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Vietnam’s Strategic Balancing Act in the South China Sea Geopolitics

The contested waters of the South China Sea are once again at the center of international attention due to a clash between China and the Philippines over a submerged reef. On April 12, U.S. President Joe Biden organized a trilateral summit with the leaders of the Philippines and Japan to discuss strategies to address the growing security threat posed by China. In a show of joint force, warships from the United States, Japan, and Australia joined the Philippine navy for maritime exercises.However, Vietnam observes the events from a reserved perspective. As a major contender in the South China Sea and a significant beneficiary of the relocation of industrial supply chains away from China, Vietnam finds itself at the center of strategic competition in Southeast Asia. Yet, unlike the more explicit Philippine diplomacy, Hanoi prefers to adopt a more subtle diplomatic approach, positioning itself between the United States and China. This flexible strategy, known as “bamboo diplomacy,” aims to balance the two superpowers. Although Washington hoped for a more Western orientation of Vietnam, this is unlikely to happen. If Hanoi manages to navigate this complex geopolitics, it will continue to reap significant economic benefits.China exerts a predominant influence in Southeast Asia, being the region’s main trading partner and a crucial source of manufacturing inputs. Despite the United States increasing its investments in recent years, China is perceived as the dominant economic power. Beijing’s aggressive stance in the South China Sea, where it claims dozens of islands and atolls in violation of international maritime law, has alarmed the region. In response, the Philippines has intensified its security partnership with the United States, which remains the largest external military force in the region.Vietnam and the Philippines are the most exposed to China’s aggressive territorial posture. Vietnam’s history is marked by a struggle with its giant neighbor, often perceived as an eternal enemy. After being under Chinese rule for a thousand years, Vietnam spent another thousand years repelling invasions from the north. Tensions dating back to the 1979 border war and a confrontation over a contested reef in 1988, in which 70 Vietnamese soldiers died, persist. However, the two countries share similar political systems and the Vietnamese Communist Party still remembers the support received from China during the Vietnam War. Despite this, Hanoi is cautious in maintaining the common ideology promoted by Beijing, while preserving an intact relationship between the two parties.With a long history of balancing between rival powers—Chinese, French, American, and Soviet—Vietnam’s diplomatic capabilities are well-established. From adopting its position on the geopolitical fault line to stimulate trade and investment. Therefore, thinking that Vietnam could align with the West or with China is a mistake; indeed, the bamboo strategy aims to safeguard Vietnam’s independence by maintaining a certainly difficult balance between Asia and the West.This position reflects Vietnam’s prudence in navigating a complex international environment, where power balances can shift rapidly and where dependence on a single entity could be dangerous. History has taught Vietnam the importance of maintaining a flexible and adaptive foreign policy, a strategy that continues to serve it well in the current era.In the context of rising tensions in the South China Sea and global challenges such as technological competition and supply chain security, Vietnam appears as a strategic player that knows when and how to tilt the balance in its favor, using diplomacy both as a shield and a negotiation tool. Hanoi’s ability to manage its relations with both China and the United States not only strengthens its regional position but also serves as a model of geopolitical balancing for other countries in similar situations.As Vietnam continues to expand its economic influence and modernize its industrial capabilities, it will remain vital to monitor how its domestic and foreign policies evolve in response to changes in the global geopolitical landscape. Managing this complex dynamic will not only define Vietnam’s future but will also influence the security and commercial architecture of the entire Southeast Asian region.

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