Elite discourses of foreign policy in Vietnam after the Cold War reveal four major ways of thinking international relations. Each approach is based on a distinct principle of international relations and was adopted by the Vietnamese at different time points in history. I will call them, after their respective operational principle, the “balancing,” the “deference,” the “solidarity,” and the “enmeshment” approaches.
The Balancing Approach
According to Kenneth Waltz, “balancing” refers to two forms of states’ response to a growing or already greater power. The more visible form is external balancing, which involves building alliance with third parties on the international stage. The less apparent but more popular form is internal balancing, which means a country building up its domestic strengths to enhance its preparedness. These two forms of behavior rest on a common rationale. As Waltz has remarked, “Weakness invites control; strength tempts one to exercise it, if only for the ‘good’ of other people.”2 Because disparity in power generates insecurity, the way of providing for security is to establish a balance of power.
Although the realist school of international relations coined the term “balancing,” the balancing strategy has been practiced since thousands of years. Since Vietnam’s split from the Chinese empire in the 10th century, internal balancing has been an indispensable ingredient of Vietnamese grand strategy. External balancing is almost absent from the tradition of Sino-Vietnamese relations prior to 1978, when Hanoi entered a formal military alliance with the Soviet Union as a response to China’s threat.3 From then until the normalization of relations between Hanoi and Beijing in 1990-1991, external balancing provided the essence of Vietnam’s China policy.
Balancing thinking is quite familiar to Vietnamese policy makers. The international relations textbook taught at the Ho Chi Minh National Political Academy,
2 Kenneth N. Waltz, Theory of International Politics (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979), p. 27.
3 The best account of the circumstances that led to this change in Vietnam’s China policy is Nayand Chanda, Brother Enemy: The War after the War (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986).