Rarely can a small country like Vietnam shape relations between great powers such as the United States and China. Yet it can – when it is an important player in a major conﬂict or a ‘great game’ that also involves both America and China. Vietnam played a prominent role inﬂuencing Sino-US ties through the Indochina wars during the Cold War. The two decades following the Cold War witnessed no major conﬂict or great-power rivalry that involved the smaller state; consequently, Vietnam ceased to be a factor shaping relations between the great powers. However, this tranquil period lasted no more than two decades. The emergence since 2009 of the South China Sea (SCS) as a regional ﬂashpoint and the growing power rivalry between China and the United States are bringing Vietnam back into the league of countries that can greatly affect Sino-US relations. It is primarily through its involvement in the SCS dispute and its management of ties with China and the United States that Vietnam can signiﬁcantly inﬂuence Sino-US relations. How Vietnam shapes relations between the two great powers is conditioned by certain new dynamics in and between the three states. I argue that apart from a growing competition for power and inﬂuence between the United States and China, these dynamics include the coming of age of a grave crisis of Communist Party rule in Vietnam and the rise of patriotism as a powerful driver of Vietnamese politics and foreign policy. While having multiple and complex roots, these dynamics are catalyzed by four major developments. The power rivalry between the United States and China is a direct result of the rapid expansion of China’s economic, military and political power (the ‘rise’ of China) and the refocusing of US interest, and consequently, also power, to the Indo-Paciﬁc (the US ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalance’). The re-emergence of patriotism in Vietnam is caused mainly by the country’s renewed conﬂict with China over sovereignty and territorial issues in the SCS. The crisis of Vietnam’s Communist Party (VCP) rule is a long-term, but direct, consequence of the evolution of the party-state since doi moi, the launch of a large-scale reform programme in 1986. This chapter begins by tracing the evolution of Vietnamese politics since doi moi, followed by a discussion of the impact of the SCS dispute on
relations among Vietnam, China and the United States and a look at how Vietnam is dealing with the conﬂict. The following section examines Vietnam’s responses to the rise of China and the US rebalance. Finally, the chapter assesses the new dynamics of the Vietnam-China-US triangle and draws out some implications for the three countries on how to manage their relationships.