In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Vietnam’s Persistent Foreign Policy Dilemma: Caught between Self-Reliance and Proactive Integration
  • Huong Le Thu (bio)

Doi Moi Reforms, Vietnam, Foreign Policy, Self-Reliance, International Integration

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executive summary

This essay argues that “self-reliance” and “proactive international integration”—the two driving concepts in Vietnamese foreign policy since the Doi Moi (open door) era—are increasingly difficult to reconcile in the wake of China’s pursuit of regional and global dominance.

main argument

Vietnam’s partial reforms to its foreign policy have created an ideological dilemma between the contending conceptions of self-reliance and proactive international integration. The country’s foreign policy shift toward greater international political and economic integration since the Doi Moi era in the late 1980s has contributed to its postwar development and re-established the country’s position in the international arena. The reforms responded to the main threat of the time: regime collapse and economic disaster. The full expression of this change in defense policy has been restrained by the Vietnamese Communist Party’s adherence to the principle of self-reliance. While sustaining an independent foreign policy has been a strength for Vietnam in the past, self-reliance has limited alignment options in defense policies. Despite the overall accomplishments of diplomacy and the expanding areas of security cooperation, they seem disproportionately small in comparison with the challenges that Hanoi is facing. In the wake of growing tensions in Vietnam’s neighborhood, especially in the South China Sea, the main security challenges are now threats to sovereignty. Vietnam urgently needs to recalibrate and open its foreign and defense policies in response to the pressing challenges to its territorial integrity.

policy implications

  • • Unlike in the Doi Moi era, today Vietnam’s top priority increasingly is the defense of sovereignty—particularly given China’s unilateral actions in the South China Sea.

  • • Integration rescued the Vietnamese economy and re-legitimized the socialist regime, but the government now fears deepening security relations because of its long-held value of self-reliance.

  • • Given the positive trajectory of security cooperation with Japan, the U.S., India, and Australia, Vietnam should develop a policy that includes advanced security cooperation—in the form of new “yes’s” that serve national interests. This would be a positive addition to the existing policy of “three no’s.” [End Page 124]

While most existing assessments of Vietnam attribute the country’s economic and foreign policy success to the Doi Moi policy (renovation policy, also known in the country as the “open door” policy), this essay argues that Vietnamese foreign policy is still obstructed by older revolutionist sentiments. Because of the long-held attachment of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) to the concept of “self-reliance,” there is a deep resistance to fuller international integration, which in Hanoi’s official language figures as “proactive international integration” (also often referred to as “total integration”). This impasse is impeding Vietnam’s complete integration into global affairs and limits its strategic options.

In the 1980s, economic hardship pushed Vietnam to relax its ideological worldview in favor of a more pragmatic approach to managing its economy and political relations. After successfully defending threats to the country’s sovereignty, the CPV faced the challenge of regime survival in the wake of the crumbling Soviet bloc and poor economic management. The Doi Moi transformation of Vietnam’s foreign policy in the late 1980s and 1990s was advocated as a necessity—either “reform or die”—and was effective in responding to the challenges the country faced at that time: economic and ideological survival. But the policy’s relative success has made Hanoi elites complacent and resistant to further reform that would address Vietnam’s current strategic needs.

The circumstances that Vietnam faces today are different and require more “opening” in the security sector to protect national interests. Sovereignty challenges are again at the forefront. A competitive international environment and regional instability pose new challenges in terms of the escalation of long-term issues, such as China’s militarization of the South China Sea and North Korea’s nuclear crisis, and emerging issues, such as the United States’ trade war against China and possible retrenchment from the region. These developments...