Challenges into Opportunities: The Blossoming of Vietnam’s Multidirectional Foreign Policy at the 13th CPV Congress

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The 13th Party Congress represents 30 years since Vietnam embarked on a multidirectional foreign policy. This foreign policy is centered upon diversification, multilateralization, and continued integration into the international economy. To achieve these aims, Vietnam utilizes strategic and comprehensive partnerships, free-trade agreements, and multilateral forums such as ASEAN and the UN. This foreign policy has helped Vietnam achieve rapid economic development, gain a high amount of security without compromising its autonomy or independence, and seen it play a more proactive role on the international stage. The 13th Party Congress saw a continuation of this foreign policy with an added emphasis on comprehensive diplomacy. This study explores the intervening years to the congress, arguing that multidirectionalism has helped Vietnam manage the turbulence of increased big-power tensions, anti-globalization, anti-multilateralization, and China’s belligerence in the South China Sea. Furthermore, a proactive, multi-pronged diplomatic initiative in the years after the 12th Party Congress turned many of these challenges into opportunities, allowing Vietnam to further its national interests. As a result, these initiatives have now blossomed into a comprehensive diplomatic strategy at the 13th Party Congress, adding another mechanism to Vietnam’s foreign policy arsenal.

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Introduction The Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) convened its 13th Party Congress between January 25 and February 1. The congress began under a cloud of turbulence as a fresh wave of COVID-19 broke out, resulting in it being cut short. Nevertheless, some highly ambitious development targets were set out: by 2030 the CPV expects Vietnam to be a developing country with a high level of middle income and be a developed country by 2045. On the international front, numerous bumps along the road have surfaced in Vietnam’s proactive efforts to forge ahead with diversification, multilateralization and integration. Chinese assertions in the South China Sea have grown more aggressive; rising tensions between China and the US have played out in the form of trade wars; Donald Trump’s time in office, although now over, proved to be a testing time for multilateral cooperation. Yet Vietnam has weathered these storms with vigor, and it was no surprise that the CPV opted for more of the same on the foreign policy front as well. It once again set out a foreign policy based upon independence and autonomy; friendship, cooperation and development; diversification and multilateralization of foreign relations through heightening its bilateral foreign relations and strengthening its multilateral diplomacy [Báo cáo chính trị: 20.10.2020]. This is a continuation of Vietnam’s multidirectional foreign policy that has served it well ever since the end of the Cold War and has formed a core component of the Doi Moi economic reforms. A multidirectional foreign policy seeks to diversify relationships - both at the bi and multilateral level, to reap as many political, economic and security benefits as possible vis-à-vis mechanisms such as strategic/comprehensive partnerships, enhanced multilateralism, and free trade agreements (FTAs) [Chapman 2017]. It espouses flexibility and pragmatism and, as a middle power, helps the country maintain the maximum amount of autonomy in the face of asymmetrical relations. This policy has aided the country’s navigation through the complexities of international integration and allowed it to hedge against potential threats in an increasingly integrated, multipolar international order, ultimately bringing about substantial prestige for the country. The 13th Party Congress recognized this, and the CPV is committed more than ever before to continue ahead on this path. As a result, Vietnam’s multidirectional foreign policy is maturing, and the Party has cultivated deep faith in the benefits of this policy. This is opposed to an element of caution that accompanied previous Party Congresses. When the CPV identified integration as a focal point of Vietnam’s development at the 9th Party Congress in 2001, it talked about ‘venturing into the big ocean’. Now, Vietnam has gained more buoyancy and is swimming in that ocean. Moreover, the 13th Party Congress has identified a comprehensive diplomatic strategy as a nascent mechanism in its multidirectional foreign policy. This article analyzes the foreign policy developments at the 13th Party Congress and shows how diplomacy, in addition to security and development, is seen as a core component of its multidirectional foreign policy. Numerous works analyzed the 13th Party Congress outcomes, yet there is a dearth of literature focused solely on foreign policy [Kolotov 2021; Thayer 04.02.2021; Abuza 02.02.2021; Benoit, Camroux: 18.02.2021]. One