Vietnam’s Relations with the United States: Time For an Upgrade
Hanoi has long hesitated in upgrading its relationship with the United States to a strategic partnership. It should think again.
One of the most frequently asked questions in conferences and seminars on U.S.-Vietnam relations is whether the two countries will establish a strategic partnership. In 2013, Vietnam and the U.S. agreed to a comprehensive partnership, paving the way for growing collaboration on trade, security, educational, health, cultural, climate change, and war legacy issues. The two former enemies also share similar views on many issues of strategic importance, such as respect for international law and freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, stability of global supply chains, fair and sustainable utilisation of water resources in the Mekong, and a rules-based international order. For these reasons, both U.S. and Vietnamese officials have noted that the relationship is already strategic in nature. But an official upgrade will affirm Vietnam’s strategic autonomy and inject more momentum into U.S.-Vietnam relations.
The U.S. has long sought a strategic partnership with Vietnam. In the words of Kurt Campbell, Washington’s Indo-Pacific czar, Vietnam is a “critical swing state” in the Indo-Pacific, given its strategic location, growing geopolitical and geo-economic clout, and strong opposition to China’s maritime assertiveness. In 2010, then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered to raise U.S.-Vietnam relations to a strategic partnership. U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris suggested the same during her visit to Vietnam in August 2021. U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Marc Knapper has emphasised that a priority during his tenure is to achieve the strategic partnership status.
A strategic partnership with the U.S. would align with Vietnam’s foreign policy of independence, self-reliance, multilateralisation, and diversification. Vietnam has forged comprehensive strategic partnerships — the highest diplomatic designation — with China, India, Russia, and, most recently, South Korea. Many of Vietnam’s strategic partners are U.S. allies, such as Japan, Australia, and the United Kingdom.
Vietnam also desires to establish strategic partnerships with all five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (the United States, China, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom), as expressed by former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung at the 2013 Shangri-La Dialogue. Yet, ten years later, the U.S. remains in the lowest-level category in Vietnam’s hierarchy of diplomatic partnerships, together with countries like Myanmar, Brunei, and Hungary.
Hanoi, however, has not been receptive to Washington’s suggestion of upgrading bilateral ties. Unlike his American counterpart, Nguyen Quoc Dung, the Vietnamese Ambassador to the U.S., has never mentioned strategic partnership as one of his goals. His predecessor, Ha Kim Ngoc, said in a 2020 interview that one should not place too much importance on the label but instead pay attention to the substance of the relationship.
A strategic partnership would be more than symbolic. It would be tantamount to Hanoi would sending a message to Beijing that despite accommodating China’s security concerns, it retains agency in strengthening ties with Washington.
Two main obstacles explain Vietnam’s hesitance. First, Vietnam is concerned about China’s potential reaction. Hanoi fears that upgrading the relationship with the U.S. might be construed as joining the U.S.-led anti-China camp, especially in the context of intensifying U.S.-China competition. The conventional view is that China will respond with economic and/or military retaliation.
Second, conservatives among Vietnamese political elites retain some scepticism of the U.S. intentions. They continue to perpetuate the fear of ‘peaceful evolutions’ — U.S.-backed schemes to overthrow or undermine the Vietnam Communist Party (VCP) through the promotion of human rights and democratic values. This fear undergirds the view that upgrading relations with the U.S. will open the door for the U.S. potential interference in Vietnam’s domestic politics.
However, Vietnamese leaders’ hypersensitivity to China’s potential punishment and the prospect of U.S. potential interference is unwarranted.
First, in recent years, China has grown more confident in Vietnam’s neutrality. Beijing tolerates Hanoi’s greater defence engagement with external powers, including the U.S. and its allies. This is due to Vietnamese leaders’ constant refrain that they remain steadfast in preserving good relations with China and upholding the ‘four’s Nos’ principles (no partaking in formal alliances, no siding with another country against a third country, no hosting of foreign military bases, and no use or threat of force in international affairs). VCP General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong’s trip to Beijing following China’s 20th Party Congress last year is a case in point.
Second, the threats of peaceful evolution are often overblown. American leaders have pledged to support a strong, prosperous, and independent Vietnam and respect Vietnam’s political system. U.S. President Biden’s National Security Strategy states that the U.S. is willing to work with autocratic regimes that “do not embrace democratic institutions but nevertheless depend upon and support a rules-based international system”. Vietnam is one of them. Indeed, Washington has sought to resolve or downplay differences with Hanoi in the interest of advancing strategic objectives. As one observer puts it, “Vietnam seems to hold the trump card in the bilateral relationship.”
A strategic partnership would be more than symbolic. It would be tantamount to Hanoi would sending a message to Beijing that despite accommodating China’s security concerns, it retains agency in strengthening ties with Washington. Vietnamese leaders could show that they are not constrained by outdated mindsets and can recalibrate their policies to adapt to the evolving strategic environment, adhering to the spirit embedded in Vietnam’s ‘bamboo diplomacy’.
Moreover, U.S. constituents might eventually lose interest in investing further in the relationship, given Hanoi’s continued lack of reciprocity. A strategic partnership is needed to not only assure both sides’ commitments but also provide the necessary legal background to materialise more substantive and broader collaborations. For example, two countries can upgrade their defence dialogues to the ministerial level and establish an annual military-to-military strategic dialogue framework under the strategic partnership agreement. To mark the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the comprehensive partnership with the U.S., Hanoi should reconsider elevating bilateral ties to the next level.
Phan Xuan Dung is Research Officer at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.