If Hanoi agrees to a comprehensive strategic partnership with the U.S., it would represent a remarkable breakthrough in bilateral ties. Still, such a partnership would not represent a significant shift in Hanoi’s foreign policy.
United States President Joe Biden recently announced that he would be visiting Vietnam “shortly”, likely on his return trip from the G20 Summit in India on 9-10 September. While the specifics of the trip have not been confirmed, international media have speculated that the visit may result in an upgrade of bilateral relations. Unofficial reports suggest that the two countries, which are currently in a “comprehensive partnership”, may skip the “strategic partnership” level to move directly to the “comprehensive strategic partnership” (CSP) level.
If true, this will represent a remarkable breakthrough in bilateral ties, as the CSP is the highest level of partnership in Vietnam’s diplomatic hierarchy. The country only forms such partnerships with those that it views as of great importance for its security, prosperity, and international standing. So far, Vietnam has only established CSPs with four countries: China, India, Russia and South Korea.
If Hanoi decides to enter into a CSP with Washington, it will come as somewhat of a surprise, considering its previous hesitancy to upgrade bilateral ties, even to the lower strategic partnership level. This was mainly due to concerns of potential backlash from China. However, from a strategic standpoint, upgrading ties this time around makes perfect sense for several reasons.
First, the two countries have increasingly convergent strategic interests. Washington’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy and its efforts to counter China’s maritime ambitions have largely aligned with Vietnam’s interests. The U.S. has also provided Vietnam with significant maritime capacity building assistance over the years and may emerge as an important defence supplier for Hanoi in the future. Economically, America is now Vietnam’s largest export market and its second-largest trading partner, with two-way trade turnover reaching nearly US$124 billion in 2022. America is also the eleventh largest investor in Vietnam, with the cumulative registered capital reaching US$11.4 billion by end-2022. Against this backdrop, upgrading ties with one of the most important partners to the highest level is a sensible move for Hanoi.
Second, upgrading ties with the United States is in line with Vietnam’s pursuit of a foreign policy of diversification and multilateralisation. Hanoi also wishes to develop strong and balanced relationships with all the major powers. The U.S., as the leading superpower in the world, is an ideal target for Vietnam’s major power diplomacy. Apart from the United States, Vietnam is also looking to elevate its ties with Japan and Australia to the CSP level in the near future.
Third, 2023 is an opportune year for Vietnam to upgrade ties with the U.S. This is because the two countries are celebrating the 10th anniversary of their comprehensive partnership, providing them with a convenient reason to upgrade ties without raising undue concerns from China. More importantly, given the intensifying U.S.-China strategic rivalry, any delay in upgrading ties with the U.S. may place Vietnam in a difficult diplomatic position if U.S.-China relations worsen. In such a scenario, any attempt by Vietnam to deepen ties with the U.S. may be perceived negatively by Beijing as Vietnam choosing to side with the U.S. to contain China.
… the potential benefits of Vietnam upgrading its relations with the United States far outweigh the costs. The challenge for Hanoi, however, is to make sure that Washington will follow through with its promises and work collaboratively to yield tangible benefits from the elevated partnership.
A major concern for the Vietnamese leadership, and also a potential cost to Vietnam’s decision to upgrade ties with America, may therefore be a punitive response from China. However, it is highly unlikely that China will take strong measures to sanction Vietnam as the U.S.-Vietnam CSP is largely a political declaration rather than a military alliance. It therefore does not pose any direct security threat to China. Given the escalating U.S.-China strategic rivalry and Washington’s overtures to Hanoi, Beijing is aware that any overaction will only push Hanoi closer to Washington. Furthermore, the Chinese leadership is confident that, despite the South China Sea disputes, Vietnam still values its ties with China for political, economic, and strategic reasons. This is evidenced by Vietnam establishing its CSP with China in 2008, 15 years before potentially doing so with the US. Vietnam is also consistently showing that it is maintaining a balance between the two great powers. If history is any indication, it is likely that following President Biden’s visit, Vietnam may soon receive Chinese President Xi Jinping in Hanoi.
In terms of benefits, the Vietnamese leadership sees a CSP with the United States as a testament to Vietnam’s rising international status and a recognition of the political legitimacy of the Communist Party of Vietnam. The CSP will also help to further strengthen bilateral ties in various areas, including trade, investment, technology, climate change mitigation and energy. An additional major benefit for Hanoi may be U.S. support for its digital infrastructure and semiconductor industry. Under the elevated partnership, the U.S. is also expected to help Vietnam modernise its military and improve its maritime domain awareness, both currently among the country’s top defence priorities.
The above analysis indicates that the potential benefits of Vietnam upgrading its relations with the United States far outweigh the costs. The challenge for Hanoi, however, is to make sure that Washington will follow through with its promises and work collaboratively to yield tangible benefits from the elevated partnership. At the same time, Vietnam will need to be wary of becoming embroiled in the geopolitical conflicts between the U.S. and its strategic adversaries, particularly China but also Russia.
As such, while the likely announcement of the Vietnam-U.S. CSP during President Biden’s upcoming visit to Hanoi will be a significant step forward for bilateral ties, it does not signify a major shift in Vietnam’s strategic trajectory. It is still in Hanoi’s best interest to pursue an independent and balanced foreign policy towards the major powers.
Le Hong Hiep is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Vietnam Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.