Vietnamese should not pine over President Trump’s loss and fret over Joe Biden’s victory too much.
The election of Joe Biden as the next US president met with mixed reactions from the Vietnamese public. Some expressed disappointment at President Trump’s loss, noting that Vietnam has generally benefited from Trump’s policies, such as his tough stance on China and the US – China trade war. Others hope that Biden will adopt a similarly tough stance on China while being more predictable and less aggressive in pushing for punitive trade measures against Vietnam.
The Biden administration’s Vietnam policy remains to be seen, but there are grounds to believe that there will be more continuity than change, and bilateral ties will strengthen despite certain setbacks.
First, the two countries’ strategic interests should continue to converge, especially in the South China Sea. Due to the intensifying US – China strategic competition, the Biden administration will likely maintain a tough stance on China. If China continues to act aggressively in the South China Sea, the two countries may further deepen their strategic cooperation. The US should continue to provide Vietnam with maritime capacity building assistance and engage Vietnam in minilateral security arrangements like Quad-based exercises. Vietnam may acquire arms and military equipment from the US, or offer American forces greater access to its military facilities.
Second, although the Biden administration will not ignore America’s large and swelling trade deficit with Vietnam, it may adopt a more rational approach to address it. Instead of accusing Vietnam of currency manipulation – an allegation that Vietnam has consistently denied, and scholars and analysts have proven to be unfounded – the Biden administration may pressure Vietnam to import more from the US and stop Chinese companies from rerouting their exports to the US through Vietnam. The Biden administration may also recognise that the recent surge in Vietnam’s exports to the US is partly due to the trade war that the US is waging against China which encourages suppliers to relocate to Vietnam.
Biden may want to lead the US back into the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) to reassert US leadership role in multilateral trade. If this materialises, bilateral ties will be boosted significantly. However, if Biden does want the US to rejoin, he will likely seek changes to the agreement that current members do not want to entertain. In September, some Vietnamese officials indicated that Vietnam would like to negotiate a bilateral free trade agreement with America should Biden win. If the two countries do embark on such a negotiation, it will help the two countries settle their trade differences more “peacefully” and bolster the economic foundation of the bilateral relationship.
Given the strong desire to engage Hanoi in balancing efforts against Beijing, Washington will be tempted to play down human rights in its relations with Hanoi.
Third, Biden himself appears to have a positive view of Vietnam. In 2015, during Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong’s visit to the US, Biden, then Vice-President, hosted a state banquet in Trong’s honour and cited verses from “The Tale of Kieu”, an epic Vietnamese poem, to praise bilateral ties. Last week, he appointed Antony Blinken as Secretary of State in his incoming cabinet. Blinken also has friendly views of Vietnam. During Trong’s visit to the US in 2015, Blinken, then Deputy Secretary of State, penned an opinion piece entitled “A strategic opportunity to advance U.S.-Vietnam relations” in which he expressed strong optimism about bilateral ties. Although the Biden administration’s Vietnam policy will be guided primarily by America’s national interests, its key officials’ warm personal ties with Vietnam may help maintain the relationship’s upward trajectory.
One potential sticking point for bilateral relations in the next four years, however, is the Biden administration’s emphasis on democracy and human rights which is expected to be a key factor differentiating Biden’s foreign policy from Trump’s. Should Biden follow through on these promises, Vietnam will need to improve its human rights record to avoid disruptions in bilateral relations.
However, it is unlikely that this issue will derail bilateral relations. Although there are areas of its human rights record that Vietnam needs to improve, Vietnam’s overall human rights record is not so bad, especially if compared to some neighbouring countries, as to warrant strong punitive measures by Washington. Given the strong desire to engage Hanoi in balancing efforts against Beijing, Washington will be tempted to play down human rights in its relations with Hanoi. After all, under the Obama administration, bilateral ties improved significantly with the two sides establishing a comprehensive partnership in 2013.
Against this backdrop, it is puzzling why Vietnam has not congratulated Biden on his electoral victory. In 2016, Vietnamese leaders did congratulate Trump shortly after the election day. This time, Hanoi may want to wait for official results to be released. A plausible reason for this is that Vietnam may still want to engage senior Trump administration officials to lock in recent gains in bilateral relations. Some analysts have also suggested that Vietnam may be trying to avoid irritating Trump who could make unfavourable decisions against Vietnam during his last days in office. No matter what the reasons for this reticence may be, Vietnam-US relations’ strong momentum should be expected to continue after President Biden is sworn in.
Le Hong Hiep is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Vietnam Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.