As India struggles to make sense of the recent military tensions on the border with China,Vietnam,at the receiving end of Beijings muscular approach to maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea,is embracing the United States.
Although Vietnam and China share an ideologythey are the last of the communist governments in AsiaHanoi wants to preserve its strategic autonomy by moving closer to Washington.
Outlining Hanois strategy at the prestigious annual gathering of Asian defence establishments in Singapore Friday night,the prime minister of Vietnam Nguyen Tan Dung,underlined the current trust deficit between a rising China and its neighbours.
In a not so veiled reference to China,Dung said,Somewhere in the region,there have emerged preferences for unilateral might,groundless claims and actions that run counter to international law and stem from imposition and power politics.
He also emphasized the importance of the United States in providing security to Chinas neighbours. While Beijing describes Washington as an interloper in Asia,Dung insisted that the United States is a Pacific power.
No regional country would oppose the strategic engagement of extra-regional powers if such engagement aims to enhance cooperation for peace,stability and development, Dung said.
Organised by the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies,the annual Shangri La dialogue has become a major vehicle for defence diplomacy in Asia. In inviting the Vietnamese premier to deliver the key-note address to this years Shangri La dialogue,the IISS was highlighting the growing strategic importance of Hanoi in Asian geopolitics.
As Dung dined at the high table with the U.S. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel,the irony of Asias new strategic realignments were too stark to miss. Four decades ago,Hagel was a U.S. Army Sergeant fighting the war against Vietnam; Dung was on the other side of the combat line trying to defeat the American occupation. Today,U.S. and Vietnam have shared interests in promoting a new balance of power system that cope with Chinas rise.
In his speech,Dung also called for Southeast Asian unity in negotiating the regions territorial disputes with China. He urged Beijing to respect the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) in resolving its territorial disputes in the Asian waters.
As the inheritors of a strong realist political tradition,the Vietnamese leaders know that the unity of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is shaky and recognise Beijings ability to divide the region without much effort.
Dung and his colleagues in Hanoi are also acutely conscious of the fact that the smaller countries of the region cant compel China to accept international legal norms. The only alternative to secure Vietnams interest,they know,lies in cultivating a strategic partnership with the United States and other Asian powers.
While seeking a deeper engagement with the United States,Vietnam has no intention of giving up independent foreign policy. Vietnam will not be a military ally to any country and will not allow any country to set up military bases on Vietnamese territory. Vietnam will not ally itself with any country to counter another.
Vietnams self-assured pursuit of a complex balance of power strategy could be a model for other medium powers in Asia who are deeply concerned about the rise of China,want Washington to balance Beijing,but are reluctant to become formal military allies of the United States.
(C. Raja Mohan is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation,Delhi and a Contributing Editor for The Indian Express)