exception is Le Dinh Thinh and Lai Anh Tu’s piece in The Diplomat [10.03.2021]. However, it does not discuss the preceding years before the congress. Its analysis is merely focused on the cosmetic changes to the policy. In contrast, this article will assess how Vietnam has weathered the turbulent years since the 12th Party Congress in 2016, turning a host of challenges into opportunities, and how the intermediate years between the 12th and 13th party congresses gave birth to legislation and policies that further institutionalized multidirectionalism. It looks at this through the prism of security issues and its multilateral efforts. To do so, it analyzes documents from the 13th Party Congress, speeches and statements from ministers, economic statistics, and secondary source analysis. The conclusion will summarize the discussion and look at some trails ahead. The paper’s ultimate argument is that Vietnam has expanded the arsenal of its multidirectional foreign policy to include comprehensive diplomacy, some of which has been enhanced by its effective diplomacy seen throughout the years between 2016-2021. Security In late 2019, Vietnam released its defense White Paper for the first time in ten years. The paper outlined the country’s principles and guidelines for protecting its independence and territorial integrity. Much of the international system has changed since the last publication in 2012. The latest White Paper made note of the rise in extreme nationalism, power politics, and protectionism and that both traditional and nontraditional threats are proliferating equally. Vietnam has traditionally adopted the ‘three nos’ approach to defense: no military alignment or alliances, no military bases on Vietnamese soil, and no reliance on one party to counter another. It added a fourth ‘no’ to the mix in 2019: no using force or threatening to use force in international relations. This reaffirmed the country’s commitment to the peaceful resolution of international disputes and that diplomacy will be the way forward. The rising tensions and multipolarity within international relations have placed pressure on these red lines. Rumors have circulated that Vietnam would consider leasing Cam Ranh Bay to the US to help them overcome Chinese aggression [Thayer 06.05.2020]. Vietnam has opened itself up to being more flexible in the future. The White Paper inserted a depend clause that states: Depending on circumstances and specific conditions, Viet Nam will consider developing necessary, appropriate defence and military relations with other countries on the basis of respecting each other's independence, sovereignty, territorial unity and integrity as well as fundamental principles of international law, cooperation for mutual benefits and common interests of the region and international community [Ministry of National Defence 2019: 24]. Nevertheless, the four ‘nos’ and one ‘depend’ now rectify a previously dogmatic principle to make it more fluid and open to readjustment according to international developments. The incident with Chinese survey vessel Haiyang Dizhi 8 in July 2019 demonstrates Vietnam’s elasticity when responding to elevated tensions. The key to this hedging strategy is expanding and broadening Vietnam’s web of strategic and comprehensive partnerships. These offer an alternative to alliance politics, instead interweaving Vietnam’s national interests with other nations. The greater the overlapping of interests, the greater chance Vietnam will be backed up internationally without having to compromise on its four nos. They aid Vietnam in abating security threats - whether they be traditional or nontraditional forms - and foster greater cooperation. The higher echelons of Vietnam’s strategic partners are China, Russia, and India. As such, their partnerships are deemed comprehensive-strategic partners, with India most recently being elevated in 2016. Next are strategic partners with Vietnam having 14 agreements with a host of ASEAN and European partners. Australia and Vietnam elevated their relations to a strategic partnership, agreeing to strengthen cooperation over 37 areas in March 2018 [Australian Government: 15.03.2018]. Meanwhile, Vietnam and New Zealand announced the inking of a strategic partnership in July 2020, recognizing that “there is more that can be done together [Vietnam and New Zealand: 23.07.2020].” Furthermore, Vietnam has added 5 new comprehensive partners: Brunei, Hungary, the Netherlands, Myanmar, and Canada. Vietnam maintains an evolving relationship with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad). On March 27, 2020, Vietnam participated for the first time at the vice-ministerial level along with New Zealand and South Korea - the so-called Quad Plus. Discussions largely focused on COVID-19 and how to kick-start economies. Vietnam has also confirmed that it has been invited to formally join the Quad Plus in May 2020 [Nguyen Quang Di 02.06.2020]. Quad members are eager to expand it [U.S. National Security Adviser Says: 30.01.2020]. Newly