Vietnam’s foreign policy a model for Asean | Inquirer Opinion

Vietnam’s foreign policy a model for Asean

In this era of fiercer competition and intense rivalry between the two big powers in Southeast Asia, how should small countries like the Philippines navigate their way to pursue their national interests and security without being entangled in the conflict between the two big powers, the United States and China?

In the militarized rivalry of the two big powers, we can become a springboard, target, and flash point in the struggle between a declining military superpower, the United States, and China, the emerging new power that is now the richest emerging economy and the power predicted to outpace the US. Vietnam has developed a foreign policy of “four no’s,” which it has evidently honed and perfected during the Vietnamese war of resistance to US military intervention from the early 1960s up to its complete victory in 1975 and eventual reunification of North and South Vietnam. During what was dubbed America’s war in Vietnam, the leadership of the Vietnamese Workers’ Party navigated its way to get maximum support from both the former Soviet Union and China which had become fierce protagonists in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the result of which was getting maximum support from both countries in terms of material, diplomatic, and political support in their war of resistance against US military intervention in this country smaller than the Philippines in terms of both territory and population. This is the template of Vietnam’s current foreign policy today.

Vietnam defines “four no’s” as an intricate balancing act between two contentious countries that are both very active as its trading partners. The US is an active trading and investment partner, while China has common land borders with northern Vietnam, making China a main source of tourists, investments, and importer/exporter of Vietnamese goods.

What are these “four no’s”? According to Vietnam’s Defense White Paper in 2019, Vietnam is pursuing a non-aligned foreign policy in connection to the rivalry of the big powers:


First, no military alliances both bilateral or multilateral are aimed against other countries;

Second, no siding with one country against another;

Third, no foreign military bases and no using Vietnamese territory to oppose other countries; and

Fourth, no using force or threatening to use force in foreign relations and the settlement of disagreements and disputes.


This set of policies has enabled it to develop good relations with most countries and peoples of the world, as well as international organizations while showing respect for each other’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity, and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.

At the same time, Vietnam has shown that it can resolutely and fiercely fight for its interests as when China tried to bully it along its common land borders in the north, or when China tried to deploy an illegal oil rig in the Paracels which Vietnam dismantled as an assertion of its rights as a sovereign nation. And while Vietnam is also one of the claimant countries in the Spratlys, it does not invent a fictional tale, unlike its close northern neighbor which has invented the so-called “nine-dash line” to claim islands and waters for itself, though this has already been thrown away by the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, and is now considered a judgment based on the tenets of international law, under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.


The individual adoption of Vietnam’s “four no’s” by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and other small countries would even be more effective, solidified, and given more meaning if the Asean, including other small claimant countries, were to adopt it as a collective policy in our part of the world, to assure a sustainable peace in the region, consistent with the grouping’s 1971 Zone of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality Declaration, and the Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapons-Free-Zone Treaty in 1995.

At best, it can evolve as a collective treaty for peace and disarmament in a region that has shown that conflicts and warmongering can only benefit the merchants of death through their superprofits at the expense of the people, especially the civilians who are always caught in the crossfire of senseless wars.

The Vietnam Coast Guard has been beefed up as a response to the aggressive and ridiculous claims of China over the entire South China Sea. What the Vietnam Coast Guard lacks in size compared to China’s ships, it makes up with quantity—small but modernized vessels that can effectively swarm over and around larger vessels of Chinese intruders. According to a report, the Vietnam Coast Guard in the South China Sea is now “a force whose rank at the moment is second to none in Southeast Asia in terms of both the number of vessels and overall capabilities.” It is a self-reliant force that relies on the resources and ingenuity of the Vietnamese nation and people that defeated the French colonialists, American imperialists, and more recently, the Chinese hegemons.


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Roland G. Simbulan is a retired professor of Development Studies and Public Policy, and vice chair of the Center for People’s Empowerment in Governance. He is the author of nine books on Philippine foreign policy and Philippine-US Relations.


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