Communist Review - Resolution 08-NQ/TW on “The strategy to safeguard the Homeland in the new situation” issued on June 12, 2003, at the 8th plenum of the 9th Party Central Committee, which was later upgraded into Resolution 28-NQ/TW on “The strategy to safeguard the Homeland in the new situation” issued on October 25, 2013, at the 8th plenum of the 11th Party Central Committee, plays a crucial role in Vietnam’s external affairs in the renewal period. A key point of the Resolution is the concept of “partners” and “objects of struggle”.
The Resolution defines the principle of identifying “partners” and “objects of struggle” as follows: “Those who respect Vietnam’s independence and sovereignty and establish and expand friendly relations and equal, win-win cooperation with Vietnam are considered to be our partners. Any forces which conspire and act against the goals of the construction and defense of the socialist homeland of Vietnam are viewed as our objects of struggle. The current fast-changing and complicated situation requires a dialectical perspective: with the objects of struggle, there can be areas for cooperation; with some partners, there exist interests that are contradictory and different from those of ours.” (1)
Under this principle, the Communist Party of Vietnam identifies “partners” and “objects of struggle” from two perspectives.
First, a “partner” or an “object of struggle” is viewed as a “package” (collective) entity. This perspective makes it easy to identify a “partner” and an “object of struggle”. An entity whose policies and actions conform to Vietnam’s national interest is treated as a cooperative partner. An entity which harms Vietnam’s national interest is an object of struggle. However, this view only applies to entities which consistently respect Vietnam’s independence and sovereignty and seek to establish and expand relations with Vietnam or any forces which conspire and act against the Vietnam’s national construction and defense goals. Therefore, identifying a partner or an object of struggle requires an evaluation of the entity’s overall policies and actions rather than focusing on specific policies or actions. It is also necessary to avoid historical or ideological prejudices.
Second, a “partner” or an “object of struggle” is defined by their behaviors in specific issues and circumstances in their relations with Vietnam. The Resolution on “The strategy to safeguard the Homeland in the new situation” emphasized that “The current fast-changing and complicated situation requires a dialectical perspective: with the objects of struggle, there can be areas for cooperation; with some partners, there exist interests that are contradictory and different from those of ours.” This perspective is relevant to entities whose policies and actions vary in specific issues and circumstances in their relations with Vietnam. However, this requires a firm and consistent stance, putting national interest first and foremost, as well as the ability to identify which behaviors respect and benefit Vietnam and which are well-disguised destructive conspiracies. Political firmness is also needed when adopting this perspective because, when assessing an entity’s specific behavior, there are always conflicting viewpoints, plus long-standing prejudices on history, political regimes, and value systems.
Application of Ho Chi Minh’s thought in identifying “partners” and “objects of struggle”
At the opening ceremony for the first course of the People’s University of Vietnam on January 19, 1955, President Ho Chi Minh said, “There must be a clear boundary between right and wrong, between friends and foes. From the outside, whoever bring benefits to our people and our homeland are our friends. Whoever harm our people and our homeland are our enemies. Inside ourself, thoughts and actions that benefit our homeland and our people are our friends. Thoughts and actions that harm our homeland and our people are our enemies. We have friends and foes both outside and inside ourself. Therefore, we have to strive to make more friends inside and outside, and resolutely fight the enemies outside and inside ourself.”(2)
The terms “friend” and “foe” used by President Ho Chi Minh were easy to understand and relevant to the situation in Vietnam at that time.
When applying Ho Chi Minh’s thought in Vietnam’s external affairs in the new situation with the main subject in international relations being states and nations, the Party’s Resolution concretizes “benefiting our people and homeland” as “respecting Vietnam’s independence and sovereignty and establishing and expanding friendship and equal and win-win cooperation with Vietnam”, and “things that harm our people and our homeland” as “conspiracies and actions against the goals of the construction and defense of the socialist homeland”. National interests present this consistent principle in applying Ho Chi Minh’s thought in defining “partners” and “objects of struggle”.
