• Bich Tran

Changes in Vietnam’s Use of Strategic Partnerships to Advance Its Interests in the South China Sea

Updated: Apr 25


Photo Source: Maritime Herald


Since 2008, Vietnam has utilized strategic partnerships and their variants to promote its interests in the South China Sea. On the one hand, Hanoi’s comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership with Beijing aims to engage and socialize China so that the two countries can better manage bilateral relations, including territorial disputes. On the other hand, Vietnam’s partnerships with Russia, Japan, India, the United States, and the Philippines act as a counterweight to China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea.


In the post-Cold War era, strategic partnerships and their variants have emerged as an alternative to alliances for managing security and economic cooperation. Their main purposes are to address common challenges and to seize joint opportunities, rather than countering a specific country or group. Those partnerships are flexible, non-binding, and multidimensional in nature. Therefore, participating countries can gain benefits, such as economic or security assistance, without risks of entrapment or loss of autonomy. These features make strategic partnerships and their variants more attractive than alliances, and as a result, they have flourished in recent years.


Hanoi signed its first strategic partnership with Moscow in 2001 and has used the partnership to modernize its military. Vietnam’s military expenditure has increased almost seven times since 2003, and Russia has been its biggest arms supplier. Vietnam also established a strategic partnership with Japan in 2006 and a strategic partnership with India in 2007. However, none of the three joint statements mentioned the South China Sea.


The first time Vietnam has mentioned the South China Sea in such documents was in a joint statement to establish a comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership with China in 2008. In the spirit of “good neighbors, good friends, good comrades and good partners” aiming at building “mutual trust” and “mutually beneficial cooperation,” China and Vietnam “agreed to strictly act on the relevant agreement reached between the two countries' top leaders, jointly maintain stability in the South China Sea, maintain the negotiation mechanisms for maritime issues, and remain committed to seeking a basic, long-term and mutually acceptable solution through peaceful negotiations.”


However, since the signing of the two countries’ comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership, China has systematically interfered with oil and gas development by Vietnam, repeatedly intruded into Vietnam’s sovereign waters, and conducted large-scale reclamation and militarization of many disputed features.


After China submitted a map to the United Nations showing the so-called nine-dash line in 2009, Vietnam has frequently raised the South China Sea disputes in joint statements with its partners, including non-claimants. Furthermore, since the 2014 oil rig standoff, when Beijing deployed a state-owned oil rig into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, Vietnam has deepened defense ties with Japan, India, and the United States.


In the 2012 joint statement to upgrade the Russia-Vietnam strategic partnership to a comprehensive strategic partnership, the two countries believed that territorial disputes should be resolved only by peaceful means, without the use of force or the threat of force, on the basis of existing international law, especially the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The two sides support the full implementation of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and the need to develop a Code of Conduct (COC).


One year later, Vietnam signed a comprehensive partnership with the United States. Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs Pham Binh Minh noted that “comprehensive partnerships are at a level lower than strategic partnerships” although “in some cases, a strategic partnership between two countries may be lower than a comprehensive partnership between two others.” Regarding the South China Sea issue, the 2013 joint statement between the United States and Vietnam also adopted the points mentioned in the 2012 Russia-Vietnam joint statement.


In 2014, Vietnam and Japan elevated their ties to an extensive strategic partnership. The joint statement underscored that “any unilateral and coercive action to challenge peace and stability should not be overlooked”. It emphasized the importance of freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea and called upon relevant parties to practice self-restraint, beside other points mentioned in previous statements. Japan saw the urgent need to improve the capacity of Vietnamese maritime law enforcement agencies and offered Vietnam six second-hand patrol boats in 2015 and six brand new ones in 2017. In 2020, Vietnam agreed to buy six coast guard patrol boats worth $345 million from Japan.


Soon after Vietnam supported the arbitral proceedings in the Philippines’ legal case against China, Hanoi and Manila formed a strategic partnership and promoted maritime cooperation in 2015. Besides peaceful settlement of disputes, UNCLOS, DOC, and COC, the joint statement also stressed the importance of freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea, and called upon relevant parties to “exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability.”


Vietnam also upgraded its relationship with India to comprehensive strategic partnership in 2016. The highlight of the joint statement was the mention of the Award issued on 12 July 2016 of the Arbitral Tribunal, that ruled China’s nine dash-line invalid. Their acknowledgement of the award was significant because many countries under pressure from China did not voice their support for the ruling. India has helped Vietnam enhance its maritime capabilities with a $600 million Line of Credit for defense procurement and training for Vietnamese navy to operate Russia-made submarines.


In 2017, Vietnam and the United States agreed to advance their comprehensive partnership. The 2017 joint statement “called upon all parties concerned to implement their international legal obligations in good faith in any resolution to these disputes.” Although the statement did not call China by name, it clearly implied that China should comply with the 2016 ruling. Furthermore, Vietnam and the United States emphasized that related parties should “refrain from actions that would escalate tensions, such as the militarization of disputed features,” again pointing to China. The United States said it would “continue to fly, sail, and operate anywhere international law allows,” referring to its Freedom of Navigation Operations that challenge against excessive maritime claims. Since 2017, the United States has helped Vietnam improve its maritime capabilities with at least 18 patrol boats and a coast guard cutter.


Vietnam has taken advantage of its comprehensive and strategic partnerships to internationalize the South China Sea disputes and strengthen its maritime capabilities without spending substantial resources. Among Vietnam’s partners, the United States is the most powerful and the most vocal in criticizing China, and therefore, the most important actor in helping Vietnam defend its interests in the South China Sea. In the coming years, the two countries are expected to upgrade their comprehensive partnership to a strategic partnership, which will provide a better framework for deeper cooperation.

Bich T. Tran is Fellow at Verve Research and a Ph.D. Scholar at the University of Antwerp. Previously, she was a visiting research fellow at the Global Affairs Research Center, the East-West Center in Washington, and Ritsumeikan Center for Asia Pacific Studies. Her research interests include Vietnam's grand strategy, Southeast Asian states' relations with major powers, and political leadership.