anointed Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga visited Vietnam and Indonesia for his first overseas trip. Whilst there he was explicit in his view that Vietnam was a vital partner in securing a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. The visit also coincided with an agreement for Japan to export military equipment to Vietnam [Japan Prime Minister Suga: 19.10.2020]. Vietnam is astutely aware that joining the Quad may threaten its special relationship with China. Its flirtation with the Quad has been limited to economic cooperation. This trajectory is in line with Vietnam’s cautious approach towards a Free and Open Indo-Pacific [Nguyen Cong Tung 2021: 3]. Looking ahead, Vietnam will want assurances that the forum is not merely a means to counteract China’s rise. Doing so may risk going against one of its four nos. On the security front, it will want to ensure that the forum is a means to ensure international law is upheld and that tensions are de-escalated. However, further Chinese belligerence in the region may force Vietnam’s hand. Multilateralism: from active to shaping Multilateralism was dented in the wake of Brexit and America First. The rising of tensions between China and the US had the hallmarks of a return to the bipolar nature of the Cold War - a time in which Vietnam fared poorly after achieving independence. This uncomfortable turn towards isolationism was duly noted by Vietnam’s Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh at a speech to the UN General Assembly: “It is alarming that narrowly interpreted national interests are chosen over common values, big power politics, coercion, competition and confrontation are favored over cooperation, dialogue and respect for international law” [Le Dinh Tinh: 18.05.2020]. But Vietnam did not waiver in its commitment to multilateralism. Instead, its multilateral diplomacy shifted into a higher gear. Vietnam outlined it was no longer actively participating in multilateral forums, but it was shaping, and coordinating these institutions. Building on the successes of hosting the APEC summit in 2017, the Party issued Directive No. 25-CT/TW in August 2018. This directive sets outs the guidelines for elevating multilateral relations to 2030 and is the first time a single document has directed the developments of Vietnam’s multilateral diplomacy [Pham Binh Minh: 06.02.2019]. The ability of Vietnam to shape international forums is the culmination of a mature foreign policy and diplomatic strategy. Vietnam will no longer utilize the forums to reap the tangible benefits; rather, they will seek to project their national interests of peace and stability, promoting international law, free trade, and sustainable development goals. This has the added benefit of enhancing the country’s international prestige. The year 2020 was Vietnam’s opportunity to demonstrate its proactive approach to multilateralism with its turn as the ASEAN chairmanship and the election for its second stint as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. When Vietnam took over the ASEAN chairmanship in November 2019, it saw the opportunity as a chance to deepen economic ties, discuss issues surrounding the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and promote ASEAN awareness. It outlined five key priorities and had planned over 300 different conferences and activities [Bich: 24.06.2020]. Moreover, Vietnam had anticipated that progress could be made with China to develop a code of conduct, something ASEAN and China had hoped to settle by 2021. Less than a month into its chairmanship, however, COVID-19 erupted. This threw up a host of logistical headaches. ASEAN is notorious for its sideline diplomacy. Constructive discussions are often held on golf courses or the sidelines of formal meetings. Face-to-face talks are paramount to the ASEAN way of conducting business. Despite this setback, Vietnam seized the initiative. As early as February 14, Vietnam issued a chairman’s statement that called for solidarity, cooperation, and a collective response to the crisis. A special ASEAN summit on COVID-19 was convened in April where Pham Binh Minh noted that under Vietnam’s leadership ASEAN had called for region-wide action from mid-February and held a series of consultations with China, the United States and the World Health Organization [Hau, Gomez: 14.04.2020]. The conference saw counterparts from China, Japan and South Korea join. Japan iterated its firm support for the establishment of an ASEAN center for infectious diseases. The declaration at the summit led to the quick adoption of the Hanoi Plan of Action, a means to strengthen cooperation and coordination in responding to COVID-19 and avoid the tendency for knee-jerk, protectionist measures under such unprecedented circumstances. This included refraining from imposing unnecessary non-tariff measures during the pandemic; sharing information and best practices; and expediting the release of essential goods such as food, medicine, and medical equipment [Hanoi