Competing territorial claims in the South China Sea. (Internet photo)
China's increasingly assertive pursuit of its maritime claims, which has led to standoffs with Japan in the East China Sea and the Philippines in the South China Sea, is also affecting the country's relations with Vietnam.
Tensions between Hanoi and Beijing center around the disputed Paracel and Spratly islands in the South China Sea in an area that could have large deposits of hydrocarbons. A sea battle in 1974 gave China control over the Paracels, while the two sides also clashed over a reef in the Spratlys in 1988, with China again emerging victorious. In July 2012 Beijing announced the formation of the prefecture-level city of Sansha under the southern island province of Hainan to administer the Paracels and the Spratlys, as well as Macclesfield Bank. Hanoi promptly responded by passing a law including the Paracels and the Spratlys within Vietnam's national territory.
Vietnam has developed a strong alliance and increasing military, diplomatic and business ties with India, which has joint oil and gas exploration pursuits off Vietnam's coast. New Delhi also feels the threat of Chinese encroachment in the region and is interested in making sure the balance of power does not shift too much in Beijing's favor.
Perhaps more interesting is the fact that all of these developments have brought former foes the United States and Vietnam together, with ever increasing diplomatic ties and potential for military cooperation. US warships have called regularly at Vietnamese ports over the past ten years, and in 2012 then US defense secretary Leon Panetta visited Vietnam seeking even greater access for US warships.
Last month, US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Vietnam to discuss growing trade and security ties. He also made what media called a symbolic trip to the Mekong River Delta, where he once patrolled against Viet Cong guerrillas on a swift boat during the Vietnam War.
The American Chamber of Commerce in Vietnam said in November that the US is Vietnam's second largest trading partner after China. Vietnam's exports to the US are projected to increase 16.7% this year to US$23.7 billion, while imports from the US are projected to rise 8.7% to US$5 billion.
Vietnam is also one of twelve countries negotiating to join the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement. All of this fits into Hanoi's geopolitical plans, forming alliances where it can, where it must. Dr Zha Daojiong, a professor at the School of International Studies at Peking University told me recently that Vietnam is centering itself in the world by forming alliances with the US, Russia and "whoever else is considered important players in this geopolitical gamesmanship."
Last week, media reported that Vietnam's first Russian-built Kilo-class submarine was recently delivered to the southern port of Cam Ranh Bay and could be used to confront China's South China Sea maritime ambitions.
Up to the present there has been a good element of success in Vietnam's geopolitical maneuvering. With its history of war, subjugation and hardship, the country has little choice but to pursue this path.