The PRC Eyes Vietnam: Chinese Assessments of Vietnam’s Hedging Strategy

Publication: China Brief Volume: 23 Issue: 13

Image: On June 25, the USS Ronald Regan, the ninth nuclear-powered aircraft carrier of the US naval fleet, made a rare port call in Vietnam, source: Saigon Times


In July, the Barbie movie––an ostensibly apolitical and innocuous film––­­was banned by the Vietnamese Department of Cinema over real-world tensions between Vietnam and China. According to the state film council, the new Barbie movie was barred from the Vietnamese market over its inclusion of a map purportedly showing China’s preferred territorial “Nine-Dash” line in the South China Sea (Vietnam News, July 7). As the head of the national film evaluation council stated, “Vietnam’s stance has been clear. It does not accept movies that are ambiguous in matters related to territorial sovereignty” (Vietnam News, July 7). The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning responded to the incident by asserting that “China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests are solidly grounded in history and law” (Global Times, July 7). Accusing the Vietnamese government of overstating the issue, the Chinese state media outlet Global Times urged all “relevant parties to control domestic hype and nationalist sentiment” (Global Times, July 7).

Viewed within a broader context, the Barbie movie incident is only the most recent expression of the historical baggage between Vietnam and China. Many PRC military officials and academics largely perceive Southeast Asia as China’s proverbial “backyard” that should rightfully remain in its sphere of influence. Within Southeast Asia, Vietnam occupies an important position directly on China’s periphery. Publicly, China considers Vietnam’s governing regime to be close “comrades and brothers” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, March 28). However, Vietnam has a long, acrimonious history with China. Vietnam has been invaded by China numerous times and subjugated to Chinese rule and the exaction of tribute for thousands of years. The “Vietnam Military Museum in Hanoi … lists 13 “Vietnamese Resistance Wars Against Invaders,” with the majority fought against the Chinese.

To some extent, Vietnam has also benefited from its contact with China. The Chinese written script, ideas of ethics and governance, and even chopsticks were absorbed from China. [1] During America’s war in Vietnam, China provided Vietnam with vast amounts of material support. From 1965-1969, a total of 320,000 Chinese troops covertly served in North Vietnam. [2] Despite this, China invaded Vietnam in 1979 in a war that the PRC refers to as the “Self-defensive counterattack against Vietnam” (对越自卫还击保卫边疆作战) (Baidu Encyclopedia). In more recent years, Vietnam and China have clashed rhetorically over islands in the South China Sea and had a tense standoff over a Chinese oil exploration rig in Vietnamese-claimed waters in 2014 (CSIS, December 23, 2014).

With its historical domination by China and its position as a small, weak, and still developing country, Vietnam has pursued a strategy of hedging. Research by Thi Bich Tran and Yoichiro Sato, Le Hong Hiep, and Tuan Uy Tran provide robust definitions of Vietnam’s hedging strategy from Vietnamese and Western perspectives (Contemporary Southeast Asia, December 2013; Asian Politics and Policy, January 2018; Naval Post-Graduate School Monterey, March 1, 2018). However, it is important to understand how China views Vietnam’s strategy as well. Further analysis is needed to examine primary Chinese sources and understand Chinese elite perceptions, their conclusions, and what “countermeasures” they believe China should take against Vietnam’s approach.

On balance, while Chinese security analysts have a clear understanding of Vietnam’s hedging strategy, they exhibit a modern version of historical Chinese paternalism towards Vietnam. Many contemporary Chinese analysts believe that Vietnam, as a developing country, will inevitably fall into China’s sphere of influence as it remains dependent on Chinese economic ties for growth. While Vietnam does benefit from its economic relations with China, however, the Chinese analyses fail to fully recognize Hanoi’s fundamental apprehensions and insecurity caused by the historical enmity between the two countries, as well as China’s modern-day rise and its aggressive actions in the South China Sea. To a certain degree, China is guilty of exhibiting a degree of the same imperial hubris towards Vietnam as it has often accused the US of in the latter’s relations with other countries. While PRC strategists appear to have concluded that time is on their side, Beijing’s paternalistic complex may ultimately handicap China’s ability to pull Vietnam closer into its orbit.

How China Views Vietnam’s Grand Strategy

Chinese strategists understand that Vietnam is hedging against the US and China. An academic article on this strategy by Zhu Lubin and Huang Haibin notes that, “Vietnam’s current strategy between China and the US is different from balancing and following … Vietnamese leaders seek to establish a harmonious relationship with China in order to maintain regime stability and promote domestic economic development.” While Vietnam looks to China for economic benefits, “Vietnam also seeks … to prevent a rising China from posing security threats … and hopes to obtain further military support from the US.” [3] Another scholar, Sun Xiaoling, asserts: “Generally speaking, maritime countries are welcoming of the US, while land-based countries are more dependent on China. Geographically, Vietnam is both a land-based and a maritime country thus a ‘hedging strategy’ is of particular interest” (Southeast Asian Studies, 2012).

