it on a range of security and economic issues. Indeed, Hanoi in 2008 raised China ties to the level of a “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership” — the highest designation it accords to any major power. On the other hand, Hanoi is increasingly frustrated by growing Chinese assertiveness in the disputed South China Sea. Tensions were particularly high this summer during a months-long standoff near Vanguard Bank — which is the westernmost reef in the Spratly Islands — that wound up extending up and down Vietnam’s coastline. Hanoi is also deeply suspicious of Beijing’s intentions to leverage the Belt and Road Initiative for “win-win” outcomes, both within Vietnam and in relations with close Vietnamese partners Cambodia and Laos, possibly designed to encircle Vietnam.

Despite Hanoi’s cautious approach toward its larger northern neighbor, the 2019 defense white paper is more negative on China than the 2009 paper or any previous version. In 2009, the white paper mentioned the word “China” only four times in the main narrative (not including appendices, which provide lists of activities rather than characterization of bilateral ties), and the description was exclusively positive, highlighting constructive bilateral activities such as delimitation of the Gulf of Tonkin and land border. Contrast that with the 2019 defense white paper in which Hanoi brings up China eight times, three of which are negative references related to Beijing’s destabilizing behavior in the South China Sea. Most notably, the white paper reads, “Divergences between Vietnam and China regarding sovereignty in the East Sea [South China Sea] are of historical existence, which need to be settled with precaution, avoiding negative impacts.”

But with everything in Vietnam, balance is essential, and thus the silence on China in the paper’s military history section is deafening. Consistent with past white papers, Hanoi details wars against both France and America, but noticeably omits any sensitive discussion of war against China in 1979 at the land border. Hanoi also neglects to mention Vietnamese military operations preceding the war in 1978 against Chinese Khmer Rouge proxies in Cambodia. Nor does it highlight major at-sea incidents, including China’s attack at Johnson South Reef in 1988, China’s May 2014 emplacement of the Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil rig in disputed waters and subsequent ramming of Vietnamese vessels by Chinese ships, or the most recent standoff in 2019 near Vanguard Bank over international energy extraction. Yet in other venues, Vietnam has loosened up significantly in terms of identifying China as a problem for Vietnam — even allowing commentators starting in February 2019 to refer to it as the “invader” during the border war to commemorate the 40th anniversary of that conflict. Hanoi’s decision not to call out China for past aggression in the defense white paper indicates that it does not want to go too far in its criticism of Beijing — just far enough to make the point.

With this white paper, Hanoi also appears to have expanded its “three nos” defense policy of no alliances, no foreign basing on its territory, and no alignment with a second country against a third. The defense white paper adds that Hanoi is against “using force or threatening to use force in international relations.” At first glance, this seems like a recitation of an obvious norm of international behavior. However, when considered within the context of the recent Vanguard Bank standoff and 2014 oil rig incident, which nearly spiraled out of control, it appears Hanoi is attempting to signal its intent to avoid starting armed conflict with China. The three nos are essentially a means by which Vietnam circumscribes its international behavior to avoid provoking China, so this interpretation is at least plausible.

And a Potential Opportunity for the United States

Buried within the new defense white paper are also subtle messages of opportunity for Washington. The white paper, for example, uses the term “Indo-Pacific,” noting, “Vietnam is ready to participate in security and defense cooperation mechanisms … including security and defense mechanisms in the Indo-Pacific region.” By using this term adopted by the Trump administration, Vietnam is likely making it known to China that it supports the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy. Others may argue that Hanoi intends only to refer to regional security mechanisms within the Indo-Pacific, such as those led by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Vietnam is a part. However, discussion of ASEAN occurs separately from the Indo-Pacific in the white paper. Furthermore, Vietnam knows well that words matter. In this case, Indo-Pacific has apparently been uttered only one other time by a Vietnamese leader — during former President Tran Dai Quang’s March 2018 visit to India. Thus, any further mention of Indo-Pacific is quite significant.

The defense white paper further notes that “depending on the circumstances and specific conditions [authors’ emphasis added], Vietnam will consider developing necessary, appropriate defense and military relations with other countries.” Although Hanoi in the 2009 defense white paper also underscored the need for strengthening bilateral defense ties with countries that could support Vietnamese national interests, the addition of the italicized clause in the 2019 version indicates there is now a causal linkage between the deterioration of Vietnam’s external security environment and the nations with which it chooses to deepen defense cooperation. A reasonable interpretation of this is that, if China’s bullying behavior in the South China Sea continues, Vietnam might finally promote America’s status to that of a “strategic partnership” — signaling mutual long-term interest to balance against China.