Identifying “partners” and “objects of struggle” in the new situation
The Resolution was promulgated amid complex and unpredictable developments in the region and the world, evidenced by the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. Just one day after the tragic incident, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1368, calling for greater international efforts to prevent and fight terrorism and for further coordination between countries in promulgation of laws in line with the UN and Security Council’s anti-terrorism conventions and resolutions. The fight against terrorism dominated international relations when the US sent troops to Afghanistan. Coalition forces, with more than 130,000 soldiers from 40 countries including NATO members at the height of the conflict, removed the Taliban regime from power and sought to root out the terrorist organization Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.(3) In March 2003, the US attacked Iraq. After three weeks, a coalition consisting of the US, Britain, and some other countries seized the capital Baghdad.
In April 2001, a Chinese fighter jet intercepted a US EP3 surveillance plane over the waters near Hainan Island. The EP3 was forced to make an emergency landing on Hainan. According some scholars, the incident indicated that China has changed its perception of the US as well as of China’s sovereignty and jurisdiction in the East Sea.(4) It also showed that China has become more confident in responding to US activities in the East Sea, scholars said.
During the 8th ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in November 2002, ASEAN and China signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea (DOC), ten years after the idea of the DOC was first mentioned in an ASEAN document in 1992.
There were several milestones in the relationship between Vietnam and major countries, particularly China and the US, during this period. The Vietnam-China Treaty on the Land Borderline was signed in Hanoi on December 30, 1999, marking the first time in history the two countries have established a clear land borderline. On December 25, 2000, the two sides signed the Agreement on the Delimitation of the Tonkin Gulf which determines their territorial waters, continental shelves, and Exclusive Economic Zones in the Gulf of Tonkin. Vietnam and China also signed the Tonkin Gulf Fishery Cooperation Agreement.
On July 13, 2000, Vietnam and the US signed the Bilateral Trade Agreement, which took effect on December 10, 2001, opening a larger window for Vietnamese goods to enter the US market and creating a steppingstone for Vietnam to accelerate negotiations on its World Trade Organization (WTO) membership. Vietnam and the US sides worked hard to boost cooperation in education, science-technology, and people-to-people exchange, in addition to humanitarian activities including the missing-in-action (MIA) issue.
Domestically, in February 2001, a number of ethnic minority Central Highlanders, incited by reactionaries living in exile and by hostile forces, staged mass gatherings and demonstrations, causing unrest and other serious political and socio-economic consequences in the region. The incident was blamed on both internal and external factors. Local authorities failed to address the difficulties of ethnic minority people in a timely fashion. Reactionary organization FULRO in exile and other reactionary and hostile forces took advantage of the situation to implement their political plots under the cloak of “charity for the people”(5). At that time, FULRO was based in Colorado, in the United States.(6)
Identifying “partners” and “objects of struggle” in external affairs
The principle to identify “partners” and “objects of struggle” set out in the Resolution serves as an essential premise for Vietnam to handle fruitfully and harmoniously its relations with other countries, particularly world powers.