These analyses understand that Vietnam sees China as a rising power and that this causes Vietnam to feel insecure. Beijing is fully cognizant that Hanoi has adopted a hedging policy to counterbalance against it. Because Vietnam is wary of both powers and has limited inherent leverage, it seeks to “constrain the behavior of both China and the US through regional multilateral institutions.” [4] Chinese analysts note that Vietnam’s best option is to avoid “choosing sides.” According to Guan Hao, a Chinese scholar at Tsinghua University, “both China and the US hope to win over Vietnam, or at least prevent it from falling to the other side. Vietnam maintains a cautious attitude and has avoided choosing sides” (Quarterly Journal of International Politics, 2021). Seeking economic benefit from China, moving closer to the US to gain security, while avoiding fully siding with either country. These are the building blocks of Vietnam’s efforts to thread the needle between its historical foe and its one-time adversary and now possible defender, the US.

The Economic Dimension: To China’s Advantage?

Vietnam’s economic ties with China are central to both countries’ strategies. The Chinese analyses give credit to China for pulling forward Vietnam’s economy stating that: “It is obviously difficult to separate Vietnam’s huge economic leap from China’s economic engine … China has been Vietnam’s largest trading partner since 2004.” When it comes to economic interdependence, Zhu and Huang also note the importance of Vietnam for China’s greater Southeast Asia strategy and BRI initiatives, stating that “the two sides have agreed to connect Vietnam’s ‘Two Corridors, One Belt’ concept and the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative together.”

Although China sees the win-win benefits of closer economic integration, it also recognizes Vietnam’s reticence about being too economically dependent on China. As Zhu and Huang argue, “while Vietnam is relying on the engine of China’s economic take-off to achieve economic development, the existence of a trade deficit with China has gradually aggravated Vietnam’s concerns.” There is, furthermore, an awareness of Vietnam’s fear that if it is overly reliant on China economically it will have diminished room to maneuver in other spheres. To exemplify this point, Zhu and Huang assert that “Vietnam believes…excessive economic dependence on China may weaken its bargaining power in the South China Sea.” [5]

China’s support for Vietnam’s economic growth is also considered to be a way of supporting the legitimacy of the Vietnamese Community Party (VCP) regime itself. Chinese scholars think that “Vietnam sees China as an important external guarantor and economic partner for the legitimacy of Vietnam’s political system” (Southeast Asian Studies, 2012). Notably, this assessment also implies that the VCP regime is highly reliant on the economic goodwill of China, and consequently has significantly diminished strategic leverage.

The Security Dimension: Insecurity

While economic ties have brought a degree of growth, modernization, and increased wealth to Vietnam, Vietnam continues to have fundamental security concerns regarding China. Chinese scholars recognize that China’s rising power and clashes with Vietnam in the South China Sea have provoked strategic concerns from Hanoi. “The disputes over the border and the sea areas between the two countries have intensified Vietnam’s vigilance” (Southeast Asian Studies, 2012). Vietnam’s current South China Sea disputes are only the most recent incarnation of historical friction with China. In a surprisingly blunt critique, Zhu and Huang note that, “as a member of the ancient Chinese tributary system (中国古代朝贡体系中的一个成员国), Vietnam has a real issue of sovereignty disputes with China and Vietnam’s perception of danger has further increased in the face of [foreign espoused] theories that “a strong country will seek hegemony” (国强必霸) and the ‘China threat’ discourses.”

To hedge against China, Vietnam has pursued both internal and external balancing. Internally, it has greatly increased its defense spending. However, Chinese analysts think little of Vietnam’s military, saying that “[Vietnam’s] military defense capabilities are not enough to safeguard the ‘sovereignty’ of its islands in the South China Sea.” [6] Thus, as a weaker power, Vietnam looks towards the US as a partner to hedge against China’s rise and influence.

While Vietnam has established strategic partnerships with 17 nations, its most important partner in hedging against China is the US. Chinese analysts agree and observe that Vietnam’s hedging relationship with the US in the security realm is embodied in the form of both direct and indirect cooperation. Indirectly, Vietnam looks to the US to take measures to “contain” China in the South China Sea, to support more broadly a free and open Indo-Pacific, and to reinforce Vietnam’s efforts to multi-lateralize the South China Sea disputes. Among these, “Vietnam’s biggest strategic expectation for the US is to contain China on the South China Sea issue. Only when the US is more active on the South China Sea issue will Vietnam open up to further US defense cooperation” (Southeast Asian Studies, 2012).

In the realm of more direct cooperation, Chinese scholars give credit to the US for adroitly navigating Vietnam’s efforts to set boundaries while gaining maximum advantage, “The US Department of Defense actively promotes US-Vietnam … bilateral cooperation in less sensitive areas such as peacekeeping operations, maritime security, institutional capacity-building exchanges, disaster management, and personnel training. At the same time, it avoids encroaching on Vietnam’s ‘red line’ of the ‘three no’s’ — [no military alliances, no alignment with one great power against another, and no foreign military bases in Vietnamese territory] — national defense policy” (South and Southeast Asian Studies, 2022). China sees US relationship-building efforts as growing in intensity, frequency, and having a clear end goal focused on the South China Sea. [7] US and Vietnamese cooperation is perceived as an effort to pull Vietnam into the US-led camp:

In the context of the Indo-Pacific strategy, the US has continuously stepped up its efforts to intervene in the South China Sea, trying its best to sell the so-called ‘free and open’ Indo-Pacific regional order to Vietnam, and publicly supporting Vietnam’s South China Sea policy to please Vietnam and achieve the goal of winning over Vietnam in its fight against China (South and Southeast Asian Studies, 2022).