Door Is Open for United States, but Only Slightly More Ajar

Vietnam’s geopolitical struggle with China presents strategic opportunities for Washington to collaborate with Hanoi in ways that promote the mutual interests of both nations. Hanoi will carefully calibrate collaboration, however, to ensure it remains independent and avoids becoming a strategic pawn in great power competition between China and the United States. Indeed, the defense white paper cautions against allowing the South China Sea to become a “flash point” in great power competition. In real terms, that means Vietnam’s three nos defense policy (or now three nos plus one?) remains sacrosanct. As a result, Vietnam will be highly reluctant to participate in any activities that are likely to antagonize Beijing without China threatening first. As one of us wrote previously, Vietnam, for example, is unlikely to join Australia, India, Japan, and the United States as part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue to collectively deal with Chinese coercion because doing so would appear to sanction China’s containment.

But there are many other intriguing possibilities that the defense white paper brings up as well. For instance, it identifies nontraditional security issues, ship visits, and multilateral defense cooperation as areas that — if managed correctly — would enable Washington to increase collaboration with Vietnam without upsetting Vietnam’s efforts to balance its bilateral relations between major powers. Nontraditional security issues, such as cyber threats, terrorism, climate change, maritime piracy, and natural and environmental disasters, are not new white paper concepts, but their emphasis in this year’s iteration is noteworthy. The 2009 white paper refers to these issues as a “major” concern to all countries, but the 2019 version stresses the “acute challenge to peace, security, stability and cooperation for development in the region” that these threats present. Collaboration on nontraditional security issues is benign, as Vietnam can work with the United States on them without provoking China. These are also challenges faced by all nations that must be addressed.

According to this year’s paper, Vietnam “prioritizes” nontraditional security collaboration “with countries in the region and the world” and “is ready to expand defense relations and cooperation regardless of political regimes and levels of development.” Expanding existing U.S.-Vietnam humanitarian assistance and disaster relief exercises, such as Pacific Partnership or Pacific Angel to address additional nontraditional threats, may be one way for Washington to take advantage of Vietnam’s strategic suggestion.

The defense white paper’s discussion on foreign military ship visits suggests Vietnam intends to expand its maritime collaboration with foreign partners. A 2012 Vietnamese law, known as Decree 104, specifies the rules and regulations for a foreign military ship to visit Vietnam, allowing one courtesy port call each year. The 2019 paper, however, states, “Vietnam is willing to welcome vessels of navies, coast guards, border guards, and international organizations to make courtesy or ordinary port visits or stop over in its ports to repair, replenish logistic and technical supplies, or take refuge from natural disasters.” This suggests Vietnam intends to increase the number of courtesy port calls permitted under Decree 104 and to liberalize its classification of ship visits. A legal revision of Decree 104 would present opportunities for the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard to increase the frequency of courtesy ship visits and to include repair or replenishment as justification for additional port calls. While Vietnam may calibrate port call periodicity to avoid provoking China, it could also assert its independence by using more frequent U.S. ship visits to signal displeasure over Chinese coercion.

Finally, Vietnam’s new emphasis on multilateral defense cooperation enables it to enhance its defense collaboration with global partners. Forums such as the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting, ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus, as well as the ASEAN Regional Forum, promote regional peace and stability, and their military exercises do not target any country, which makes them ideal venues for Hanoi to pursue its defense diplomacy. Unlike previous iterations of the defense white paper, the 2019 version includes an annex that lists Vietnam’s participation in ASEAN multilateral military activities. The inclusion of this annex suggests collaboration in these multilateral military activities is a priority for Hanoi. Washington is a member of the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus and ASEAN Regional Forum. Using these settings to deepen collaboration with Vietnam and other ASEAN nations advances the interests of both the United States and Vietnam.

Let Vietnam Make the First Move

Vietnam’s latest defense white paper is full of warnings to China and opportunities for the United States. In the future, Washington need not force the issue by trying to “convince” Hanoi that it should increase the number of bilateral defense activities. The white paper makes clear that Hanoi gets it. Rather, Washington simply needs to reassure Vietnam that the United States is committed to the relationship by deepening existing military exchanges, which will give Vietnam greater confidence to stand up to China when the time comes.



Derek Grossman is a senior defense analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. He formerly served as the daily intelligence briefer to the assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs at the Pentagon. 

Capt. Christopher Sharman, U.S. Navy, is a National Security Affairs Fellow at the Stanford University Hoover Institution. He previously served as a Navy attaché in both Vietnam and in China. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Navy, U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Image: Department of Defense (Photo by Army Staff Sgt. Nicole Mejia)