Late last week, Politico published a report confirming that the United States and Vietnam will sign a strategic partnership agreement when President Joe Biden visits the country next month.
The report, which is based on three sources “with knowledge of the deal’s planning” stated that the agreement “will allow for new bilateral collaboration that will boost Vietnam’s efforts to develop its high technology sector in areas including semiconductor production and artificial intelligence.”
For some months now, Biden administration officials have been pushing to elevate ties with Vietnam to a strategic partnership this year, which marks the tenth anniversary of the establishment of the current “comprehensive partnership.” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Vice President Kamala Harris both expressed their interest in an upgrade during recent visits to Vietnam, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, during his visit to the country in April, said that an elevation of formal ties could occur “in the weeks and months ahead.”
Indeed, Biden himself has on two recent occasions made references to a possible upgrade in relations with Vietnam. The president’s comments have prompted some confusion, specifically his comment last month that Vietnam “wants to elevate us to a major partner, along with Russia and China.” Given that the latter two nations enjoy “comprehensive strategic” partnerships with Vietnam – the highest level in Hanoi’s diplomatic hierarchy, one level above the strategic partnership sought by Washington – some observers speculated that the U.S. might be about to jump straight to parity with Moscow and Beijing.
The seeming confirmation of the strategic partnership agreement, which coincided with the historic Camp David summit between Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeo, marks a significant milestone in the strategic convergence between Vietnam and the U.S. over the past two decades. Politico described it as “a fresh victory in his campaign to boost U.S. influence in the Indo-Pacific.”
This might be a slight exaggeration. While an upgrade is a win for U.S. diplomacy, it largely brings the relationship’s formal designation into line with its substance. Indeed, as the U.S.-Vietnam relationship has advanced, the current “comprehensive partnership” has come to seem increasingly anomalous. It has put the U.S. on equal footing with the Netherlands, Hungary, Denmark, Ukraine, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Venezuela, and South Africa, while Washington remains the only permanent member of the United Nations Security Council that does not have a “strategic” or “comprehensive strategic” partnership with Vietnam.
That said, until recently many observers of Vietnam’s foreign relations were skeptical that the Vietnamese government would agree to an upgrade this year, out of concern for the possible reaction from China, as well as fears, harbored in some corners of the securocracy, of U.S. “interference” in Vietnamese domestic affairs.
One possibly decisive factor has been the recent uptick in tension between Hanoi and Beijing over long-standing territorial disputes in the South China Sea, including reports that Chinese authorities are building an airfield on Triton Island in the Paracel island chain, which is also claimed by Vietnam.
Whatever the exact push factors, the temptation to fit the Vietnamese decision into a stark China-U.S. binary runs the risk of overlooking the fact that while the U.S.-Vietnam relationship has been driven forward by shared concerns about China, these concerns are not fully congruent. While the U.S. is seeking to enlist allies in what is essentially a campaign to isolate a nation that it views as a threat to U.S. primacy in the region, Hanoi will view this step as part of its foreign policy of engaging all contending major powers. It also very likely only took the step with a decent idea of how China will respond, if not following direct consultations with Chinese leaders.
As Scot Marciel, a former diplomat who opened the first State Department office in Hanoi in 1993, told Politico, Vietnam “is not aligning with the U.S. against China.”
“They’re happy to improve relations with the U.S.,” Marciel said, “but it doesn’t mean they’re moving against China – they’re going to continue to calibrate very carefully.”
As an example, last week Gen. Phan Van Giang, Vietnam’s minister of national defense led a high-ranking Vietnamese delegation to Moscow to attend, among other things, the 11th Moscow Conference on International Security in Russia on August 15. There are also unconfirmed reports that Chinese leader Xi Jinping will make a surprise visit to Vietnam later this month, ahead of Biden’s trip.