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Blinken to seek strategic upgrade of U.S.-Vietnam ties

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Before attending a Group of Seven foreign ministers’ meeting in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will be visiting Vietnam as Washington tries to elevate diplomatic ties with Hanoi and potentially pave the way for a visit by U.S. President Joe Biden.

Blinken’s first official visit to the Southeast Asian country is set for Friday through Sunday to mark the 10th anniversary of the U.S.-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership, which will include a groundbreaking ceremony for a new U.S. Embassy compound in Hanoi.

High on the agenda will be strengthening trade and investment ties, supporting Vietnam’s energy transition and response to climate change — particularly in the Mekong Delta — and dealing with war legacy issues, such as bomb and mine clearance and support for dioxin victims.

A sensitive issue

Another key issue to be discussed will be U.S. plans to elevate the bilateral relationship to a “strategic partnership.”

Building on a recent phone call between Biden and General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, Blinken will talk to senior Vietnamese officials to prepare the ground for the diplomatic upgrade, as Washington seeks closer ties with Southeast Asian countries to counterbalance Beijing’s growing footprint in the region.

Vietnam is also among eight non-G7 member states invited by Japan to attend the G7 leaders meeting in May in Hiroshima as Tokyo seeks to forge a united international front on issues like China’s challenges to the rules-based order and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“The Biden administration has made deepening ties with Vietnam a central part of its Southeast Asia strategy, alongside the modernizing alliance with the Philippines and shoring up ties with Singapore and Indonesia,” said Gregory Poling, director of the Southeast Asia Program at the U.S.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Despite Vietnam’s complex ties with China, upgrading ties with Washington remains a sensitive issue in Hanoi, experts say, noting that the communist country has yet to be forthcoming with an answer, probably because of calculations on the pros and cons of the move.

Washington, Poling said, will need to show that it is committed to the relationship and will deliver tangible results to outweigh any diplomatic and economic blowback Vietnam will face from China.

Indeed, U.S. officials have repeatedly stated that bilateral relations should be upgraded but the idea has never been realized, partly due to Vietnamese concerns that it could be construed in Beijing as hostile to China.

Jonathan Stromseth, a Southeast Asia expert and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says the Vietnamese would expect such a partnership to be formalized in the context of a state visit, meaning that the two sides will likely discuss the possibilities of a Trong visit to Washington, possibly followed by a Biden visit to Hanoi later this year.

Experts are divided on whether Hanoi will formally agree to the move anytime soon. Rafiq Dossani, director of the Center for Asia Pacific Policy at U.S.-based Rand Corp., said that while Vietnam is the only country with deep-seated, historical reasons to distrust China and its growing military power, upgrading U.S.-Vietnam ties beyond the current level is unlikely.

“It may require some unusual provocation from China to be possible,” he said.

“Vietnam does not feel threatened by China’s cross-Strait activities, and in the South China Sea there appears to be a tacit equilibrium between ASEAN and China as they move towards a Code of Conduct agreement.” Another reason for this, he said, is that Hanoi maintains close ties to Russia going back to the Vietnam War.

“A move by Vietnam towards a strategic partnership could upset more than just China.”

A symbolic step ?

At the same time, U.S.-Vietnam relations have grown rapidly since diplomatic normalization was achieved in 1995 — an expansion seen in the establishment of a “comprehensive partnership” in 2013, the transfer of two U.S. Coast Guard cutters to Hanoi since 2017, and port visits by U.S. aircraft carriers in 2018 and 2020.

As a result, Poling said that upgrading the relationship would be an “obvious move,” arguing that most of Vietnam’s partners in and outside the region are dubbed “strategic partners” or higher, including many with whom it has far weaker ties than it does to the United States.

But even if Hanoi were to agree to the upgrade, experts such as Hanh Nguyen, a Vietnam expert at the Pacific Forum research institute, caution that the move would likely only be symbolic, as Hanoi already benefits greatly from its current relationship with Washington, including in the form of investments and educational ties.

For instance, bilateral trade has grown two-hundredfold since normalization, and annual U.S. investment in Vietnam has reached $2.8 billion.

“Vietnam enjoys a very high trade surplus with the U.S., totaling more than $116 billion last year, and receives U.S. assistance in a wide range of domains, including defense and security, while managing to keep the rapprochement at a pace it is comfortable with,” Nguyen said.

While experts disagree on Vietnam’s next step, they share the view that the timing behind Washington’s diplomatic push is no coincidence.

“The U.S. wants to expand relations with Vietnam partly because of its strategic location on the South China Sea, where Hanoi has long-standing territorial disputes with Beijing,” Stromseth said.

Apart from maritime security, he said, the two countries share a number of long-term objectives of a more general nature, such as promoting a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific, encouraging transparent economic governance in the Mekong subregion and addressing climate change in Vietnam and elsewhere.

Moreover, Washington sees Hanoi as a key link in the global supply chain, meaning it could potentially play an important role in assisting the U.S. and its allies in reducing their reliance on Chinese suppliers.

“Shared regional goals, which are important to Washington, are building a solid foundation for the expansion of bilateral relations in the future,” Stromseth added.

Stuck in the middle

But does this mean that Hanoi will take sides?

Chinese leader Xi Jinping has accused Western countries led by the U.S. of having implemented a “comprehensive policy” of “containment, encirclement and suppression” against Beijing, which includes revitalizing alliances and expanding ties with China’s neighbors.

While there are different views on the matter, analysts agree that — like many other Southeast Asian countries — Vietnam will seek to prolong its hedging strategy between the two major powers.

“The Vietnamese are realists and know they don’t have the option of choosing sides,” Stromseth said.

Noting that Vietnam is a country of 100 million people on the doorstep of a military and economic superpower, he said the Vietnamese economy is also dependent on China, especially for imports.

In this context, Hanoi will seek to balance China without provoking it, pursuing multidirectional foreign relations with many countries, both economically and diplomatically, according to Stromseth.

“The U.S. is an important part of that equation,” he said.

However, should Sino-U.S. relations continue to worsen, Vietnam’s space for maneuvering between the two major powers will shrink further, making the hedging strategy more challenging to maintain, Nguyen warned.

At the same time, experts fear that democracy and human rights might not be high on Blinken’s agenda, despite Human Rights Watch criticizing Vietnam’s human rights record as “dire in virtually all areas,” saying that the government has imprisoned “almost all prominent bloggers, citizen journalists, and rights activists” for expressing views it did not agree with.

“Whereas democracy is a key theme of the Quad group of nations — the U.S., Japan, Australia and India — Vietnam, like most fellow ASEAN members, is a stable autocracy,” Dossani said, adding that Hanoi “should be thankful to China” that Washington wishes to closely engage with it, despite its track record on such issues.

By Gabriel Dominguez – The Japan Times – April 13, 2023

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