The US-Vietnam partnership goes beyond strategic competition with China
The US-Vietnam partnership goes beyond strategic competition with China

The US-Vietnam partnership goes beyond strategic competition with China

Vietnam multi-directional politics was originally intended to expand its network of friends to guard against insecurity after the Cold War, when it was too dependent on the Soviet Union. ASEAN membership marked the beginning of Vietnam’s regional and global integration, which has contributed to its economic success over the past three decades. Hanois strategic direction becoming a regional intermediary is strongly centered on this multilateral approach.

Although bilateral exchanges between the United States and Vietnam have rose markedly in the last few years, direct contact has not been the only way to deepen the partnership. Indirect channels through regional events such as ASEAN and US allies and partners in the region offer alternative spaces for dialogue and cooperation.

Collaboration Web

Despite the recent criticism of ASEANs irrelevance with the return of superpower competition, regional platforms remain immensely important. Within ASEAN, Vietnam can make its voice heard, liaise with like-minded partners and gain international support to counter China’s growing aggression in the eastern (“South Chinese”) seas. ASEAN’s various extended forums, such as the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum, provide ideal platforms for discussing issues that may be considered too bilaterally sensitive.

For Hanoi, multilateralism always comes with trade. The country has a trade-to-GDP ratio of almost 200 percent, one of the highest in the world. Vietnam is a party to 15 FTAs, including the high standard 2019 EU-Vietnam FTA and the 2018 Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.

These arrangements, both economic and political, provide platforms for Washington to work with Vietnam on issues of common interest, as well as the opportunity to improve and shape a rules-based regional order. Unfortunately, cooperation with regional multilateral institutions has not been a priority for U.S. foreign policy since the Obama administration. The United States also appears to be lacking effective regional trade and economic cooperation policies following its withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Although President Biden has emphasized the resumption of Asia, this has mostly happened through smaller networks of partners, such as Quad.

U.S. regional allies with whom Hanoi has close ties offer another way to strengthen U.S. cooperation with Vietnam. Japan and South Korea are Vietnam’s largest and second largest sources of investment, respectively. In the past decade, both countries have expanded security cooperation with Hanoi, perhaps with a view to China’s regional ambitions. Tokyo gave Hanoi six used patrol vessels in 2013 and provided $ 338 million in loans to build another six in 2017. In November 2021, during Chính’s visit to Japan, both sides were agreed to “expedite consultations for the transfer of specific equipment, including naval vessels and related equipment.”

Less publicly, South Korea has also strengthened defense band with Vietnam over the last few years, as has been the case India and Australia. These strong relations provide an effective back channel for Hanoi to indirectly work with Washington on areas such as intelligence sharing and maritime security.

The rationale is not only to strengthen the bilateral relationship between Vietnam and the United States, but to engage in a network of like-minded countries that share common interests. To paraphrase a recent RAND report, the United States needs to thicken the network of cooperation with Vietnam in the Indo-Pacific to include regional foreign affairs and defense dialogues, joint military training and exercises, arms sales and transfers, and / or new bilateral or multilateral agreements. In the long run, this will be more sustainable and effective than the quid-pro-quo approach of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Vietnam’s China Dilemma

Despite Vietnam’s rapprochement with the United States, China remains “top priority”Of Vietnamese foreign policy, in words attributed to Foreign Minister Bùi Thanh Sơn. Beijing has many leverage points at its disposal evoke or force Hanoi. China’s decision to close the border gates at the end of 2021 caused major damage to Vietnamese exporters. Despite tensions over sovereignty issues, the Vietnamese and Chinese Communist parties maintain an intimate relationship because of their ideological adjustment. Beijing wisely exploits the Vietnamese party’s fear of regime change to shape one wedge strategy against the Vietnam-US partnership and warns leaders in Hanoi about potential “color revolutions”.

As Vietnam is next door to a powerful nation, Vietnam is rightly concerned about the consequences of being perceived as a “gang-up” on China. As the country has faced several invasions from China, most recent in 1979, there is always a security concern emanating from the northern border. This may explain why Vietnam and the United States have not upgraded their relationship to the “strategic partnership” level, even though the case has been raised since 2018. Hanoi does not want to be caught in the crossfire of superpower competition.

Common interests as a basis for friendship

There is no doubt that relations between the United States and Vietnam are at their best stage since the end of the Vietnam War. Despite the legacy of the war, the Vietnamese have one of the most favorable prospects in the United States in Asia. Vietnam is the only Southeast Asian country in the top 10 in the United States trading partnersand U.S. manufacturers are increasingly considering Vietnam as one alternative destination to China. Strategic interests have converged significantly in the last decade, which has led to expanded security cooperation signaled the lifting of the US embargo on lethal arms sales in 2016. Hanoi is an ardent supporter of a rule-based regional order as well as the US-led free and open Indo-Pacific strategy. Although the scenario of a formal alliance is unlikely, the upward trajectory is clear. When Vice President Kamala Harris visited Vietnam in August 2021, it indicated that both sides were working towards a strategic partnership.

The United States’ rapprochement with Vietnam is more than a way of “containing” China (as if this could be done). A long-term, stable friendship should not be based solely on mutual concern about a growing regional hegemony. Washington should not only focus on economic and security partnerships, but need to support Vietnam in areas that the country is lagging behind, especially institutional reforms and the increasing repression of civil society. A more democratic and open Vietnam will not only be good for the Vietnamese, but a more trusted regional partner. A friendship based on shared values ​​is much more sustainable than one based solely on security and economic interests.

It is certainly not easy, because the United States often promotes democracy in principle while compromise it in practice. But helping Vietnam improve its human rights and democracy record does not have to sound like a “color revolution”, as recent experience from labor reforms in the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement. A multilateral US approach, including trade and strategic cooperation, can avoid important regional pitfalls and create significant progress in the bilateral relationship.

Nguyễn Khắc Giang is a Ph.D. Master of Political Science and International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

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