What Vietnam Can Learn from the Stalemate in Ukraine

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What Vietnam Can Learn from the Stalemate in Ukraine

The stagnant state of the conflict is likely to make Hanoi even warier of relying on its security partnership with Washington.

What Vietnam Can Learn from the Stalemate in Ukraine

The sun sets over a destroyed building in Izyum, Ukraine, Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Bram Janssen, File

The Russia-Ukraine War is heading towards a stalemate, with the recent Ukrainian counteroffensive failing to achieve a breakthrough. For Ukraine and the West, war fatigue is setting in, but Russian President Vladimir Putin is determined to keep his territorial gains. Putin has adopted a strategy of bleeding Ukraine white via the continued stationing of Russian troops on occupied territories. The Russian defensive posture means Ukraine will have to go on the offensive against dug-in Russian troops, which will allow Russia to fight a war of attrition that Ukraine cannot win. Even the Western ammunition supplies necessary to support Ukraine’s offensive posture are under stress. Many Western analysts are now proposing that Ukraine accept a ceasefire and come to terms with the fact that Russia, as things stand, cannot be defeated regardless of continued Western military support. Ukraine should focus on rebuilding the territories still under its control instead of trying to take back those that Russia has seized.

What is playing out in Ukraine is eerily similar to how China punished Vietnam after their border war in early 1979. After China launched a surprise invasion of northern Vietnam on February 17, it quickly captured four of the region’s six provincial capitals. On March 4, China captured Lang Son, the most important border town connecting Hanoi to the China-Vietnam border. A day later, China declared that the “gate to Hanoi” was now open before declaring its withdrawal.

After the withdrawal, China maintained a state of military stalemate to force Vietnam into submission. Frequent Chinese shelling of Vietnamese border towns and incursions put Vietnam on a constant wartime footing, and Vietnamese counteroffensives to retake strategic hilltops often ended in great casualties for Vietnam. As war fatigue in Vietnam and the Soviet Union set in, Vietnam realized that it could defeat neither China nor Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, a close ally of China whom it had driven from power in January 1979, by force. Hanoi then withdrew its occupying forces from Cambodia, accepted the Khmer Rouge as a legitimate political faction, and normalized relations with China on Chinese terms. The only difference between 1979 and the present situation in Ukraine is that Vietnam’s alliance with the Soviet Union limited the scope and length of the Chinese invasion; unlike Russia’s occupation of eastern Ukraine, China did not occupy Vietnam’s border provinces. Still, Vietnam gave in to Chinese pressure when its alliance treaty with the Soviet Union was still in effect.

Vietnam and Ukraine are geopolitically similar: both are small countries bordering a great power. Importantly, they both look to the United States as a viable option for balancing against that threatening great power. Vietnam and China are themselves aware of these similarities. As Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Vietnamese counterpart Bui Thanh Son in April 2022, Vietnam and China should not “let… the tragedy of Ukraine be repeated around us.”

Foreign policy making is in some senses a process of learning. Vietnam’s current foreign policy of neutrality has been determined by the last war that it fought against China. Hanoi learned to renounce military alliances after its alliance with the Soviet Union failed to protect it from China. If the China-Vietnam War taught Vietnam about the limits of its alliance with the Soviet Union and the extent of Chinese punishment, the Russia-Ukraine War is teaching it valuable lessons about the limits of its security partnership with the U.S. and the perils of being stuck in a war of attrition against China.

First, if Vietnam was already skeptical of military alliances after the China-Vietnam War, it would now grow even warier of a non-alliance security partnership with Washington. Vietnam’s 2019 White Paper states the “One Depend” principle that “depending on circumstances and specific conditions, Viet Nam will consider developing necessary, appropriate defense and military relations with other countries on the basis of respecting each other’s independence, sovereignty, territorial unity, and integrity.”

