Biden hopes for Vietnam breakthrough
Washington and Hanoi have been inching closer, but it’s a complicated dance.
During a ceremony held in Washington to commemorate the Lunar New Year in 2011, then-Vietnamese Ambassador to the United States Le Cong Phung surprised the audience by announcing that the two countries would raise their ties to the level of “strategic partnership.” Phrases descripting partnerships can be nebulous, of course. But from what we know about Vietnamese diplomacy, Hanoi’s definition of strategic partnership is not just boilerplate, but signifies concrete, mutual, long-term strategic interests.
Vietnamese officials, however, never followed up on Phung’s newsworthy announcement. Instead, Washington and Hanoi announced a comprehensive partnership in 2013—a relationship that implies a less serious geopolitical alignment for Vietnam. The United States has been left wondering why.
The Biden administration—like at least two administrations before it—is convinced that U.S.-Vietnamese ties should be intensified, precisely because both countries share long-term strategic interests. Both countries want to prevent China from dominating the Indo-Pacific; and both have a strong interest in upholding the rules-based international order. In its 2021 Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, the Biden administration mentioned Vietnam alongside Singapore, a de facto U.S. ally in Southeast Asia, stating that both countries would help “to advance shared objectives” in the Indo-Pacific. In the administration’s 2022 Indo-Pacific Strategy, Vietnam also made the prominent list of “leading regional partners,” on par with India, New Zealand, Taiwan, and other critical countries.
In late March this year, the United States may finally have achieved a breakthrough. U.S. President Joe Biden held his first call as president with his Vietnamese counterpart, General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong. While little was revealed about the content of the call, a trip to Hanoi by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken soon followed. There, Blinken told reporters “Our conviction is that [the U.S. partnership with Vietnam] can and will grow even stronger … in the weeks and months ahead.” Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, in turn, said Hanoi sought to take the relationship “to a new height.” Speculation is now rife in Washington that the stage is set for the two countries to finally establish formal strategic partnership status, maybe at the White House during Trong’s possible visit this July.
But the Biden administration would be wise to manage expectations for now. There are good reasons why Vietnam has been delaying the upgrade for so long—and why it may ultimately decide that elevating to a strategic partnership simply isn’t worth it. Of course, deepening U.S.-Vietnamese ties does not fundamentally depend on any official diplomatic status. But if Hanoi forgoes strategic partnership status with Washington, it would validate Beijing’s view that Vietnam remains firmly ensconced in China’s geostrategic orbit—and that U.S. attempts to leverage Vietnam against China not only have limits, but are futile over the long-term.
Of course, the most important obstacle to a more formalized U.S.-Vietnamese alignment is Beijing’s likely reaction. In its long history, Vietnam has been invaded multiple times by its much larger northern neighbor—most recently in 1979—and is highly reluctant to unnecessarily antagonize Beijing. Although foreign partnerships are certainly important to help Vietnam balance against China, the Vietnamese are mindful of an ancient Chinese saying: “Distant water will not quench the fire nearby.” In other words, Vietnam cannot count on faraway partners to help manage problems with China. In the end, only Vietnam can ensure that bilateral ties preclude trouble.
From Hanoi’s perspective, raising U.S.-Vietnamese ties to strategic partnership level may simply be asking for trouble. After the bloody Sino-Vietnamese war in 1979, Hanoi and Beijing normalized relations in 1991; and as part of their agreement, Vietnam imposed limitations on its own future security engagements to appease Chinese leaders. Originally known as the “Three Nos” (before becoming “Four Nos and One Depends,” more on that below), Vietnam’s post-agreement defense policy committed it to forgoing formal military alliances, military basing on its territory, and military activities aimed at a third country. Hanoi very likely worries that elevating to strategic partnership with Washington might give Beijing the impression that it is establishing a military alliance, perhaps putting it on course to violating the other Nos as well.
Chinese retaliation to a U.S.-Vietnamese strategic partnership could be severe, particularly in the South China Sea, where China and Vietnam have substantial overlapping sovereignty claims and Beijing has overwhelming military strength to enforce its side of the dispute. This leads to another reason Hanoi is likely hesitant to bolster ties to Washington: Despite Beijing’s encroachments in the South China Sea, things have been relatively quiet there since 2019, when China and Vietnam had a standoff at Vanguard Bank in the Spratly Islands. Why potentially rock the boat?
Moreover, Hanoi may believe it has already handled the situation effectively without needing Washington’s support. Following the Vanguard Bank standoff, Vietnam released a defense white paper pledging never to unilaterally use or threaten force—the fourth “No” meant to be another reassurance to Beijing. It also added the “One Depends” clause, stating that “depending on the circumstances and specific conditions, Vietnam will consider developing necessary, appropriate defense and military relations with other countries.” By adding the One Depends clause, Hanoi drew a causal link between the deterioration of Vietnam’s external security environment and the nations with which it chooses to deepen defense cooperation. A reasonable interpretation of this is that, if China’s bullying behavior in the South China Sea continues, Vietnam might finally promote the United States’ status to that of strategic partnership. Given recent stability, there has been no impetus to do so. If this interpretation is correct, Hanoi will find a potential status upgrade more useful when it is not exercised.
Another reason Hanoi might drag its feet is due to domestic politics. Over the last few months, Trong’s anti-corruption campaign has removed several high-ranking members of the Vietnamese Communist Party and state apparatus, including deputy prime ministers Pham Binh Minh and Vu Duc Dam, along with state president Nguyen Xuan Phuc. Some Western observers worry that the purge is bad news for U.S.-Vietnamese ties, since these three officials leaned toward Washington. Most significantly, Trong appointed his young conservative ally, Vo Van Thuong, to replace Phuc as president. Thuong reportedly favors China over the United States, as does Trong. Vietnam is unlikely to drift away from the United States toward China, since it seeks good ties with both. But an internal recalibration of Hanoi’s delicate balancing act between the two great powers may be underway—especially as geopolitical competition continues to intensify.
Yet another potential explanation for Vietnamese inaction on strategic partnership is that U.S.-Vietnamese relations are already operating at a de-facto strategic level, even if without the official label. For example, Vietnam has expressed implicit support for the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy; in recent years, it has received additional diplomatic and economic support—as well as military hardware and training—to counter China. What would Vietnam substantively gain, that would also be within the bounds of its strict defense policy, from elevating the partnership? Virtually anything that the U.S. military would like to do—and has done, for example, in the Philippines—such as accessing Vietnam’s bases to help it better deal with South China Sea contingencies or joint training focused on lethal operations against a third nation, could violate these rules.
By Derek Grossman – ForeignPolicy.com – May 9, 2023