Economic and technological relations between the US and Vietnam are expected to grow, bringing the erstwhile enemies closer at a time of Chinese assertiveness.
President Biden’s Action in Strengthening Economical and Technological Relations with Vietnam
The pact, due to be unveiled during President Joe Biden’s state visit to Vietnam next weekend, is the latest Biden Administration move to strengthen Asian connections. Hanoi’s improved connection with Washington counters Beijing’s influence. The “comprehensive strategic partnership” will give the US diplomatic status that Vietnam has only granted China, Russia, India, and South Korea. A senior Biden Administration official and two Hanoi sources confirmed the action.
Given China’s military assertiveness in the region, analysts said Hanoi is willing to risk angering Beijing but sees the tilt toward Washington as crucial. Derek Grossman, a Rand Corp. senior defense analyst and former U.S. intelligence officer, says that if Vietnam puts the U.S. on the same level as China, it says a lot to Beijing, the region, and the world that the US-Vietnam relationship has improved since 1995.
The Biden administration suggested the pact in recent months as part of a US plan to develop Indo-Pacific commercial and security relationships to counter Chinese economic and military coercion. The Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute senior scholar Le Hong Hiep said it “serves both symbolic and substantive purposes” for Vietnam. The pact is intended to boost the economic relationship between the two countries as the US diversifies its manufacturing supply chains away from China and Vietnam develops sophisticated technology. A senior Biden administration official said American semiconductor firms have signaled “a willingness to support them in that ambition,” speaking on condition of anonymity because the agreement has not been revealed.
Vietnam, which has transformed its economy in the previous two decades, exports most to the US. VinFast, the nation’s largest electric vehicle manufacturer, sold its stylish SUVs in California and recently went public on Nasdaq. Apple and Google suppliers have invested considerably in new factories in Vietnam, and Boeing, which said earlier this year that it would expand in the nation, is set to make a huge announcement. The improvement in economic relations will increase US-Vietnam defense and security cooperation. Officials expect Hanoi and Washington to intensify U.S. aircraft carrier visits, military drills, and arms sales. Vietnam, a major Russian arms customer, has stated its desire to diversify its military. Raytheon and Lockheed Martin sponsored the largest exhibits at Vietnam’s first international defense show last year.
Vietnam lacks treaty allies. Instead, communist states have a rigorous three-tier bilateral relationship hierarchy. Washington was granted “comprehensive” alliance status a decade ago, and Hanoi usually takes years to upgrade a country to “strategic.” Hanoi will fast-track an upgrade to the top category, while Washington will receive the “comprehensive strategic” classification, officials say.
Due to Beijing’s assertive behavior over the past decade, Vietnam has sought new allies despite its communist affinity with its northern neighbor. But, added the senior administration official, Washington’s involvement this year with India, another important developing country in the area, led to agreements to work in technology, defense, and education. “We were able to make a credible case” to Hanoi to take the partnership “to the highest level,” the official said.
Vietnam Neutralizing Tension Between US-China and Strengthen Economic Relationship
The pact is not a precursor to a formal defense cooperation, Biden administration officials said. “This is not Vietnam coming to the American side of the playground,” said Center for Strategic and International Studies Southeast Asia program director Gregory Poling. “This is Vietnam balancing China and the US to maintain its autonomy.” Vietnamese bordering China has long questioned Beijing’s claims over the Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea. China’s coast guard harasses Vietnamese oil and gas drilling and boards fishing ships.
According to Le, the Singapore analyst, Vietnam wants to collaborate with the US on sea surveillance and technology. All of this is achievable, he continued, thanks to the entire strategic cooperation. According to analysts, Hanoi is fearful of upsetting Beijing, which is strengthening its military.
The Communist Party of Vietnam’s general secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong, traveled with the Chinese ambassador to Vietnam, Xiong Bo, last week before the White House announced Biden’s trip to Vietnam. Some saw this as an attempt to mitigate potential backlash after the upgrade in relations. Trong, Vietnam’s most influential politician, commended China’s “comrades and brothers” relationship while touring a border trading pass in Lang Son province. Trong and Biden will meet in Hanoi.
Human rights advocates say Hanoi continues to crack down on dissent and religious freedom and that Washington prioritizes strategic interests over core values, despite the growing alliance. Ben Swanton, co-director of the 88 Project, a US NGO that analyzes activist arrests in Vietnam, is skeptical that closer US-Vietnam relations will lead to greater freedoms for the Vietnamese. He said Hanoi’s growing connection with Washington has not stopped Communist Party hardliners from instituting authoritarianism in the past decade.
According to the 88 Project, Vietnam has imprisoned roughly 200 political prisoners, including numerous well-known climate activists. During a widely publicized visit to Vietnam in 2016, President Barack Obama met with civil society groups. Many are currently imprisoned or exiled. Swanton claims that the Biden administration’s commitment to democracy and human rights has been abandoned in favor of strengthening US influence in the region. When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was invited to the White House for a state banquet in June after being denied a visa to the US in 2005 for his role in deadly sectarian riots in western India, administration officials deployed an argument.
They discuss human rights with these leaders “quietly, respectfully,” said the administration official. “We question whether public lecturing is best with countries seeking close collaboration.” Duy Hoang, executive director of Viet Tan, a pro-democracy Vietnamese political organization, said Washington should quietly insist on human rights and civil liberties advancement. To have a free and open Indo-Pacific, Duy added, “You need free and open societies.”