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Prior to the upgrading of the U.S.-Vietnam relationship to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” in September 2023, observers anticipated that the move would provoke a backlash from China. Yet Beijing reacted rather mildly, and Chinese President Xi Jinping made an official visit to Vietnam following soon after President Joe Biden. China’s press coverage of Xi’s visit also signaled that China–Vietnam relations remain on good terms.

These positive developments suggest that Vietnam has struck the right balance in handling its relations with the two main great powers.

One of the hallmarks of a great power is significant military might and the readiness to use force to defend key interests. The case of Ukraine demonstrates that once a great power has doubled down on using force, there is no stopping it. This means that the primary objective for small and medium-sized states in managing relations with great powers must be to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity while minimizing the risk of war. Vietnam is no exception to these threats.

Vietnam has historically managed great power relations through a distinctive balance between deterrence, assurance, and hedging strategies. As a country that has a long history of fighting off invasions, the Vietnamese people understand the need to maintain a robust national defense force for deterrence purposes. The ever-present risk of conflict in the South China Sea has required Vietnam to significantly modernize its military with a special focus on developing maritime capabilities. Deterrence, while not always successful against determined challengers, can be effective in thwarting opportunistic aggressions.

But deterrence alone is rarely sufficient to maintain peace. In some cases, it could lead to miscalculation if not accompanied by agile and skillful diplomacy. World War I is a classic case that shows what can happen if deterrence is decoupled from assurance. For Vietnam, assurance is the centerpiece of an overall effort to manage relations with great powers. To assure the great powers, Vietnam frequently utilizes all available channels of diplomacy to credibly signal that it seeks mutually beneficial cooperation and will not jeopardize the security or interests of any party.

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This approach is deeply rooted in the recognition that even leaders of the most powerful state can feel insecure and may accept extreme levels of risk to regain a sense of security. Consequently, Vietnam chose to frame the partnership with the United States as a “comprehensive strategic partnership for peace, cooperation, and sustainable development,” to signal benign intentions.

Vietnamese and Chinese officials also held discussions both prior to and after the upgrading of relations with the United States, presumably to reassure Beijing that this upgrade is not aimed at containing China.

The last component of Vietnam’s great power balancing triad is active hedging. The U.S.-China rapprochement showed Vietnamese policymakers that great powers are willing to cut deals behind the backs of their junior allies when it suits their interests. Numerous Communist Party of Vietnam documents since the end of the Cold War have emphasized the need to counter these risks by pursuing the diversification and multilateralisation of Vietnam’s foreign relations.

As a result, Vietnam did not sever ties with Russia following the outbreak of war in Ukraine despite significant pressure from the West. Vietnam also actively engages with multiple middle powers including Japan, India, South Korea, and Australia. By engaging with these countries, Vietnam enhances its diplomatic leverage and gains access to diverse economic, military, and technological benefits. This prevents overreliance on any single great power while providing Vietnam with a greater range of policy options and a collective support system that can serve as a counterbalance to the influence of great powers.

More importantly, Vietnamese foreign policy continues to emphasize the vital role of ASEAN. Hanoi acknowledges that the regional bloc remains key to safeguarding peace and stability in Southeast Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific region. These policies illustrate Vietnam’s purposeful effort to work closely with like-minded partners to enhance and assert their collective agency amid major power competition.

Recent positive interactions with both the United States and China show that Vietnam’s balance between assurance, hedging, and deterrence — in that order — to manage great power relations has worked so far. Nonetheless, the evolving geopolitical landscape presents challenges that will require Vietnam to continually adapt and recalibrate its strategy. Key challenges include sustained great power competition, ongoing disputes in the South China Sea as well as transnational threats such as climate change, pandemics, and regulating emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence.

To navigate this complex environment of worsening geopolitical tension, Vietnam must maintain its diplomatic agility and strategic autonomy while steadfastly supporting an order that adheres to international laws and norms. Pursuing a proactive but principled approach could successfully safeguard Vietnamese sovereignty while avoiding the scourge of war.

This article was originally published on the East Asia Forum.

Dr Ngo Di Lan is a researcher at the Institute for Foreign Policy and Strategic Studies, Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam.

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