China’s Predictions on Successful Outcomes for Vietnam’s Strategy

Overall, Chinese analysts are optimistic about China’s prospects concerning Vietnam and tend to discount the potential long-term success of Vietnam’s hedging strategy. Zhu and Huang point out that Vietnam is fearful “that the US will implement ‘peaceful evolution’ (和平演变) endangering the stability of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) regime.” [8] The US’s emphasis on human rights is also seen as a solid roadblock in the path of closer relations between Vietnam and America: “there are still differences in human rights and ideology with the US, it is impossible for Vietnam to completely ‘bet’ on the US” (World Economics and Politics, 2018). Furthermore, there is a strong belief that direct relations between the two states’ respective communist parties are a key point of leverage for China. Chinese observers also see America’s Vietnam war as being a source of, “great distrust and vigilance towards US intentions.” Ironically, Chinese analysts tend to gloss over China’s 1979 invasion of Vietnam. More recently, the US withdrawal under the Trump administration from various treaties and global commitments is touted as having, “weakened the reputation and image of the US.” [9]


Chinese scholars also provide a window into how China believes it should deal with Vietnam’s hedging strategy. These countermeasures (应对政策) include both carrots and sticks. It is proposed that China should take a hardline on its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea. The PRC should, in this framework, use its military presence to back up these claims and must, “be vigilant against the joint invasion and plunder of our national sovereignty by Vietnam and the US.”

The carrot side of the approach is both economic and ideological in nature. China believes that multilateral economic mechanisms in Southeast Asia can, “raise Vietnam’s expectations of China’s benefits.” On this theme, China should, “use the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (RCEP) as the main platform to connect the Belt and Road Initiative with the ‘Two Corridors and One Circle’ to promote economic linkage between China and Vietnam.” [10] On the ideological level, this side of China’s strategy involves continued and close contact between the two communist parties. “China should not give up any opportunities to exchange and communicate with Vietnam within the party, political circles, and military circles” (Southeast Asian Studies, 2012). While Chinese scholars point to trade, economics, and elite capture, there is less emphasis placed on developing grassroots interactions, cultural connections, and societal linkages. This is an inherent gap in the Chinese approach that may be relatively insurmountable due to popular anti-China sentiment among many Vietnamese.


This review of Chinese analyses of Vietnam’s hedging strategy highlights a number of themes. First, China is confident in its ability to both control and dominate its neighbor. It believes that Vietnam is unable to achieve its South China Sea objectives on its own and that over the long term, economic integration will tilt Vietnam towards China. While China is confident of its ability to control Vietnam, there is uncertainty and concern regarding how US interference might impede China’s ability to neutralize Vietnam and consolidate its objectives in the South China Sea.

Missing from China’s assessment is a recognition of the historical baggage surrounding the Sino-Vietnamese relationship and the high degree of anti-China sentiment within Vietnam. While China expresses confidence in its ability to develop deeper relations with the VCP, to a certain extent China seems to be committing the very act of hubris it often accuses America of in policy papers such as “US Hegemony and Its Perils” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, February 20). China’s insistence on its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea are consistent with its longstanding policy, but this insistence comes with the price of increasing anti-China sentiment and pushing Vietnam towards the US. China’s increased military capabilities, the militarization of the South China Sea, and Chinese economic dominance all deeply concern Vietnam.

While China is confident in its military capabilities, it is conceivable that if the VCP was unable to stand up to Chinese military coercion, Chinese actions could lead to political instability in Vietnam. The irony of this scenario is that while the Chinese Communist Party warns of “peaceful evolution” (gradual regime change) as a peril to the VCP in aligning too closely with the US, Chinese actions also could cause the very destabilization of Vietnam’s regime that China warns of—and likely fears.



[1] Strangio, Sebastian, In the Dragon’s Shadow, (Yale University Press, London, 2020), p. 67

[2] Xiaoming, Zhang, Deng Xiaoping’s Long War, (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2015), p. 22 

[3] Zhu Lumin and Huang Haibin, “Vietnam’s implementation of “Hedging Strategy” between China and the United States and its limitation,” Journal of Qiqihar University (Philosophy & Social Science), (May 2021), p. 44朱陆民,黄海滨 , “越南对中美“对冲战略”的实施及其限度”, 《齐齐哈尔大学学报》(哲学社会科学版), 2021 年 5 月. Hereafter referred to as “Zhu and Huang, Vietnam’s Implementation of “Hedging Strategy.”

[4] Ibid, 44.

[5] Ibid, 44.

[6] Ibid, 45.

[7] Ibid, 45.

[8] Ibid, 46.

[9] Ibid, 46.

[10] Ibid, 47.