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Facing China threat, Vietnam seeks American balance

As India struggles to make sense of the recent military tensions on the border with China, Vietnam, at the receiving end of Beijing’s muscular approach to maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea, is embracing the United States.

Although Vietnam and China share an ideology—they are the last of the communist governments in Asia—Hanoi wants to preserve its strategic autonomy by moving closer to Washington.

Outlining Hanoi’s strategy at the prestigious annual gathering of Asian defence establishments in Singapore Friday night, the prime minister of Vietnam Nguyen Tan Dung, underlined the current trust deficit between a rising China and its neighbours.

In a not so veiled reference to China, Dung said, “Somewhere in the region, there have emerged preferences for unilateral might, groundless claims and actions that run counter to international law and stem from imposition and power politics”.

He also emphasized the importance of the United States in providing security to China’s neighbours. While Beijing describes Washington as an interloper in Asia, Dung insisted that the United States is a ‘Pacific power’.

“No regional country would oppose the strategic engagement of extra-regional powers if such engagement aims to enhance cooperation for peace, stability and development,” Dung said.

Organised by the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies, the annual Shangri La dialogue has become a major vehicle for defence diplomacy in Asia. In inviting the Vietnamese premier to deliver the key-note address to this year’s Shangri La dialogue, the IISS was highlighting the growing strategic importance of Hanoi in Asian geopolitics.

As Dung dined at the high table with the U.S. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, the irony of Asia’s new strategic realignments were too stark to miss. Four decades ago, Hagel was a U.S. Army Sergeant fighting the war against Vietnam; Dung was on the other side of the combat line trying to defeat the American occupation. Today, U.S. and Vietnam have shared interests in promoting a new balance of power system that cope with China’s rise.

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