Cover: Regional Responses to U.S.-China Competition in the Indo-Pacific

Regional Responses to U.S.-China Competition in the Indo-Pacific


Published Nov 12, 2020

by Derek Grossman


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Research Questions

  1. What is the current state of U.S. versus Chinese influence in Vietnam?
  2. To what extent can the United States increase its influence relative to China's in Vietnam?

Vietnam is arguably one of the most important partners for the United States in the Indo-Pacific region. Vietnam embodies the "free and open" values of the White House's Indo-Pacific Strategy because Hanoi seeks to preserve its sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence in the face of China's increasingly intrusive economic and military power. Vietnam is deeply concerned about the long-term geostrategic implications of China's Belt and Road Initiative and is standing up to Beijing's territorial claims and the growing assertiveness of the People's Liberation Army in the South China Sea.

The author leverages a framework that RAND developed for a seven-part series on regional responses to U.S.-China competition, with this report focusing on Vietnam's perspective. Both Beijing and Washington have pressure points on Hanoi — diplomatic and political, economic, and security and military. The report evaluates how Hanoi is responding to these influence variables, especially as U.S.-China competition grows fiercer across the Indo-Pacific and globally. Understanding this requires analyzing Vietnam's security policy and domestic politics and political, economic, and security ties to the United States and China. Finally, the author discusses the prospects of achieving enhanced U.S.-Vietnam relations to counter rising Chinese coercion in the future, with an eye toward the specific needs of the U.S. Air Force. The research draws on a range of primary and secondary sources in both English and Vietnamese, data sets, and interviews conducted in English that occurred primarily in April 2019.

Key Findings

China maintains a healthy edge over the United States in influence in Vietnam

  • Although Washington is slightly ahead in the diplomatic and political sphere, and it clearly leads in the security and military domain, Beijing is dominant economically.
  • Overall, China is an unavoidable partner for Vietnam, as it maintains the preponderance of influence in the country. Consequently, Vietnam's top priority will be to maintain positive ties with China.
  • Acute bilateral challenges with China, nevertheless, seem to have already convinced Vietnamese leadership to upgrade the U.S.-Vietnam partnership. This trend is almost certain to continue as China pushes its expansive and overlapping sovereignty claims with Vietnam in the South China Sea (SCS). Indeed, overall U.S.-Vietnamese ties could dramatically ramp up, specifically in the security domain, if tensions reach a breaking point or armed conflict begins.
  • But, realistically, barring a major turn of events in the SCS, it is difficult to see how Vietnam might begin favoring the United States over China.


  • The United States should consider deepening and routinizing interactions with Vietnamese counterparts, prioritizing quality over quantity to avoid any bandwidth challenges.
  • The United States should show a commitment to competing with the Belt and Road Initiative to help Vietnam avoid encirclement by pro-China countries.
  • Washington should consider allowing its relationship with Hanoi to unfold organically — i.e., allow Vietnamese leaders to arrive at their own conclusions about Chinese behavior and the benefits of working with the United States. Stating or otherwise implying that Hanoi must make a choice as U.S.-China competition heats up is only likely to be counterproductive.
  • The joint force should continue to work with and through its allies and partners to find areas of complementarity in key objectives to avoid a duplication of effort in Vietnam.
  • In senior-level visits with the Vietnamese Ministry of National Defence, the U.S. Air Force should press for service-to-service cooperation to become routine to minimize the chance of future disruptions.
  • The U.S. Air Force should look for opportunities to build the Vietnam Air Defence–Air Force's (VAD-AF) institutional capacity, particularly its support functions, which are more likely to produce durable gains.
  • Because of VAD-AF sensitivities while on base, perhaps the U.S. Air Force could suggest that cooperative activities take place in other nonmilitary locations.

Research conducted by

The research reported here was sponsored by Brig Gen Michael P. Winkler (PACAF/A5/8) and conducted within the Strategy and Doctrine Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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