Plan of Action: 19.06.2020]. Vietnam’s swift response was tantamount to its adaptability. Vietnam could shift meetings online efficiently and smoothly to keep disruptions to a minimum. Over 550 meetings took place with 20 summits and 70 ministerial meetings. A record of 80 documents gained approval. In addition, in December 2020 ASEAN and the EU signed a strategic partnership, drawing one of ASEAN’s biggest investors to engage more in the region. Vietnam, having already signed numerous comprehensive/strategic partnerships with the EU member states, played a pivotal role in securing this agreement. For the second time in its history, Vietnam was elected as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for the term period 2020-2021, securing a record 192 out of 193 votes [Vietnam Elected: 07.06.2019]. Like its ASEAN chairmanship, Vietnam entered the role in January 2020 with a high amount of optimism for furthering its seven priorities [Vietnam Ministry of Foreign Affairs: 03.01.2020]. Although COVID-19 derailed this goal, Vietnam turned this unprecedented challenge into an opportunity. The first resolution proposed by Vietnam was proclaiming December 27 a Day of Epidemic Preparedness to promote education and awareness on the response and prevention of transmissible diseases. Co-sponsored by over 100 other nations, the resolution was swiftly adopted. Vietnam was eager to transfer its effective handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and call for international cooperation in securing vaccines and drugs [PM Delivers Message: 27.12.2020]. Vietnam’s successes with keeping COVID-19 at bay were also utilized in its peacekeeping missions. Since 2014, Vietnam has sent nearly 200 soldiers on UN peacekeeping missions. Vietnam maintains a military field hospital in South Sudan and Vietnamese military doctors used their updated knowledge of COVID-19 to treat infected patients. Major General Hoang Kim Phong indicated the pandemic had posed a considerable challenge, but that Vietnam remains committed to fulfilling its obligations to the UN under any circumstance [Vietnam’s Participation in Peacekeeping Activities: 08.06.2021]. COVID-19 altered the focus of Vietnam’s multilateral diplomacy, but it did not squander the opportunity to showcase its diplomatic prowess. Nevertheless, there will be a lingering feeling of disappointment that COVID-19 dominated so much of the agenda. The Vietnam specialist Carl Thayer has mentioned that rumors existed about Vietnam wanting to extend its term as ASEAN chair for another year [Hutt 01.05.2020]. Ultimately, this did not come to fruition. Developments at the 13th Party Congress Vietnam did not deviate from its multidirectional foreign policy at the 13th Party Congress. Vietnam remained committed to diversification, multilateralism, and integration to defend the fatherland, maintain a peaceful and stable environment and striving to improve Vietnam’s international position and prestige [Báo cáo chính trị: 20.10.2020]. The policy has been at the forefront of Vietnam’s economic and diplomatic rise ever since its inception in 1991. Previous party congresses were marked with caution, particularly with international integration, seeing as it meant giving up a certain degree of control. Vietnam has now removed the shackles of that caution and pushed ahead with its bedrock foreign policy with even more vigor. Despite an emphasis on continuation, certain tweaks to strengthen Vietnam’s approach to foreign affairs were made at the 13th Party Congress. Compared to the 12th Party Congress, Vietnam has placed greater emphasis on multilateral mechanisms, explicitly identifying APEC and Sub-Greater Mekong cooperation as being strategically important. Previously only ASEAN and the UN had been mentioned. As the successful hosting of the 2017 summit demonstrated, the ability to project national interests into these multilateral channels helps secure Vietnam’s overall strategic interests. The Party wishes to play a greater role in these forums so it can influence these organizations and shape the rules of the game. Past congresses have emphasized the security and economic components of Vietnam’s foreign policy. But this one also emphasized its diplomatic prowess. Diplomacy is no longer a means to an end, but a key component of Vietnam’s foreign policy and development strategy. This is not rhetoric either. The 2020 Lowy Institute Asia Power Index recorded a +6 gain for Vietnam’s diplomacy [Asia Power Index 2020]. Reflective of this, four senior diplomats were elected to the Central Committee of the CPV for the first time in its history (Table 1). Pham Binh Minh who had a highly successful stint as foreign minister was again elected to the politburo. His replacement, Bui Thanh Son noted “diplomacy has played a significant role in raising the country’s position [Diplomacy Helps: 28.01.2021],” and he has engaged in a flurry of diplomatic activity since becoming foreign minister on April 8. Son has held 21 virtual talks including with the US, UK, China, and