US-Vietnam Relations in 2021: ‘Comprehensive,’ But Short of ‘Strategic’

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US-Vietnam Relations in 2021: ‘Comprehensive,’ But Short of ‘Strategic’

Every step Vietnam takes toward the United States is accompanied by anxious glances in the direction of Beijing.

US-Vietnam Relations in 2021: ‘Comprehensive,’ But Short of ‘Strategic’

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Vietnamese Defense Minister Phan Van Giang bump elbows during Austin’s visit to Hanoi, Vietnam, on July 29, 2021.

Credit: U.S. Department of Defense

This year marked the transition to a new leadership in Vietnam. Even as Nguyen Phu Trong stayed on for a third term as general secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP), the other key posts, including president and prime minister, changed hands. Following the twice-in-a-decade leadership change in April, there have been a flurry of high-ranking exchanges between Vietnam and its key international partners.

In a phone call with Trong on April 5, Russian President Vladimir Putin accepted an invitation to visit Vietnam in 2021. This was followed by an official visit by Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe during May 27-29. Then, upon the completion of the Vietnam’s National Assembly election in early July, a high-ranking U.S. defense delegation led by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin arrived in Hanoi on July 28 for a two-day visit. Soon after, the White House announced that U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris would visit Vietnam on August 24-26.

This succession of diplomatic exchanges, coming in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, reflects the intensifying competition for influence in Vietnam, which has for years maintained a delicate balancing act among the major powers. On the heels of Harris’ trip, it is worth asking whether, with two new governments in Hanoi and Washington, U.S.-Vietnam relations will see any significant changes going forward.

In official diplomatic terms, Vietnam and China signed a comprehensive strategic partnership in 2009, a designation that is shared by only Russia (2012) and India (2016). Additionally, Vietnam has established strategic partnerships with nine other countries: Japan (2006), South Korea (2009), Spain (2009), the United Kingdom (2010), Germany (2011), and Italy, Singapore, Thailand, and Indonesia (all four in 2013). The relationship with the U.S. (and also Australia) remains at the level of the comprehensive partnership.

For years, the U.S. has been pushing to upgrade the relationship to the strategic level. In 2010, during then State Secretary Hilary Clinton’s visit to Hanoi, she had broached the idea of a bilateral strategic partnership. What followed was a comprehensive partnership agreement in July 2013, when then-Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang visited the White House and held talks with then President Barack Obama. The idea was reiterated again this year in the meeting between Austin and Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc in Hanoi on July 29. Elevating bilateral relations to a strategic partnership would seem befitting of the increased cooperation between the two countries and set the ground for more strategic cooperation.

Yet, sometime on July 29, in its reporting the aforementioned meeting in Hanoi, the online portal of the VCP surreptitiously revised the headline, from “Elevating Vietnam-U.S. relations toward Strategic Partnership” to “Vietnam always sees the U.S. as a leading partner in its foreign policy.” The revision was so quick that it escaped scrutiny, but was momentous enough to indicate Hanoi’s persistent reservations about attaching the word “strategic” to its relations with Washington.

This reflects the deep-seated caution that underpins Vietnam’s characterization of its relations with the United States. In July 2013, upon the issuance of the U.S.-Vietnam Joint Statement, the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) allegedly directed the media to report the comprehensive partnership in terms of having been declared, not upgraded. One may question the extent of Hanoi’s trust toward Washington given its view of the U.S. as a leading partner without explicitly calling it a strategic partner.

The headline backtracking, however, should not be taken as a completely bad sign. An August 4 commentary on The World and Vietnam Report, the mouthpiece of the Vietnamese MOFA, writes that it might be necessary to elevate the relationship in name, but that this is not the most important thing. When the time is right, what ought to happen will happen, the article concludes. For now, U.S.-Vietnam relations are comprehensive enough that some cooperative aspects have become even more strategic than those between Vietnam and its other strategic partners. Indeed, since the two countries normalized diplomatic relations in July 1995, there have been many milestones in the realms of politics-diplomacy, trade-investment, and security-defense.

From two former foes, Vietnam and the United States have developed a common language and mutual understanding to achieve interstate reconciliation. The U.S. is Vietnam’s second-largest trading partner after China, with a turnover of $90.8 billion in 2020, up 200-fold from that in 1995. The two sides have established numerous high-level joint mechanisms, including a political security dialogue at the ministerial level, to exchange viewpoints and improve mutual understanding. In July 2020, the U.S. Peace Corps and the Vietnamese Ministry of Education and Training signed an agreement to officially establish the Peace Corps program in English education, with volunteers scheduled to arrive in mid-2022.

