The U.S. has become increasingly adept at engaging in areas that best resonate with Vietnamese leaders and the public. But Washington still needs to navigate the tricky shoals of political differences, China-wary Vietnamese elites and media censorship.
Hanoi’s weather has been foggy lately, but it hardly dampened the charm offensive by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken during his visit to Hanoi on 14-16 April. At a meeting with Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, Blinken said: “[W]hile there may be a little fog today, I think the sun has been shining on our relationship.” This positive tone shone throughout the visit with Blinken’s tactful strategic messaging towards the Vietnamese leadership and his soft power outreach to local people.
Blinken had a busy and demanding agenda in Hanoi, with a view to bringing Vietnam-U.S. relations back on track after a quiet year in 2022. Among others, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — and Hanoi’s reluctance to condemn Moscow — brought about frustrations and introspection on both sides regarding how far Vietnam-U.S. ties can go strategically.
Both countries, however, appear willing to turn the page with a slew of bilateral exchanges in 2023, especially the overdue phone conversation between Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and U.S. President Joe Biden. In March, U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power’s trip to Vietnam focused on addressing war legacy issues. Before that, the U.S. Trade Representative visited Hanoi to discuss booming Vietnam-U.S. trade which hit a record of US$123 billion last year. Upon Blinken’s departure, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture touched down in Hanoi to discuss American technical assistance to Vietnam’s agriculture industry towards sustainability goals and to expand U.S. market access to Vietnamese produce.
All these efforts demonstrate that the Biden administration is investing in a whole-of-government agenda to deepen Vietnam-U.S. ties across a range of practical areas that best resonate with Vietnam’s needs and concerns. Blinken came to Hanoi with concrete offerings, including the transfer of a third Coast Guard ship to boost Vietnam’s maritime capabilities. He also announced a new U.S. embassy at the cost of US$1.2 billion that is expected to create jobs for 1,800 local workers and inject US$350 million into the host economy. Washington is putting its resources into advancing an affirmative agenda with Vietnam rather than simply dwelling on criticisms of China. In other words, it views a “strong, independent, resilient and prosperous Vietnam” in America’s interest amid its broader strategic contest with China.
Of note, Washington is trying to catch up in engaging with the VCP, given that party-to-party links clearly work to China’s advantage in exerting influence over Vietnam’s foreign policy. A key highlight of Blinken’s visit was his meeting with the VCP chief, which Vice-President Kamala Harris did not get to do in 2021. The importance of reaching out to Trong cannot be overstated, given his growing dominance as a “core leader” and the recent removal of some top figures in the VCP, which are chipping away at its long-held tradition of collective leadership. Blinken also met the chairman of the VCP external relations commission, creating a new precedent. More than anything, Blinken’s reaffirmation of the U.S.’ respect of “Vietnam’s right to shape its future under its own political system” resonates strongly with the VCP.
Beneath the façade of pomp and circumstance, however, some uncomfortable realities hang over the relationship. A closer look at the Vietnamese media’s coverage of the trip indicates that their narratives remain heavily influenced by China-wary edicts and political reservations by the Party. For example, Blinken’s key agenda during the trip — upgrading bilateral ties to a strategic partnership — did not hog the headlines. Neither did it generate in-depth analysis in the Vietnamese press. There were hints that Vietnamese leaders welcome bringing the relationship to new heights, but the much-desired “strategic partnership” remains off their script. It is not clear whether they have made their minds, or whether they are waiting for a better timing to do so, say, during an official visit by Biden to Hanoi or Trong to Washington.
Vietnamese media coverage of Blinken’s meetings with Vietnamese leaders was virtually aligned with press releases issued by Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Media outlets which failed to toe the official line were quickly reprimanded. An online article covering Blinken’s meeting with Chinh in Tuoi Tre, an influential newspaper in Vietnam, was gutted shortly after its release on 15 April. The article appeared hours before the ministry’s press release. This was a break from a practice that appeared to be strictly enforced to ensure across-the-board uniform coverage of the visit. Furthermore, its headline borrowed a quote by Blinken, namely, “The sun has been shining on the US-Vietnam relationship”. As Vietnamese authorities were casting a wary eye at China when they received Blinken, the Tuoi Tre headline might have sparked concerns among Vietnamese censors that its overly optimistic tone would upset Beijing.
A closer look at the Vietnamese media’s coverage about the trip indicates that their narratives remain heavily influenced by China-wary edicts and political reservations by the Party.
Also absent from Vietnam’s media coverage was Blinken’s mention of human rights issues and his visit to the St. Paul de Chartres convent in Hanoi. The visit to the convent was made known on Blinken’s Twitter account. It was meant to telegraph America’s commitment to freedom of religion and assuage concerns that Washington is emphasising its strategic agenda with Hanoi at the expense of human rights considerations. This serves as a reminder that political differences still constitute a structural drag on Vietnam-U.S. ties.
Regardless, Blinken and his team have executed with panache their charm offensive towards the Vietnamese public that is largely receptive to America. In Hanoi, Blinken took a leisurely stroll in its ancient quarters, went to a jazz club and sampled the local fare at a restaurant. Local media reports also gushed over Blinken’s interactions with young scientists and students and his breaking of the ground at the new U.S. embassy compound.
Clearly, Blinken provided more than enough grist for the media mill to churn out feel-good coverage about his visit and Vietnam-U.S. relations. Such light-hearted coverage encountered relatively fewer political constraints and was able to garner a great deal of public interest. These activities also kept up with the tradition of American leaders’ tactful public outreach to the Vietnamese people.
In becoming increasingly adept at engaging in areas that best resonate with Vietnamese leaders and the public, Washington has gone the extra mile to seek an upgrade of ties with Hanoi. The ball is now in the court of Vietnam’s top echelons, particularly among its China-wary elites.
Dien Nguyen An Luong is Associate Fellow with the Media, Technology and Society Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. A journalist with significant experience as managing editor at Vietnam's top newsrooms, his work has also appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, South China Morning Post, and other publications.
Hoang Thi Ha is Senior Fellow and Co-coordinator of the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.