Blinken Bound for Vietnam as US Pushes for Upgrade in Relations

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Blinken Bound for Vietnam as US Pushes for Upgrade in Relations

Washington wants to raise relations to the level of a “strategic relationship,” but Vietnamese leaders are moving cautiously, in light of the likely reaction from China.

Blinken Bound for Vietnam as US Pushes for Upgrade in Relations

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivers a speech on the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy in Jakarta, Indonesia, on December 14, 2021.

Credit: Twitter/Secretary Antony Blinken

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will make a short visit to Vietnam today, aimed a consolidating the recent advances in a crucial partnership. In a statement issued earlier this week, the U.S. State Department said that Blinken would “advance key discussions with our Vietnamese partners” and “meet with senior Vietnamese officials to discuss our shared vision of a connected, prosperous, peaceful, and resilient Indo-Pacific region.”

Blinken will meet Vietnamese leaders tomorrow before heading to Tokyo for a meeting of the Group of Seven rich nations. The visit will be his first trip to Vietnam since the beginning of the Biden administration, although the country has been on the itineraries of senior officials, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in July 2021 and Vice President Kamala Harris the following month.

During the visit, which is timed to the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the “comprehensive partnership” between Washington and Hanoi, Blinken will also formally break ground on a new U.S. embassy compound. This $1.2 billion facility, whose design is inspired by the dramatic karst formations of Ha Long Bay in northern Vietnam, is “a stunning new symbol” of the U.S. commitment to its “enduring partnership and friendship” with Vietnam, in the words of Daniel Kritenbrink, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia.

The comprehensive partnership currently enjoyed by the United States sits at the bottom of Vietnam’s three-tier diplomatic hierarchy, U.S. officials have been pushing for ties to be raised to the level of a strategic partnership this year. Hanoi has been more cautious, one eye trained as ever on the reaction from Beijing.

Given the fact that U.S.-Vietnam ties have steadily improved in recent years, especially in the security realm, Vietnamese officials likely reckon that they largely enjoy the benefit of a strategic partnership, so why rock the boat with China for little concrete benefit? If and when the designation is upgraded, it will be because Vietnamese officials see that the benefits outweigh the costs. A Foreign Ministry spokesperson said last month that the elevation would happen “when the time is right.”

Vietnam’s reluctance to elevate ties speaks to the limits imposed on its foreign policy by its proximity to China. While desiring robust relations with the United States and other Western powers as a counterweight to the economic and military power of its northern neighbor, the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV)’s foreign policy is to keep relations with China on an even keel, which building constructive economic and security relationships with as many other nations as possible in order to relieve this “tyranny of geography.”

Moreover, the ruling communist parties in Beijing and Hanoi, despite their nations’ contending claims in the South China Sea, share a long political relationship and an ambiguous view of Western intentions. As a result, what Vietnam wants out of its relations with the U.S. (strategic autonomy, economic growth, and the preservation of CPV rule) differs from what the United States wants out of its relationship with Vietnam (a partner in the containment of Chinese power and influence).

Regardless of what label is attached to them, U.S.-Vietnam relations are likely to continue to advance in substance in areas of mutual interest. In a report published today, Reuters quoted Murray Hiebert, a senior associate in the Southeast Asia Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), who visited Vietnam in February and spoke with senior government officials, as saying that the two nations are likely to deepen military cooperation, including discussions of potential U.S. weapons supplies to Vietnam. Indeed, U.S. officials have already expressed their intention to offer Vietnam an alternative to the Russian supplies on which it has long relied.