Russia. Table 1. The list of diplomats elected to the Central Committee of the CPV at the 13th Party Congress Name Previous Roles Nguyen Manh Cuong • Deputy Head of the Central Committee for External Relations • Secretary of the Party Committee of the Central Committee for Foreign Affairs Pham Binh Minh • Central Committee Member for the 12 Plenum • Politburo Member for the 12 Plenum • Minister of Foreign Affairs • Deputy Prime Minister Le Hoai Trung • Central Committee Member for the 12 Plenum • Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs • Ambassador to the UN Bui Thanh Son • Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs • Central Committee Member for the 12 Plenum Vietnam’s elevation of diplomacy is an attempt to generate a comprehensive diplomatic strategy centered on three pillars: party-party, state-state, and people-people. These are not necessarily new components; they have been muttered in speeches and referred to by upper echelons of the party in the past. But for the first time they were codified and explicitly set out at the 13th Party Congress. This is expected to be waged across an array of areas: parliamentary, political, cultural, economic, defense, and public. This is not the first time that Vietnam has outlined diplomatic initiatives. Cultural diplomacy, for example, was identified as a key pillar of foreign policy along with economic and political diplomacy at the 11th Party Congress. In 2011 then Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung ratified the Strategy on Cultural Diplomacy through 2020. However, this was not linked to any larger overriding diplomatic strategy, and the initiative failed to coordinate across sectors and agencies [Le The Trang 2017: 46-47]. That is changing. Vietnam is creating a long-term diplomatic strategy to anchor it in place for years to come so that Vietnam can coordinate and implement its diplomatic strategy. Already the government has been relatively successful in offering protection of its citizens abroad. In the wake of the COVD-19 pandemic, roughly 80,000 Vietnamese citizens were repatriated from over 60 countries [Diplomacy Helps: 28.01.2021]. On the institutional front, the government is investing in expanding its diplomatic personnel and capabilities. Specifically, the 13th Party Congress outlined the need to improve the quality, capacity, and professionalism of staff working in foreign affairs. Nguyen Phu Trong has iterated that “the more we deeply integrate with the world, the more we need diplomats with key skills and qualifications [Báo Điện Tử Đảng Cộng Sản Việt Nam 13.04.2021].” This falls in line with Trong’s overall attempts to breed more strategic officials, ones who will excel in management roles and political ethics [Chapman: 15.05.2018]. Conclusion Whilst continuation was the overall theme of the 13th Party Congress, Vietnam’s multidirectional foreign policy is blossoming despite increased tensions. Vietnam has now broadened the scope of its multidirectional foreign policy, elevating comprehensive diplomacy to achieve the country’s strategic interests. Although the recent economic onslaught brought about by COVD-19, strategic competition between major powers; anti-globalization forces; and protectionism; cooperation, peace and development have served, in the words of Pham Binh Minh, “as a bright light” [Phạm Bình Minh: 05.01.2021]. Despite this paper striking a relatively positive assessment of multidirectionalism, it does not mean that imminent challenges do not lay ahead. Even deeper international integration inevitably opens up Vietnam to variables outside the direct control of the CPV. In regards to multilateralism, Vietnam may be forced to take action that contravenes its principle of non-interference in domestic matters if Vietnam is to assume a more proactive role in multilateral institutions. Myanmar is a case in point. The recent coup has severely tested ASEAN’s principle of non-interference. So far, the group has remained reluctant to place much pressure on the Junta, producing a diluted consensus at its emergency meeting in April. Competing pressures from regional powerhouses, such as India and China, and Western nations, who will pressure ASEAN to do more to quell the violence taking place, could force the group to intervene further. Further threats will include cyber warfare; climate change and its consequences, especially since Vietnam is a high-risk country; great power politics, especially since tensions have not cooled between China and the US with President Joe Biden’s election; and any further surges of COVID-19. Yet if the preceding five years are anything to go by, ample challenges equate to ample opportunities for Vietnam to forge ahead on its path of diversification, multilateralization, and integration, as well as further honing its comprehensive diplomatic strategy.

About the authors

N. Chapman

Tohoku University

Ph.D. (International Relations), Researcher and Editor Sendai, Japan


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