In relations with China, Vietnam has clearly defined areas of cooperation and areas of struggle and has persistently and successfully handled them. Based on the motto of “friendly neighborliness, comprehensive cooperation, long-term stability, and future-oriented thinking” set out in 1999, both sides added the spirit of “good neighbors, good friends, good comrades, and good partners” to their relations in 2005. In 2008, Vietnam and China agreed to establish a comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership. Both sides had completed border demarcation and border maker planting by 2008 and signed three documents on land border management in 2009. China has been Vietnam’s biggest trade partner since 2004. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, two-way trade value hit 165.8 billion USD in 2021, a year-on-year rise of 24.6%, according to the General Department of Vietnam Customs. Statistics from China’s General Administration of Customs showed that bilateral trade turnover was 230.2 billion USD in 2021, surpassing the 200 billion USD mark for the first time and representing a 19.7% increase from 2020 if calculated in the US dollar, and a 12% increase if calculated in the yuan. China continues to be Vietnam’s biggest import market and second largest export market. Vietnam remains China’s biggest trade partner in ASEAN and 6th biggest trade partner in the world after the US, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Germany, and Australia.(7) Vietnam and China signed the “Agreement on basic principles guiding the settlement of sea-related issues between Vietnam and China" in 2011, and have maintained mechanisms on Government-level negotiations on border and territory, meetings between the two countries’ deputy foreign ministers, and negotiation mechanisms involving the Working Group on the sea area beyond the mouth of the Gulf of Tonkin, the Working Group on cooperation in the less sensitive areas at sea, and the Working Group for consultation on cooperation for joint development at sea. Pending historical issues relating to Vietnam’s sovereignty, sovereign right and jurisdiction in the East Sea have been settled thanks to adherence to the principle of identifying “partners” and “objects of struggle”. Vietnam persistently and resolutely defends its sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdictions, and settles disagreements through peaceful means on the basis of international law, while promoting cooperation with China. China was Vietnam’s biggest import market in 2014 with an estimated turnover of 43.7 billion USD, up 18.2% from 2013, according to Vietnam’s General Statistics Office. Vietnam ran a trade deficit of 28.9 billion USD with China in 2014, an increase of 21.8% from 2013.(8)
Vietnam has enjoyed fruitful cooperation with the US in several areas. In March 2006, the two countries completed bilateral negotiations on Vietnam’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). In December 2006, the US Congress passed the Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status with Vietnam. These were vital steps for Vietnam’s WTO membership. On July 25, 2013, the two sides established a comprehensive partnership. Two-way trade grew sharply, from 450 million USD in 1995 to more than 111 billion USD in 2021. The US has become Vietnam’s biggest export market and Vietnam currently enjoys its largest trade surplus with the US. Though the US is not the largest foreign investor in Vietnam, American giants like Apple, Qualcomm, Nike, Morgan Stanley, ACORN International, General Dynamics, and Google have invested in high-tech and other areas of high added values vital for Vietnam’s industrialization and modernization and efforts to renovate its growth model. In September 2011, Vietnam and the US signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on defense cooperation under which the US is ready to share information and experience, train Vietnam’s marine law enforcement forces and provide these forces with equipment including patrol boats, and to strengthen military medical cooperation. In June 2015, Vietnam and the US signed the Joint Vision Statement on Defense Relations, creating favorable conditions for defense relations between the two countries to grow rapidly and become more practical. Cooperation in overcoming the legacy of war has been accelerated. “Areas of struggle” in relations with the US center around democracy, human rights, religious freedom, and activities of anti-Vietnam forces in the US. Every year, the US Department of State continues to release biased reports on democracy, human rights, and religious freedom in Vietnam. Anti-Vietnam forces like Viet Tan and the so-called “independent De Ga state” are based in the US. Some groups in the US advocate associating economic and trade relations with Vietnam with conditions on democracy, human rights, and religion. For instance, on September 15, 2004, the US designated Vietnam as a country of particular concern (CPC). By identifying “partners” and “objects of struggle” in the US, Vietnam responded resolutely to extreme groups, persisted with dialogue with supporters of bilateral ties, stabilized the situation in the Central Highlands, and invited American reporters and some Congressional aides to field trips in the region. As a result, the US removed Vietnam’s CPC designation on November 14, 2006. It was widely believed that without the removal, the US Congress would not have passed PNTR for Vietnam one month later.
Some conclusions can be drawn from Vietnam’s relations with other countries over the past 20 years. First, Vietnam has mainly adopted the second perspective in identifying “partners” and “objects of struggle”. This means Vietnam looks at countries’ behaviors regarding specific issues and specific circumstances and responds correspondingly. It seeks to promote cooperation in areas where interests converge and to struggle reciprocally in areas where interests differ or contradict. Second, very few countries permanently respect Vietnam’s goals and share Vietnam’s interests and very few countries permanently challenge Vietnam’s interests. This conclusion also applies to distant countries which have almost no economic and trade relations with Vietnam but are nevertheless influenced by major countries on such issues as democracy, human rights, and religion relating to Vietnam at regional and global forums. Third, this entity-based approach, in many cases, has made it difficult for Vietnam to reach internal consensus because of different viewpoints on complicated issues in its relations with world powers, particularly China and the US.
