Vietnam in the Many Indo-Pacific Visions

Hoang Do & Viet Ha

On July 5, 2023, Lithuania announced its Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS), continuing the trend of releasing a regional policy document, be it an outlook, vision or strategy, by a series of actors from 2017 to the present, including Japan (2017, last updated in 2023), Australia (2017, frequently updated); France (2018, updated in 2022); ASEAN (2019); the US (2019, updated in 2022); Germany and the Netherlands (2020); UK and EU (2021); Italy, Czech Republic, Canada, South Korea and Indian Ocean Rim Association (2022) and Bangladesh (2023).

For Vietnam, a country which has not adopted the concept “Indo-Pacific” officially, facing with such new reality, an important question arises: How does it fits in such visions?

What do the IPSes say about Vietnam?

Vietnam has been viewed with high regards by many IPSes. Textually, Vietnam is one of the only six ASEAN countries directly mentioned in the US IPS, one of the three ASEAN countries named in Canada's strategy, the second-most referred to ASEAN country (after Singapore) by the UK (after Singapore).

The UK version also calls Vietnam a "regional power". The French version considers Vietnam a “major partner” while the Netherlands places Vietnam on a par with regional middle powers countries such as Australia, India, Japan and South Korea.

Many IPSes also prioritizes cooperation with Vietnam in a diverse set of areas, such as Francophone community building (Canada), women's rights (Canada); defense and military (Canada or France), education and science (Germany and France), rule of law (Germany), and investment (Korea). The US has also affirmed that Vietnam is an important partner in all five pillars of the US Indo-Pacific vision, despite not being explicitly stated so in US IPS.

Abundant Opportunities

These position offers Vietnam many opportunities. Politically, Vietnam has been early invited to join new initiatives stemming from such IPSes, including the Indo-Pacific Economic Framewrok (by the US), the CRIMARIO and ESIWA programs (by the EU) or the Indo-Pacific Ocean Initiative (by India). Joining these initiatives early also provide Vietnam with a chance to shape the “rules” rather than just follow. Moreover, most IPSes commit to promoting the central role of ASEAN in the region[1] - which is consistent with Vietnam’s orientation and is also an opportunity for Vietnam to strengthen its soft influence via the ASEAN channel.

Regarding development, Vietnam has a need for supply chain resilience, digital economic transition, green growth, and cyber-space capacity, etc. These are all issues covered by the IPSes. For example, Canada, as a way to implement its IPS, is looking at the potential to develop a sustainable production chain of rare-earth in Vietnam – a resource that Vietnam has huge reserves of. The US has promoted the idea of "friendshoring" with Vietnam, meaning it can shift the supply of strategic minerals or production of essential goods, along with related technology, to Vietnam.

About security, some IPSes have been characterized by naval operations in the Pacific in the past two years, many of which paid port visits to Vietnam (the US, the UK, France, Germany, and Japan). Additionally, many IPS come with capacity-building opportunities. In maritime space alone, Canada's Vessel Detection program, the EU's CRIMARIO, Quad's IPMDA or India's IPOI can help VN increase the so-called “maritime domain awareness”, subsequently helping address "gray zone" challenges, IUU fishing and maritime crimes. South Korean’s ship building program can bring about technology transfer (as done with RoK-Indonesia's submarine project). Japan's official security assistance (OSA) program or US commitment to invest 60 million USD in ASEAN maritime capacity can help Vietnam diversify its defense supplies, which are largely dependent on Russia.

The South China Sea is also a spotlight here. Many IPSes support freedom of navigation and aviation, peaceful resolution of disputes and UNCLOS - the principles of international law pursued by Vietnam. Their implementations on the ground are often consistent with Vietnam's interests in the South China Sea, such as protesting China's provocative actions, increasing law enforcement patrols and transparency - information sharing, etc. New groupings are also new platforms for Vietnam to maintain international interest in the South China Sea, especially when other regional hotspots such as Taiwan and North Korea continue to gain traction.