Hypothetically, such a contingency means Hanoi will bet on U.S. military support if China bullies it. However, the war in Ukraine has shown Vietnam that although the U.S. has been willing to provide its non-ally Ukraine with weapons and political backing, such support has not been enough to defeat Russia on the battlefield. Vietnam’s geography is even worse than that of Ukraine, as Vietnam does not border a U.S. ally, which can offer a steady flow of arms in times of war. This is a limitation in the capability of the U.S.-Vietnam security partnership.

There also exists a limitation in political will. American support for Ukraine has not been unwavering because the U.S. fears an escalation and entrapment in a conflict with Russia. Washington limited the types of weapons it would give to Kyiv, such as the ATACMS long-range missiles and F-16 fighter jets, for months. When U.S. war fatigue sets in, especially with the lack of public support for further aid to Ukraine and the prospect of an electoral victory by Donald Trump next year, the U.S. may no longer be willing to support Ukraine’s counteroffensives. Moreover, with the Israel-Palestine conflict once again flaring up, the U.S. is increasingly distracted from Ukraine.

If another China-Vietnam war happens, the U.S. might not give Vietnam what it wants to execute the war for fear of escalation, or it might be distracted elsewhere. When U.S. support for Vietnam decreases over time, as China again adopts a “bleeding Vietnam white” strategy, Vietnam will be under pressure to yield to a settlement that is against its interests. And for a weak country depending on U.S. weapons to balance against China, Vietnam cannot continue resisting China after the U.S. withdraws its support. This was Vietnam’s experience of being abandoned by the Soviet Union and having to give in to China’s dominant position in Indochina after 1991. Once Vietnam realizes that a Ukraine-U.S. security partnership fails to deliver what Ukraine wants, it will have less faith in its partnership with the U.S. and be forced to readjust its “One Depend” principle.

Second, for Vietnam, the Russia-Ukraine War shows that a great power does not have to perform well on the battlefield to inflict great pain on a small power. Neither the Chinese nor Russian militaries performed well in the opening days of their two wars, but the sheer size of their military was enough to make up for underperformance on the battlefield, despite the smaller enemy receiving massive military support from extra-regional powers. And neither China in 1979 nor Russia now had to militarily conquer their smaller neighbors to break their will. Vietnam and Ukraine were determined to resist, but resource constraints could not be overcome with will alone.

Even if Vietnam and Ukraine can heroically drag their neighbors into a military stalemate, as was the case in 1979 and currently, a political settlement is the only solution to the deadlock. Unfortunately, small states tend to have little say at the negotiation table because time is on the side of the big states, as only they can win a war of attrition. China did not agree to a political settlement with Vietnam throughout the early 1980s, deeming Hanoi insufficiently sincere, and continued to bleed Vietnam white. Vietnam’s normalization of ties with China in 1991 on Chinese terms was the best outcome that Hanoi could hope for, as China finally stopped forcing Vietnam to fight a war that it could not win. Similarly, Putin will not agree to a ceasefire with Ukraine, if he does not extract a good enough concession in return.

Even worse for Vietnam, China is not as weak as it was in 1979 and Hanoi no longer enjoys the protection of a treaty ally. In the absence of any threats from the Russia-China border, China could well occupy Vietnam’s northern provinces instead of withdrawing in 1979, in order to teach Hanoi a much more painful second lesson. There is also no guarantee that China would give those provinces back even if Vietnam agreed to a political settlement on Chinese terms after exhausting it and its partners’ military stockpiles. If Vietnam perseveres and rejects a political settlement at all costs, it will not be able to sustain a military stalemate and launch counteroffensives to take back its territories, as happened in the 1980s and is happening in Ukraine now. Neither option is desirable.

Judging from what has happened in Ukraine, it really is in Vietnam’s interests to avoid such a scenario and a repeat of the 1979 war. Vietnam’s foreign policy first and foremost should be about defending its territorial integrity, and that means balancing the interests of the great powers in order to avoid upsetting any of them. If there is one major lesson from both the China-Vietnam War and the Russia-Ukraine War, it is that China and Russia will never go away. Small states that fail to heed this lesson and rely on external help to hurt the great powers’ interests will suffer catastrophic consequences. Vietnam thus should keep the U.S. close – but China closer.