Identifying “partners” and “objects of struggle” in the new situation
Current developments around the world including the post-COVID period and the unpredictable Russia-Ukraine conflict indicate that a mixture of cooperation and competition, even confrontation, between world powers will likely continue to dominate international relations in the next 5-10 years. Confrontation between major powers, if any, is forecast to be more intense than in the past 5-10 years, especially with regard to geopolitics, geoeconomics, national defense-security, and science-technology, which will rapidly alter the balance of power in economics, national defense, and influence among nations, encouraging new alliances.
On October 12, 2022, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution highlighting the principle of respecting territorial integrity and defending the UN Charter with 143 votes in favor. The resolution opposed Russia’s annexation of four provinces in eastern and southern Ukraine. From February 22, 2022 to October 20, 2022, the US and western countries imposed 9,873 sanctions on Russian organizations and individuals including President Vladimir Putin.(9) The Biden administration has pursued the following approach to China: “competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be.”(10) Both Democrats and Republicans consider China a competitor and this bipartisan perception is forecast to continue for years or decades.
In its new blueprint, or Strategic Concept, approved at a summit in Spain in June 2022, NATO listed China as one of its strategic priorities for the first time, saying Beijing’s ambitions and its “coercive policies” challenge the Western bloc’s “interests, security and values”.(11)
In a political report delivered at the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, which took place between October 16, 2022 and October 22, 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping reaffirmed China’s “clear-cut stance against hegemonism and power politics in all their forms,” adding that China has never wavered in its opposition to “bullying of any kind.” He said China “must be ready to withstand the major test of high winds, choppy waters and even dangerous storms” and will “win regional wars.”(12)
The global economy is forecast to encounter more challenges in the near future. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicted the world’s economy to expand 3.2% in 2022 and 2.7% in 2023, the lowest since 2001 (except the 2008-2009 global financial crisis period and the COVID-19 period), inflation to rise until at least 2024, and many economies to fall into recession in 2023.(13) Ailing international trade and investment coupled with disrupted production and distribution chains as the result the pandemic have been exacerbated by the Russia-Ukraine conflict. All countries, particularly poor countries and countries undergoing armed conflict, are adversely affected.
Competition and confrontation often prompt major countries to entice and even coerce small countries into supporting and aligning with them. Small and medium-sized countries facing economic difficulties or unsolved internal problems will find it hard to remain immune to the influence of world powers. Voting results at the UN General Assembly with regard to major countries showed that since the end of the Cold War, most small and medium states have opted for a “defensive” approach, which means they try to avoid taking sides and their votes are based on specific issues and specific circumstances.(14) For example, at Non-Aligned Movement meetings in recent years, Belarus, Uganda, and Zimbabwe, which have no direct relations with the Asia-Pacific region, have become the leading opponents of ASEAN’s effort to update regional developments (including the East Sea situation).(15)
This indicates that there will be neither permanent “partners” nor permanent “objects of struggle”. The goal of becoming a developed, high-income country by 2045 will only be achieved if Vietnam is able to maintain a peaceful, stable, and favorable climate for development. In order to realize Vietnam’s development aspirations amid unforeseen and complex developments around the world, and identifying “partners” and “objects of struggle” in relations with other countries, focus should be placed on building strategic trust with partners, in addition to addressing challenges. Without strategic trust, it will be difficult to secure peace and stability in a constantly unstable environment and very few countries will commit to long-term cooperation with Vietnam, particularly in selling or transferring core technologies.
