Scholars are calling for Vietnam to see itself as a middle power and to behave like a true middle power to accommodate its growing role in regional settings. But is Vietnam already a middle power or just one in the making?
While there remains a range of perspectives on defining the typical features a middle power should possess, I suggest looking into Cooper’s middle power notion, with positional, geographic, normative, and behavioral approaches. A comprehensive probe into Vietnam’s normative and pragmatic power would provide a critical answer to its current status.
Vietnam satisfies the status condition of being situated in between large developed and large developing countries. With more than 97 million people, Vietnam ranks 15th out of 251 countries and territories by population. The young and vibrant population — mostly living in bustling metropolises like Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, and the central coastal city Da Nang — has constituted the emergence of Vietnam as a “next top model of growth,” with a psyche of being hungry for success. Vietnam’s economic resiliency, with real GDP growth of 7 percent in 2019, has accounted for “its deep integration with the global economy.” Via embracing trade liberalization, domestic reforms, and heavy public investments, Vietnam has become one of the top five economic freedom gainers in the Asia-Pacific region, ranking 21st among 42 regional countries. The country’s economic rise as the fastest-growing digital economy in the Asia-Pacific has made it a prime alternative manufacturing hub in Asia. According to the 2020 Lowy Institute Asia Power Index, Vietnam ranked 12th of 26 regional nations for comprehensive power and 11th in military capability. It was hailed as “a middle power in Asia.”
A geographic approach offers a strategic and long-term evaluation of Vietnam’s geopolitical status. Besides sitting next to northern giant China, Vietnam is located at the heart of Southeast Asia, facing the South China Sea with a coastline of more than 3,260 km and ringed by regional countries. Vietnam occupies an important strategic location, with a bridging role for continental and maritime Southeast Asian countries. Unlike the lingering tense relations between China and Taiwan and tumultuous inter-Korean relations, after the 1975 reunification, Vietnam has been quite successful in walking a delicate balance between the United States and China while seeking closer ties with like-minded countries. The emergence of the Indo-Pacific region offers more room for Vietnam to maneuver as its strategic location facilitates the interests of regional powers, like Japan, South Korea, India, and Australia, which have been striving to deepen their engagement with ASEAN. Now Vietnam seems to seek a favorable equilibrium amid regional great power rivalry and political uncertainties.
This article written by Huynh Tam Sang
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