Most visible is the improvement of military-to-military ties in recent years. A U.S. defense secretary has visited Vietnam every year since 2018. Between 2015 and 2019, the Defense Department authorized permanent exports of more than $32.3 million in defense articles to Vietnam, in addition to having over $162 million in active foreign military sales to Vietnam. Deepening defense cooperation is evidenced by increased U.S. financing for maritime security initiatives in Vietnam. For example, in 2019, Vietnam purchased six ScanEagle unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) systems worth $9.7 million, thanks to aid from Washington’s Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative. Nonetheless, one must bear in mind that despite fully lifting a decades-old ban on the sale of lethal military equipment to Vietnam in May 2016, the U.S. has not been able to sell Vietnam any such equipment. To date, in the name of improving Vietnam’s maritime law enforcement, the U.S. has transferred two Hamilton-class Coast Guard cutters to the Vietnam Coast Guard. The high-endurance cutters, originally designed and built during the Cold War, mark the first kind of warship sold to Vietnam by a Western country.

While Vietnam permits only one ship per foreign navy to visit each year, this policy has seen some flexibility since 2009, with the U.S. sending more than one vessel per annual visit. The heightened activities reflect not only Vietnam’s willingness to engage more with the U.S. military but also a subtle response to China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea. To be sure, the number of foreign navies making port calls in Vietnam has increased steadily in the past decade, including vessels from India, Japan, China, Australia, France, the U.K., Canada, New Zealand, and Russia, among other nations. Vietnam’s increased investment in its naval diplomacy encompasses building good relations with all of the world’s top navies, including the U.S., in order to strengthen its own position in the face of China’s navy, the largest in the world as of 2020. The fact that Vietnam and the U.S. do not have conflicting national interests in the South China Sea and the region at large has facilitated the deepening of bilateral military-to-military relations.

But despite seeing eye-to-eye on the strategic importance of maritime security in the South China Sea, Vietnam remains hesitant about declaring a strategic partnership with the U.S. for several reasons.

First, the Vietnamese political system is highly conservative and risk-averse, and politicians are traditionally reluctant to make decisions that could alter the balance of Vietnam relations with the major powers. This is true even when taking into account factionalism – e.g., between conservative/pro-China and reformist/pro-Western tendencies – within the VCP. While different camps in the ruling elites may diverge in their agendas and goals, they are unlikely to sway policy in a drastic manner.

Second, since the doi moi economic reforms of 1986, Vietnam has maintained a delicate balancing strategy that strictly adheres to the “four-noes”: no military alliances, no affiliating with one country to counter another, no foreign military bases on Vietnamese territory, and no force or threats to use force in international relations. This means that Vietnam is able to maintain its special ties to Russia and sustain and even deepen cooperation with China, all the while reaching out to other states, including the U.S., to strengthen economic and military ties. In terms of military-to-military relations, of Vietnam’s three comprehensive strategic partners, only Russia is its arms supplier – and by far its biggest. Even India has not been able to sell its BrahMos missile system to Vietnam despite engaging in talks about it since 2016. And Israel is the only arms supplier to Vietnam with which the nation has not signed a strategic or comprehensive partnership.

Seen in this light, Vietnam’s openness to more military-to-military cooperation with the U.S. is not necessarily an embrace of strategic alignment. While China’s growing power and its encroachment on Vietnamese territorial waters in the South China Sea have put the policy to test, Vietnam has found its current strategy to be by and large successful, and sees no need for change. One unspoken principle remains in place, which is that as an expression of friendship and desire for peaceful relations with China, Vietnam is expected to abstain from partnerships or cooperation with powers that are hostile to China.

This position was voiced in subtle terms by Nguyen Phu Trong in front of the National Assembly on March 24: “There are works that cannot be publicized, [such as] how to handle certain times and incidents in the East Sea [South China Sea], how the western and southwestern parts are, and how our relations with our neighbors are. Comrades, I must be honest that sometimes handling these issues was very sensitive, very delicate, but our whole system has done very well.” If ongoing attempts to defuse tensions in the South China Sea have worked, it is unlikely that Vietnam will opt for more adventurous moves.

Lastly, a strategic alignment between Vietnam and the U.S. is unlikely to materialize for the foreseeable future for simple geopolitical reasons. In its rebalance to Asia, the U.S. has renewed alliances and strengthened partnerships, attempts that China views as containment or encirclement. Taking sides in the competition between two great powers is an undesirable prospect. One approach that has worked well for Vietnam is to raise its voice in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). As a rising middle power in Southeast Asia, Vietnam has taken up diplomatic initiatives to reassure and build trust in ASEAN, raising its profile as a potential leader of the regional bloc.

ASEAN, despite the structural limitations of its non-interference and consensus-building principles, remains an important arena in which member states position themselves. By embracing the same principle of neutrality as ASEAN, Vietnam effectively refrains from not taking sides all the while pushing for other members to do the same, in order to limit external interference in Southeast Asian affairs, whether that be from China or the United States.

All things considered, the revision of a headline on a party media mouthpiece serves as a reminder to observers and analysts that while U.S.-Vietnam relations have grown by leaps and bounds in many areas, even bordering on the strategic level in certain aspects of security and defense cooperation, in the current climate of post-COVID uncertainty, Vietnam is unlikely to embrace an explicit declaration of strategic partnership.