Vietnam’s strategic trajectory: From internal development to external engagement

[ASPI Strategic Insights] Vietnam has recently emerged as a key player in Southeast Asia. Strategically located at the heart of the Asia–Pacific region, Vietnam is home to a population of 88 million people and a promising economy that has registered an average annual growth rate of around 7% over the past decade. Since adopting the ‘Doi Moi’ (‘renovation’) policy in the late 1980s, Vietnam has also been pursuing an active and constructive foreign policy aimed at diversifying and multilateralising its external relations. Vietnam’s quest for deeper international economic integration and a greater political role has therefore brought the international community an opportunity to engage the once‑pariah state in building a peaceful, stable and prosperous regional order. 

Meanwhile, China has been emerging as a global superpower. Although its impressive economic development has been praised as providing the region with a growth engine, China’s substantial military build‑up and its growing assertiveness in the South China Sea (Biển Đông or East Sea in Vietnamese) have unnerved countries across the region. In response, the US has recently decided to ‘pivot’ its strategic focus to the Asia–Pacific and make efforts to strengthen its relations with key players in the region. In this connection, due to its strategic location as well as its particular historical relations with China, Vietnam may play a significant role in future regional security architectures, which are likely to be shaped by how regional powers perceive and respond to the rise of the Middle Kingdom. Against this backdrop, the study of Vietnam’s strategic thinking and policymaking, especially vis‑a‑vis major powers, provides valuable clues about how best to engage Vietnam in the management of regional peace and security.

This paper analyses Vietnam’s strategic trajectory over the past two decades, with an
emphasis on its relations with China and the US, its policies on the South China Sea dispute, and the implications for regional players. The paper provides an overview of the rationales and mechanisms of Vietnam’s strategic policymaking. It then goes on to examine Vietnam’s relationships with China and the US, and examine the country’s position on the South China Sea dispute, in general as well as in relation to growing Chinese assertiveness. Finally the paper discusses the implications of Vietnam’s strategic policy for the international community in general and Australia in particular.

Full text of the paper is available for download at:

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