While signs are afoot that Hanoi is drawing a little closer to Washington, Vietnam will likely stick to familiar ground when managing its relations with the two largest powers.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Vietnam in mid-April, which marked the tenth anniversary of the two countries’ comprehensive partnership and was preceded by high-level bilateral contacts, has led many to expect a formal upgrade of bilateral ties to a “strategic partnership”. At his reception for Blinken, Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong stated that the two nations had the foundation to elevate their relationship to “a higher level”. Some analysts viewed Blinken’s trip as a preparatory step for a visit by Trong to Washington or by Biden to Hanoi later this year; either occasion might witness the announcement of a formal upgrade.
Vietnam and the U.S. have strong motivations for strengthening their ties. Vietnam views a stronger partnership with the U.S. as a potential deterrent to China’s regional assertiveness and a booster to its economic growth. The U.S. is currently Vietnam’s largest export market and ranks eighth in foreign investment. On its part, the U.S. views Vietnam as a critical player in its Indo-Pacific Strategy due to Hanoi’s frontline position in the South China Sea dispute, its growing capabilities, as well as its historical distrust of China.
Nonetheless, the decision to upgrade the relationship and its specifics depend on a variety of factors, including Vietnam’s domestic politics and calculations vis-à-vis external players.
For Vietnam, ideological differences within the VCP may negatively influence the decision, particularly as the conservative faction seems to have gained traction in recent years. Externally, Vietnam must be careful not to anger China or be perceived as siding with the U.S. in containing its neighbour. While Trong’s visit to Beijing in October 2022 may have helped to ease some of these concerns, Vietnam will still need to tread carefully in managing its relations with both powers.
For Washington, forming a “strategic partnership” with a Communist country with a poor human rights record could be contentious for Biden’s administration, particularly as the 2024 U.S. presidential election approaches. Just hours before Blinken’s arrival in Hanoi, the U.S. State Department criticised Vietnam for jailing a prominent democracy activist to six years in prison.
That said, Washington’s increasingly positive stance towards Vietnam’s political system has eased Hanoi’s doubts about its serious intention for rapprochement. Trong’s unprecedented visit to the White House in 2015 and recent high-level exchanges such as the phone call between Biden and Trong last month, demonstrate Washington’s recognition of the VCP and its general secretary as key players in Vietnam’s decision-making process and bilateral ties, thereby partly allaying Hanoi’s concerns that Washington is seeking to undermine the VCP’s rule through its alleged “peaceful evolution” scheme. According to the VCP propagandists, “the West” has sought to weaken and ultimately destroy the Vietnamese communist rule by instigating gradual and non-violent changes within the country.
An upgrade to a strategic partnership will undoubtedly facilitate deeper military and economic cooperation. From the Vietnamese perspective, this upgrade could signal an end to restrictions in cooperation, opening up the possibility of expanding collaboration in hitherto sensitive areas such as technology transfer, defence cooperation, and intelligence sharing. A move towards a strategic partnership further entails the cultivation of “strategic trust”, which would establish a solid foundation and instill confidence in Vietnamese policy makers to pursue more varied and expansive cooperation with Washington.
Militarily, the U.S. and Vietnam have incrementally bolstered their cooperation, with a particular focus on maritime security. Although still limited in scope, the U.S. has provided Vietnam with essential military equipment and training to enhance the latter’s maritime capabilities. This was evidenced by the handover of two Hamilton-class cutters to Vietnam in 2017 and 2021, with a third transfer in waiting, and the anticipated delivery of 12 new training aircraft between 2024 and 2027. Moreover, the lifting of the U.S. embargo on lethal arms sales to Vietnam in 2016 created a new avenue for Vietnam to purchase U.S. weapons to diversify its arms supplies away from Russia. Following Vietnam’s defence expo in December 2022, major American defence firms, including Lockheed Martin and Boeing, were reportedly in talks with the Vietnamese government about potential helicopters and drones sales.
However, even with the expected benefits, a potential upgrade will not likely shift Vietnam’s hedging approach in the face of intensifying great power rivalry.
Economically, the U.S. and Vietnam can collaborate in key areas like technology transfer, infrastructure development, and green energy. Vietnam’s status as the sole Southeast Asian nation among the top ten U.S. trading partners (as a bloc, ASEAN is joint third with China and the E.U.) highlights its attractiveness to American manufacturers seeking alternatives to China. The U.S. can support Vietnam’s quest for economic diversification by encouraging American firms to relocate to or incorporate their supply chains with Vietnam. Significantly, before Blinken’s trip, a delegation of more than 50 large American companies visited Vietnam to explore business opportunities.
However, even with the expected benefits, a potential upgrade will not likely shift Vietnam’s hedging approach in the face of intensifying great power rivalry. Beijing possesses significant clout in its relationship with Hanoi, being its largest source of imports and an increasingly important investor. The ideological affinity between the two Communist parties further strengthens their connection. Beijing can exploit Hanoi’s apprehension of regime change to sow discord between Vietnam and the U.S. Due to its proximity to China, the complex bilateral disputes in the South China Sea, and a history of repeated invasions from the north, Hanoi would cautiously avoid any semblance of confrontation with Beijing.
While Blinken’s visit signifies positive prospects for bilateral U.S.-Vietnam ties, it would be premature to anticipate any radical shifts in Vietnam’s approach to the U.S. and China or to assume that the U.S.-Vietnam partnership will be without limits. After all, Hanoi already has 17 strategic partners. Taking into account the China factor, Vietnam is unlikely to forsake its “bamboo diplomacy” anytime soon.
Nguyen Khac Giang is Visiting Fellow at the Vietnam Studies Programme of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. He was previously Research Fellow at the Vietnam Center for Economic and Strategic Studies.