Overall, IPSes can help Vietnam meet its its major foreign policy goals, which include maintaining independence and territorial integrity, diversifying partnershisp, proactively participating in the international system, and  rallying support on issues of Vietnam’s critical concerns such as the South China Sea, climate change and economic digitallization, etc.

Potential challenges?

The biggest concern should be China’s reactions. Some IPSes, notable the US, UK and Canadian versions refers to competition with China. Possibly in response to the IPSes, China also proposes its own initiatives such as the Global Development Initiative, Global Security or Global Civilization, indirectly putting pressure on Vietnam about "taking side". Many emerging trends from the IPSes, including US “de-risking” or “decoupling” in terms of strategic assets like undersea cable and minerals, could also accidentally put Vietnam in a tricky situation, considering that Vietnam has ties with China on all these fronts.

Second, some IPS place a heavy emphasis on the value factor – an issue Vietnam and the Western world have not found a mutual voice. Biden-era documents, especially the National Security Strategy, emphasize competition between “democracies” and “authoritarians.” The US has organized two Democracy Summits from 2021 up to now, not inviting Vietnam and only inviting some ASEAN countries. In their IPS, the EU declared that it would "protect human rights and democracy" and still criticized Vietnam on this issue in practice.

Third, some of Vietnam's direct benefits are not of interest to other countries . Besides ASEAN, Japan or Korea, the Mekong region is only mentioned in a few IPSes from countries outside the region (France and Italy). Morever, the ASEAN centrality promise is sometimes seen as just "lip service". The case of AUKUS not being notified to ASEAN is an example that shows that countries might not really value ASEAN, indirectly putting pressure on ASEAN to change.

Last but not least, IPS written commitments may not be fortified in reality. Some financial commitments have specific duration: funding for initiatives in Canada's strategy only lasts for 3-5 years; Quad investment in IMPDA is only for 5 years; the EU's CRIMARIO II only runs until 2024; the commitment to invest more than 150 million USD in ASEAN that the US made in 2022 has also not been realized. Some other “soft” arrangements, such as the EU’s Cyber Diplomacy Network and Digital Partnership Agreement or India's IPOI, are not yet been specifically defined. Meanwhile, within many countries with IPSes, there is still no consensus on the importance of the Indo-Pacific.

However, some of these limitations can be mitigated. First, IPS might not be that sensitive since China has only criticized a handful of them (the US, Canada and Lithiunia) while not responding or even commending others (ASEAN and Bangladesh). Many countries without IPS have also adopted this term, like the Philippines and Singapore. Second, some IPS actors have signed agreements with human rights content or joined human rights mechanisms with Vietnam, such as the EU-Vietnam Cooperation Agreement in 2012 or Vietnam-US Human Rights Dialogue. In recent times, Vietnam and its partners have handled this issue relatively well, minimizing its impact on bilateral relations. Third, external negligence or pressure can also be also an opportunity for Vietnam to play the advocacy role (especially in Mekong issue) or for the ASEAN to conduct necessary reforms. Fourth, resource and public consensus wise, it may take time for actors to mobilize support for their IPS commitments.

To sum up, the many IPSes present Vietnam with both opportunities and challenges in Vietnam’s process of pursuing its foreign policy goals. However, many limits, including the worry of provoking China, can be mitigated. After all, IPS is a new reality that Vietnam has to face and take advantage of instead of standing aside, especially when Vietnam itself is often viewed with high regards such documents. That process can start with the official adoption of the “Indo-Pacific” terminology.

This article expresses personal views.


[1]France affirms that this is a factor contributing to "building multipolar Asia"; Germany claims to have an interest in strengthening ASEAN's central role; Many documents mention compatibility with ASEAN's AOIP; Some documents approach the area in a comprehensive manner similar to AOIP. The UK has successfully pursued a Dialogue Partnership with ASEAN. The EU, Canada, France, Germany and the UK are pursuing ADMM+.