As part of an effort to woo Vietnam to serve its geopolitical interests, US President Joe Biden is arriving in Hanoi on Sunday, nurturing hopes of signing a “comprehensive strategic partnership agreement” with the dynamically developing Southeast Asian nation.
Washington is eyeing “swaying Vietnam to its side,” for it believes the US can use Hanoi as “a counterbalance to China’s influence in South East Asia,” Professor Anna Malindog-Uy, vice president of the Manila-based think tank Asian Century Philippines Strategic Studies Institute (ACPh), told Sputnik.
However, there is no indication that Vietnam has any interest in joining the “US-orchestrated” coalition against China, consisting of Washington’s allies, Anna Malindog-Uy added.
US President Joe Biden’s meeting with Vietnamese General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and other key leaders in Hanoi on September 10 comes as part of the latest page in the US’ Indo-Pacific playbook. Suffice it to recall how Biden hosted Philippine President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. in Washington in May, then welcomed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the White House in June, and threw open the doors of his Camp David presidential retreat to his Japanese and South Korean counterparts mid-August.
The trilateral summit with South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is regarded by pundits talking to Sputnik as part of an effort blatantly tailored to forge a new alliance against China and the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK). The US has also been posturing in the Indo-Pacific region by holding a slew of large military drills with Japan, Australia, and the Philippines in the South China Sea in recent days.
Vietnam is vital to US foreign policy for several political, economic, and geopolitical reasons, the professor underscored. Firstly, the “strategic geographical location” of Vietnam in Southeast Asia (SEA) is important to the US. Vietnam boasts “close contiguity and nearness to major global shipping lines like the South China Sea (SCS), and it has a border with China,” Anna Malindog-Uy stressed.
Geopolitically Strategic Location
Vietnam plays a crucial role in US foreign policy due to its “strategic location, economic significance, and potential to counterbalance China,” according to Professor Anna Malindog-Uy.
“American companies have invested in Vietnam, and trade relations have expanded. Since Vietnam is a member of ASEAN, a regional body that is important to the US, especially on issues such as economic integration, security, and diplomacy, this makes Vietnam a vital partner of the US in advancing its interests in the Indo-Pacific region. The US is likewise keen on upgrading its relations with Vietnam from a ‘comprehensive partnership,’ established in 2013, to a ‘strategic’ partnership.'”
“The evolving relationship between the United States and Vietnam manifests the broader and active US engagement in the Asia-Pacific region and underscores Vietnam’s growing importance as a regional partner,” Anna Malindog-Uy emphasized.
Vietnam became a focal point for US diplomacy when it became the sixth member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in July 1995, the same month Vietnam and the United States normalized relations, concurred Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales Canberra at the Australian Defense Force Academy. Further along, Vietnam gradually emerged as a potential US security partner.
“The turning point came during President Barack Obama’s term in office when Vietnam and the US agreed in 2013 to a comprehensive partnership covering nine major areas of cooperation. Since that time, Vietnam has been identified as an important security partner in all US national security strategies, particularly because of China’s growing ‘assertiveness,’” said Carl Thayer, adding that the US has been seeking to “counter the appeal” of China’s Belt and Road Initiative launched in 2013.
More recently, the Biden administration has “lobbied Vietnam to upgrade bilateral relations to a strategic partnership to end the situation where the US was listed at the bottom of Vietnam’s three-tiered hierarchy of partnerships – comprehensive, strategic and comprehensive strategic,” Thayer added.
Vietnam an ‘Important Trading Partner’
Vietnam has also emerged as an important trading partner for the US in recent years.
“As one of the fastest-growing economies of SEA, Vietnam is a market for US goods and services, especially in sectors like technology, manufacturing, agriculture, and services. Strengthening relations with Vietnam can give American businesses and exporters more economic opportunities, given Vietnam’s rising middle class and a young, educated workforce with higher purchasing power. Since Vietnam is already a vital player in global manufacturing, particularly electronics, textiles, and machinery, US companies can benefit from diversifying their supply chains by investing in or partnering with Vietnamese firms,” the vice president of ACPh underscored.
Furthermore, Vietnam is part of several regional trade agreements, such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) – the world’s largest free trade pact. The latter entered full force for all 15 member states following ratification of the pact by the Philippines in June. Thus, boosted ties with Vietnam could grant America more “reach” within these regional economic frameworks. Tourism, too, is fraught with benefits for the two nations.
It’s worth noting that the United States is “not a party to the two most important multilateral free trade agreements,” the CPTPP and the RCEP, to which Vietnam is a member, Carl Thayer pointed out.
