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Thayer Consultancy

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Background Briefing:
Vietnam: Responding to Kerry
and Abe
Carlyle A. Thayer
January 12, 2017

[client name deleted]

The security situation in Southeast Asia seems in flux. Rex Tillerson advocated denying
China access to its reclaimed islands in the South China Sea during his confirmation
hearings. Japans Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry
both are touring the region (Philippines and Vietnam, respectively).
Are these development related? . It looks a lot like there is an effort from Japan and
the current U.S. government to reaffirm alliances and relationships in the dying days
of the Obama administration. Things look a lot more uncertain under Trump. Notably,
Abe will be going to Philippines, Australia, Indonesia and Vietnam.
Q1 Do you think this is a fair way to look at this?
ANSWER: Absolutely. Prime Minister Abe is demonstrating proactive leadership in
trying to rally Southeast Asia at a time of uncertainty over policy under Trump.
Secretary Kerry seems to be giving reassurances about the rebalance and the enduring
interests that the U.S. has in the region that won't change when Trump takes office
(U.S. trade, investment and the keeping the South China Sea lines of communication
Q2. Also, Vietnam is interesting. Its relationship with India seems to be progressing
quickly, if the reports about the Ashak missile system are true. And of course there is
the fighter pilot training program and the port calls and so on. It looks like Hanoi is
continuing its long-standing policy of building as many international relationships as it
can, whether they be trade, military, security or strategic. This includes China, too, of
course. Communist Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong is off to Beijing
(possibly to avoid Kerry!)
Have we got that right, and are we likely to see Vietnam continuing to move in this
direction despite the disappointment on TPP? It seems to be picking up the pace in
its privatization program too, which is partly related perhaps.
ANSWER: Absolutely. Vietnam seeks to avoid being caught in the middle of strategic
rivalry between a rising China and the United States by pursuing a multi-polar balance
among seven major powers Russia, India, Japan, China, United States, United
Kingdom and France. The purpose of strategic partnerships is to give each country
equity in Vietnam to prevent Vietnam from being pulled into a rivals orbit and to

enable Vietnam to maintain its strategic autonomy. When taken as a whole, Vietnams
web of strategic partnerships serve to insulate Vietnam from Sino-U.S. competition
and provide Vietnam with the means to maneuver among the major powers in order
to protect its independence and self-reliance.
Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, Vietnam: Responding to Kerry and Abe, Thayer
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Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and
other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially
registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.