Vietnam's core geopolitical strategy is one of balance. Internally, the Communist Party needs to achieve harmony among its competing political factions. Externally, it seeks to avoid an overreliance on any single foreign power. This strategic outlook is shaped by Vietnam's history of conflict, not only with Asian countries such as China but with Western powers as well. There are also two distinctly modern factors at play. First, the Vietnamese Communist Party is attempting to maintain its power during a time of rapid economic liberalization and social change, and it fears reopening the historical regional fractures that split the country in the past century. Second, Vietnam is embroiled in a regional dispute with China over the South China Sea.
China's push into the South China Sea has compelled Vietnam to strengthen its defense ties with a range of other partners. Most alarming to China is Vietnam's growing acceptance of the resurgent Japanese navy. International economic integration, along with greater security cooperation with outside powers such as Japan, India and the United States, will be a main focus for Vietnam's future leaders, regardless of who is in charge.
In military matters and trade, Hanoi will move carefully to keep its strategic options open and avoid an overreliance on any single outside power. However, greater economic integration with the rest of the world will not fully offset Vietnam's heavy dependence on the Chinese economy. The Communist Party will not risk provoking a breakdown in relations with China that disrupts the country's economic trajectory.
Regardless of how Hanoi views China's pursuit of its territorial claims, Vietnam will avoid provoking a prolonged military standoff with the Chinese — or provide the United States a base from which to do the same. In fact, Hanoi will prefer to look beyond the United States and China for support, bolstering existing partnerships with countries that do not carry the threat of domination, namely India, Russia and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Ultimately, though, only the United States is capable of maintaining the status quo in the South China Sea and of ensuring Vietnamese territorial integrity.