Regarding the goals that the US president is pursuing in respect to Vietnam, he is “motivated mainly by economic issues such de-risking economic dependence on China by securing a reliable supply chain for Vietnamese semiconductors, and a more favorable environment for American investment, including American businesses relocating from China,” the professor said, adding:
“Biden hopes Vietnam will be a founding member of his Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity.”
The US has been bolstering its presence in the Indo-Pacific region by forming alliances such as AUKUS, which groups the country with Australia and the UK, and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) with Australia, India, and Japan. Washington is also part of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF) initiative, launched by Biden in May 2022 and now including 13 other members, such as Australia, Brunei, Fiji, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, and New Zealand.
‘US-Orchestrated Coalition’ Against China
While visiting US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen recently hailed Vietnam as “a key partner” in an effort to reduce dependence on China, Hanoi is “careful not to take sides between the US and China,” Anna Malindog-Uy said. Furthermore, taking sides between the US and China would be “costly for Vietnam both geopolitically and economically speaking.”
“As far as the US-led global coalition against China is concerned, I don’t think Vietnam has the intention or interest to be part of this. I don’t see any indication that Vietnam will join the US-orchestrated and led global coalition against China consisting of US allies… From my vantage point, it [Vietnam] wants to maintain good relations with neighboring countries like China as much as possible. Vietnam knows that joining a US-led coalition against China could potentially adversely impact its economic relations with China, which is vital to Vietnam’s economic development and progress,” the pundit believes.
ASEAN-member Vietnam “values neutrality,” and “follows a policy of non-alignment in major power conflicts, competition, and rivalry,” the vice president of the Manila-based ACPh think tank accentuated.
While Washington has been escalating trade and tech wars with Beijing, Hanoi has been steadily maintaining a “stable, pragmatic, and productive win-win relationship and cooperation with China, its largest neighbor and trading and economic partner.” China is “indispensable to Vietnam’s economic well-being,” and is a crucial market for Vietnamese exports, “particularly in electronics, textiles, and agriculture sectors.” China is also one of the top foreign investors in Vietnam, particularly when it comes to infrastructure development. Many Vietnamese industries are deeply integrated into Chinese supply chains.
“China is crucial to Vietnam due to its economic significance, shared border, historical ties, and geopolitical factors. Balancing its relationship with China with its relationships with other regional and global powers is a crucial feature of Vietnam’s foreign policy,” the pundit highlighted. Bearing in mind the sum total of economic significance, shared border, historical ties, and geopolitical factors, Anna Malindog-Uy emphasized:
“I don’t think Vietnam will compromise its sound economic and political relations with China by joining a global US-led coalition.”
“Vietnam will not abandon its ‘Four No’s’ defense policy (no alliances, no foreign military bases, no joining one country to oppose another, and no use of force in international relations). Vietnam will not join any US-led anti-China coalition.”
Russia of ‘Strategic Importance’ for Vietnam
At this point it should be noted that Vietnam has comprehensive strategic partnerships with only four countries – China, Russia, India, and South Korea. The significance of both China and Russia for Vietnam cannot be overestimated, pundits have underscored. Russia bears strategic importance to Vietnam due to a historical relationship stretching all the way back to the Cold War era, Anna Malindog-Uy recalled. The professor clarified that Moscow plays a vital role in Hanoi’s “strategic, defense, and security considerations,” along with potential for energy collaboration.
Furthermore, Joe Biden’s “courting” of Vietnam comes as the Southeast Asian nation has been reluctant to support Western sanctions against Russia. This is due to a “complex interplay of historical ties, foreign policy principles, and national interests,” Professor Anna Malindog-Uy underscored. She added:
“During the Cold War, the Soviet Union provided significant support to North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. This created a foundation of goodwill between the two countries. Vietnam also has a close defense and military relationship with Russia. Russia is a key supplier of military equipment and technology for Vietnam, including fighter jets, submarines, and other advanced weaponry. This defense partnership is vital to Vietnam’s security and defense capabilities. Russia and Vietnam also have relatively strong economic and trade ties, especially in machinery, textiles, and agricultural products.”
Indeed, Vietnam has a longstanding policy of opposing the unilateral imposition of sanctions by one state against another, Carl Thayer added. He recalled that Hanoi has not forgotten the bitter fallout from the US trade embargo imposed in the 1960s during the Vietnam War. But furthermore, Vietnam is “also practical, it does not want to harm relations with a Russia, a long-standing reliable partner,” said Thayer.