The world is changing and so are Vietnam and its strategic goals. In the new situation, “partners” and “objects of struggle” should be identified depending on their behaviors. This approach conforms with the new situation and creates favorable conditions for Vietnam to reach consensus in foreign policy making and implementation. It will not affect Vietnam’s policy when permanent “partners” or “objects of struggle” do exist. This approach, together with President Ho Chi Minh’s diplomatic ideology of “more friends, less foes”, will continue to play a crucial role in Vietnam’s external relations, creating a new posture and new power for Vietnam in the region and the world.
(1) “Study guide to the Resolution of the 8th Plenum of 9th Party Central Committee” issued by the Party Central Committee’s Education and Communication Commission, National Political Publishing House, 2003, p. 44.
(2) Ho Chi Minh Biographical Chronicle, National Political Publishing House, 2016, Vol. 6 (1955 - 1957), pp. 15-16
(3) “Afghanistan War: How did 9/11 lead to a 20-year war?”, Imperial War Museums, 2022, https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/afghanistan-war-how-did-911-lead-to-a-20-year-war
(4) “China - U.S. Aircraft Collision Incident of April 2001: Assessments and Policy Implications” by Shirley A. Kan (Coordinator), CRS Report for Congress, October 10, 2001, https://sgp.fas.org/crs/row/RL30946.pdf
(5) “Building ‘the fortress of people’s hearts and minds’ in the Central Highlands: From a bitter lesson to enormous achievements” by People’s Army newspaper reporters, December 1, 2020, https://www.qdnd.vn/chinh-tri/cac-van-de/xay-thanh-tri-long-dan-o-tay-nguyen-tu-bai-hoc-xuong-mau-den-thanh-qua-to-lon-646348
(6) “The truth about the ‘politically motivated incident” in the Central Highlands” by Nguyen Nhu Phong, March 7, 2002, https://vnexpress.net/su-that-ve-cuoc-gay-roi-mang-mau-sac-chinh-tri-o-tay-nguyen-1956176.html
(7) “In 2021: Vietnam-Sino trade rises nearly 25%” by Vu Khue, January 25, 2022, https://vneconomy.vn/nam-2021-thuong-mai-viet-nam-trung-quoc-tang-gan-25.htm
(8) “Trade deficit with China nears 29 billion USD in 2014” by Trung Ninh, December 29, 2014, https://thoibaotaichinhvietnam.vn/nhap-sieu-tu-trung-quoc-gan-29-ty-usd-trong-nam-2014-24512.html
(9) “Total number of list-based sanctions imposed by Australia, Canada, the European Union (EU), France, Japan, Switzerland, the United Kingdom (UK), and the United States on Russia from February 22 to October 20, 2022, by target”, Statista, 2022, https://www.statista.com/statistics/1293531/western-sanctions-imposed-on-russia-by-target/
(10) “Biden’s China strategy: Coalition-driven competition or Cold War-style confrontation?” by Cheng Li, Brookings, May 2021, https://www.brookings.edu/research/bidens-china-strategy-coalition-driven-competition-or-cold-war-style-confrontation/
(11) “NATO declares China a security challenge for the first time”, Aljareera, January 30, 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/6/30/nato-names-china-a-strategic-priority-for-the-first-time
(12) “Full text of the report to the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China”, Nation Congress, Xinhua, October 25, 2022, https://english.news.cn/20221025/8eb6f5239f984f01a2bc45b5b5db0c51/c.html
(13) “Lastest World Economic Outlook Growth Projections”, International Monetary Fund, October 2022, https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/WEO/Issues/2022/10/11/world-economic-outlook-october-2022
(14) “The Impirical analysis of the voting results in the UN General Asembly” by Ilyin - Ilya V. - Bilyuga, S. - Malkov – Sergey, Social Studys, 2022, https://www.sociostudies.org/almanac/articles/the_empirical_analysis_of_the_voting_results_in_the_un_general_assembly/
(15) The author of this article attended the Ministerial Meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in Caracas, Venezuela, in 2019.
This article was published in the Communist Review No. 1004 (December, 2022)