Vietnam is located in the heart of the region where the competition between the United States (US) and China is most intense in Southeast Asia. As one of the most active markets and production centers in the region, Vietnam’s total exports reached $371.3 billion in 2022, while its imports amounted to $358.9 billion. The foreign trade volume increased by 9.1% compared to the previous year.iApproximately $170 billion of its exports consist of high-tech items such as phones and computers.ii This situation highlights the economic and commercial potential of the country. The interest generated by Vietnam’s economic potential has led to efforts by regional and non-regional actors to enhance their relations with Vietnam.
These efforts have necessitated Vietnam to pursue its own unique foreign policy approach and effectively assess risks and opportunities. In this context, Vietnam has referred to its foreign policy since 2016 as “Bamboo Diplomacy”.
“Bamboo Diplomacy” takes its name from the bamboo plant, which has a sturdy root system and flexible branches, symbolizing resilience and adaptability. Vietnam chose this title for its foreign policy approach due to its alignment with the national identity. The concept of “Bamboo Diplomacy” was first proposed by Nguyen Phu Trong, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, at the Vietnam Diplomatic Conference in 2016. It was reaffirmed as a guiding principle of foreign policy at the first National Congress on External Relations held in 2021.iii
“Bamboo Diplomacy” is best described by referring to the statements made by Nguyen Phu Trong, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, during the National Congress on External Relations on December 14, 2021. In his speech, Trong provided the following explanations for “Bamboo Diplomacy”:iv
“Vietnam’s diplomacy is described as soft and wise, yet persistent and resolute. It is characterized by being flexible and creative in the face of all struggles and challenges that stand in the way of national independence and people’s happiness. At the same time, it remains consistent, courageous, resilient, united, and humane. The diplomacy is committed to protecting national interests while demonstrating determination and patience.”
In this context, it can be said that Vietnam’s foreign policy is shaped within the framework of national interests, devoid of ideological approaches, and with a realistic perspective. Indeed, Vietnam maintains good relations with both the United States and the West, as well as with China. Furthermore, Vietnam attaches importance to its trade relations with both sides.
During the first 11 months of 2022, Vietnam’s exports to the United States increased by 18% compared to the previous year, reaching $101.5 billion.v Imports from the United States, on the other hand, remained at around $11.3 billion.vi In the same year, imports from China reached $177.89 billionvii, while exports to China were measured at $146.96 billion.viii
As evident, Vietnam maintains a realistic approach and benefits from its trade relations with both sides without displaying an ideological stance in its relations. In terms of ideology, it is observed that Vietnam has good trade relations with the United States, which is the country it should position itself against ideologically. This aligns well with “Bamboo Diplomacy”.
In addition to economic and trade relations, Vietnam also acts in accordance with the requirements of Bamboo Diplomacy in its political relations. For example, on June 25, 2023, the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier from the United States visited Vietnam for the first time since 2018.ix At the time the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier arrived in Vietnam, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, upon an invitation from Chinese Premier Li Qang, had traveled to China for an official visit and reached Beijing. During the meetings, Li emphasized the ability of Vietnam and China to overcome issues in the South China Sea together, while Pham expressed that Vietnam would never forget the support provided by China during their struggle for independence.x
Vietnam’s Foreign Minister Bui Tanh stated that during the meeting, the leaders of both countries emphasized the importance of building political trust to develop a stable, healthy, effective, and enduring comprehensive strategic cooperation. He also mentioned that Beijing attaches importance to friendly relations with Hanoi, particularly in key areas such as security and defense, and expressed sincerity in deepening bilateral cooperation through party channels.xi
Some analysts associate these two events with Vietnam’s attempt to balance between the two major powers.xii In this context, the arrival of the US ship in Vietnam, coinciding with the celebration of the tenth anniversary of comprehensive partnership, was interpreted as a message of unity between two countries that have concerns about China.
Ultimately, Vietnam’s foreign policy exhibits a balanced approach shaped in line with the principle of “Bamboo Diplomacy.” Vietnam, as guided by this principle, demonstrates flexible approaches beyond national interests and refrains from taking sides in conflicts between different parties. In the context of US-China competition, Vietnam follows this path, seeking peaceful resolutions to issues with both parties and striving to enhance relations with both countries.
i “Viet Nam’s Export and Import 2022”, Vantage Logisic Corp., vantage-logistics.com.vn/viet-nams-export-and-import-2022-bv216.htm#:~:text=In%202022%2C%20the%20total%20export,increase%20over%20the%20previous%20year., (Date of Accession: 02.06.2023).
iii “Japanese Expert Lauds Vietnam’s “Bamboo Diplomacy”, Vietnam +, en.vietnamplus.vn/japanese-expert-lauds-vietnams-bamboo-diplomacy/255590.vnp, (Date of Accession: 01.07.2023).
iv Linh Ha, Hong Nhung, “Vietnam’s Bamboo Diplomacy: From Tradition to Innovation”, Vietnam +, en.vietnamplus.vn/vietnams-bamboo-diplomacy-from-tradition-to-innovation/251418.vnp, (Date of Accession: 02.06.2023).
v Trường Lăng, “Export-Import of Vietnam Set a New Record in 2022, Unlocking Tremendous Potentials in International Trade.”, Viettonkin, www.viettonkinconsulting.com/global-business/export-import-of-vietnam-set-a-new-record-in-2022-unlocking-tremendous-potentials-in-international-trade/#:~:text=In%20the%20first%2011%20months,of%20the%20national%20trade%20turnover., (Date of Accession: 02.06.2023).
vi “US–Vietnam Trade Ties: Challenge Ahead”, Journal of Indo Pacific Affairs, www.airuniversity.af.edu/JIPA/Display/Article/3344116/usvietnam-trade-ties-challenge-ahead/#:~:text=Vietnam’s%20Growing%20Trade%20Surplus%20with%20the%20United%20States,-Vietnam’s%20ballooning%20trade&text=6%20In%202022%2C%20total%20US,amounting%20to%20USD%2011.3%20billion, (Date of Accession: 02.06.2023).
vii Khanh Vu, “Vietnam Posts Record 2022 Trade Surplus with U.S. as China Deficit Rises”, Zawya, www.zawya.com/en/world/china-and-asia-pacific/vietnam-posts-record-2022-trade-surplus-with-us-as-china-deficit-rises-xfwumvob, (Date of Accession:10.01.2023).
viii “China Exports to Vietnam”, Trading Economics, tradingeconomics.com/china/exports/Vietnam, (Date of Accession: 02.06.2023).
ix “US’s Ronald Reagan Aircraft Carrier Arrives in Vietnam’s Danang”, Aljazeera, www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/6/25/uss-ronald-reagan-aircraft-carrier-arrives-in-vietnams-danang, (Date of Accession: 25.06.2023).
x “Li Qiang Holds Talks with Prime Minister of Vietnam Pham Minh Chinh”, Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in United Arab Emirates, http://ae.china-embassy.gov.cn/eng/zgyw/202306/t20230630_11105948.htm, (Date of Accession: 26.06.2023).
xi Luis Linares Petrov, “Vietnam Praises Enhancement of Political Trust with China”, Prensa Latina, www.plenglish.com/news/2023/06/29/vietnam-praises-enhancement-of-political-trust-with-china/, (Date of Accession: 29.06.2023).
xii An Hai, “Analyst: US Carrier, Prime Minister’s Visits to Vietnam ‘No Coincidence’”, VOA, www.voanews.com/a/analyst-us-carrier-prime-minister-s-visits-to-vietnam-no-coincidence-/7159578.html, (Date of Accession: 28.06.2023)