Vietnam’s cautious approach to Quad reflects delicate strategic balance

Jack Butcher | Indo-Pacific Fellow

The relationships between Vietnam and the four Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) partners, the US, Japan, India and Australia, have grown in recent years. Some analysts from the Quad countries have touted Hanoi as a ‘potential ally’ due to shared opposition to China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea. Nevertheless, despite showing greater interest in, and engagement with, the Quad, Vietnam’s leaders remain cautious of upsetting the delicate strategic balance. Particularly, three factors remain important for Vietnam; preserving domestic unity, managing complex Sino-Vietnamese relations, and keeping a distant power close to hedge against Beijing.


Domestic Unity


The most important factor for Vietnam is preserving domestic unity. In 1986, the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) decentralised Vietnam’s state-planned economy and allowed direct foreign investment. Its economy has grown exponentially at an average rate of 7 per cent yearly ever since. Civil restrictions have also been relaxed, leaving Vietnamese society increasingly susceptible to the impacts of globalisation. Subsequently, the CPV has carefully balanced market reforms and adherence to socialism by maintaining control over civil society and thus preventing runaway liberalisation, as seen in Eastern Europe during the late 1980s.


Despite the success of economic reforms, historical, cultural and geographical differences between northern, central and southern Vietnam still linger. The CPV has even restricted open discussion of these differences to minimise social fracturing. Furthermore, the main sectors driving Vietnam’s economic growth are concentrated around the Red River Delta in the north and the Mekong Delta in the south, resulting in higher living standards than the country’s centre, leading to accusations of neglect. Therefore, the CPV has invested significant funding in developing Hue, Da Nang and Quy Nhon in central Vietnam, to strengthen economic and social links between the north, centre, and the south.


Vietnam recognises that pivoting too close to the Quad could undermine domestic unity. In particular, the Quad members, especially the US, may impose conditions on Vietnam that encourage further liberalisation in exchange for closer economic and security ties. There are concerns among CPV conservatives that the US is using enhanced military dialogues and economic investment to transform Vietnam into a liberal democracy through a colour revolution. Rhetoric from US lawmakers has augmented such perceptions, proposing that enhanced civil liberties should be a precondition of upgraded relations.


The China paradox


Vietnam has a complex relationship with its northern neighbour. On one hand, it shares deep historical, cultural and ideological links with China. However, many Vietnamese believe that China has acted belligerently towards Vietnam throughout its history. This perception stems from successive occupations by Chinese dynasties, the Sino-Vietnamese conflicts from 1979-1991, and recent skirmishes between the Chinese and Vietnamese natives over the Paracel and Spratly Islands. Adding to the paradox is Hanoi’s economic reliance on Beijing, with China being its largest trading partner and third most significant source of foreign investment.


Vietnam’s leaders know that moving closer to the Quad would likely alienate China. Hanoi would find it challenging to replace Beijing and continue its current rate of economic growth. Furthermore, China’s military has become increasingly advanced and, therefore, possesses the capability to defend its claims more assertively to Vietnam’s east. China’s growing military ties with Cambodia, Vietnam’s western neighbour, poses another risk. Therefore, it is unlikely that Hanoi would consider altering the status quo to its detriment. At best, Vietnam would lose vital revenue, suffer targeted economic punishments in the middle, and at worst, see the renewed militarisation of its northern border.


The US, Russia and the ‘Four No’s’


Vietnam has traditionally looked to Russia as a strategic partner to balance Chinese dominance in its periphery. Moscow remains Hanoi’s largest supplier of submarines, fighters and weapons, accounting for 68 per cent of total arms imports. Despite this, Russia’s regional influence has waned since the end of the Cold War. As a result, Vietnam’s leaders have warmed to enhanced cooperation with the US to fill this void, as Washington both shares similar goals in the South China Sea and provides economic opportunities to offset reliance on China. Vietnam has welcomed the US-proposed Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) and sought to attract more US manufacturers leaving China due to the US-China trade war.


Despite improved relations and mutual interests, Vietnam does not view the US as an ally like Japan and Australia do. Specifically, the ‘Four No’s’, Vietnam’s national defence policy, stipulates that Vietnam will not enter alliances, not host foreign troops, not affiliate with states acting against others and not use force. Any pivot towards the Quad would require Vietnam to alter one or all of these ‘Four No’s’. Hanoi may entertain upgrading its relations with Washington to a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’, similar to that with Russia. This avoids divergence from the ‘Four No’s’ while still keeping a friendly distant power close, which allows Hanoi to hedge against Beijing’s growing influence without drawing its ire.


Although Vietnam has sought closer engagement with the Quad, maintaining a delicate strategic balance is significant to ensuring long-term military and economic security. Notably, preserving domestic unity, managing complex China relations, and keeping the US and Russia close enough to offset Beijing’s growing influence remain at the forefront. Vietnam’s leaders will likely welcome new Quad-led initiatives due to their strategic value but remain wary of attempts by Quad member states to jeopardise its neutrality and force changes to the status-quo.


Jack Butcher is the Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.