Vietnam’s Foreign Policy: New Vocabulary or New Reconceptualization?

By Carl Thayer

Secretary Kerry meeting with Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh in Hanoi, Vietnam, December 16, 2013. Source: U.S. Department of State's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Secretary Kerry meeting with Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh in Hanoi, Vietnam on December 16, 2013. Source: U.S. Department of State’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Lew Stern, writing recently in the East-West Center’s Asia Pacific Bulletin, suggests that Vietnam’s leaders have adopted “an entirely new strategic vocabulary” following a decade of reforms and globalization. Stern cites, in particular, the importance attached to the term hội nhập quốc tế, or international integration), in the Political Report to the 11th Communist Party Congress in January 2011.

The use of the term “international integration” was not just a change in vocabulary in recognition of the linkages between political, economic, social, and military affairs. It was also a change in conceptualization by Vietnamese policymakers.

Initially, Vietnam’s early advocates of integrating the country into the global economy used the term hóa nhập, or assimilation. This term was later discarded as it implied Vietnam would lose its socialist-oriented identity in the global system dominated by capitalism. The new term, hội nhập, or integration, is seen as having a more positive connotation. The 2011 Political Report indeed said that Vietnam must “stay  proactive in integrating into the world’s economic community and expand international cooperation in other fields.”

Although the term was used in a broader sense, it did not jettison the primacy of economic integration as Stern implies. For instance, in April 2013, three years after the party’s Political Report was tabled, the Politburo adopted a resolution on international integration (Nghị quyết của Bộ Chính trị về hội nhập quốc tế). This resolution says that “economic integration is placed at the center; integration in other fields must create favorable conditions for economic integration and contribute actively to economic development, consolidation of defense, [and] ensuring national security.”

The priorities laid out in the Politburo resolution prove that Vietnam’s pursuit of proactive international integration does not mean it is inclined to become a strategic partner of the United States. The resolution also says unequivocally that “international integration is a process of both cooperation and struggle, resolute pursuit of national interest… and not participating in any rallying of forces or alliance with one side against another.”

In sum, Vietnam will continue on the path of diversifying and multilateralizing its external relations among major powers – China, the European Union, India, Japan, Russia, and the United States. Or, in the words of the Politburo resolution, Vietnam’s goal is to “advance and deepen relations with partner countries, particularly those of strategic importance to national development and national security; bring substance to the established frameworks of cooperation and create interwoven, interlinked interests between Vietnam and partner countries.”

Dr. Carlyle A. Thayer is Emeritus Professor at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra, Australia. Read more by Professor Thayer here.

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