When President Biden arrives in Vietnam on Sunday, he is set to celebrate a new phase in the Washington-Hanoi relationship that would bring two historical foes closer than they’ve ever been, drawn together by China’s mounting ambitions.
During his state visit to Vietnam on Sunday, Mr. Biden is expected to oversee the signing of a “comprehensive strategic partnership” with Hanoi, a symbolic but significant status long coveted by the United States. Vietnam has until now reserved this status for only four countries: China, Russia, India and South Korea. For years, it had resisted granting this distinction to the United States out of fear of offending China.
But as Beijing continues to encroach on waters claimed by Vietnam and as the United States looks for more partners to counter China in the Indo-Pacific, the former enemies have found common ground. Some experts believe Hanoi may take the unprecedented move of raising Washington’s designation up two notches, from the bottom tier of Vietnam’s bilateral ties hierarchy to the highest.
“It is a very remarkable event because we all know that Vietnamese foreign policy is very cautious,” said Nguyen Khac Giang, a visiting fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. “Whenever they try to upgrade any significant bilateral relations, they normally tend to do it step by step because of the fear that it may cause some concern, especially from Beijing.”
The agreement would send a message to China that Vietnam is now closer in the orbit of the United States. But there are limits.
For decades, Vietnam has leveraged its ties with Russia and China to gain advantage, even while making clear that it would not choose sides in any conflict. Hanoi is unlikely to join in a coalition against China because of its “Four No’s” policy: no participating in military alliances, no siding with one country to act against another, no foreign military bases, and no using force in international relations.
Mr. Biden will be meeting with Nguyen Phu Trong, the general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, over the objections of human rights activists who say that the U.S. government’s professed commitment to promoting democracy and human rights abroad has been cast aside in favor of shoring up U.S. dominance in the region. Vietnam continues to be one of the most authoritarian countries in Southeast Asia, and Mr. Trong’s government has waged an especially harsh crackdown on dissent and activism in recent years.
Ben Swanton, co-director of the 88 Project, a U.S.-based nonprofit that focuses on human rights issues in Vietnam, said that closer ties between the United States and Vietnam had coincided with a significant increase in rights abuses by the Vietnamese state against its own citizens.
“It’s outrageous that President Biden has chosen to upgrade diplomatic ties with Vietnam at a time when the one-party state is in the middle of a brutal crackdown on activism, dissent, and civil society,” Mr. Swanton said in a statement. “Despite lofty rhetoric about promoting a ‘rules-based international order’ and defending freedom, Biden is once again cozying up to autocrats with atrocious human rights records.”
The U.S.-Vietnam relationship started off slow because of mistrust. For most of the 1990s, both countries were still preoccupied with dealing with the aftermath of the war, which ended in 1975.
“It’s ironic in a way that the way we started working together and building relationships and trust was by working on these issues,” said Scot Marciel, a fellow at Stanford University, who was the first U.S. diplomat to work in Hanoi since the end of the war.
The Biden administration has urgently sought displays of solidarity against China, and Vietnam is one of the few Southeast Asian nations that has publicly pushed back against China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea.
Some leaders still publicly liken the relationship between Vietnam and China, which share an 800-mile border, to that of “comrades and brothers.” But the two countries have a tense and painful history — including a millennium-long stretch in which China was Vietnam’s colonial overlord — that has left Vietnam deeply wary of its largest neighbor.
The two countries fought a brief war in 1979, but began normalizing relations in the early 1990s. The relationship sharply worsened again in 2014 after Beijing moved an oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam. It prompted the Vietnamese government to seek out other countries as counterweights to China.
“What changed in Vietnam’s cooperation with other countries is that before 2014, Vietnam was still cautious and still emphasized the self-reliance principle,” said Bich Tran, a postdoctoral fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. “But after that, you saw an increasing number of vessels and equipment — Vietnam was willing to accept security assistance.”
Surveys have shown that a majority of Vietnamese elites welcome the political and strategic influence of the United States and are worried about China’s rise. Vietnam has “paid lip service” to Chinese programs such as the Belt and Road Initiative but has resisted making any commitments to them, said Alexander Vuving, a professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu.
China is watching the deepening U.S.-Vietnam relationship with concern. In April 2022, Foreign Minister Wang Yi of China called his counterpart in Vietnam, Bui Thanh Son, to stress that the United States was trying to “create regional tension and incite antagonism and confrontation by pushing ahead with the ‘Indo-Pacific Strategy.’”
“We can’t let the Cold War mentality resurge in the region and the tragedy of Ukraine be repeated around us,” Mr. Wang said.
Perhaps in a bid to dilute the significance of Sunday’s agreement, Vietnam has indicated in recent weeks that it also plans to upgrade ties with Japan, Australia, Indonesia and Singapore.
For much of its history, Vietnam has been a close partner of Russia, the top supplier of weapons to the Southeast Asia state. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stirred anxiety in Vietnam, leaving leaders increasingly worried about managing its traditional alliances with Russia and China in a more polarized world, said Carlyle Thayer, emeritus professor of politics at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.
Now, the upgrading of ties with the United States could lead to more American defense assistance. The United States — which lifted an arms embargo to Vietnam in 2016 — has transferred two coast guard vessels to Vietnam, with plans to send one more. Vietnam has also expressed interested in buying F-16 fighters and unarmed drones.
Each country has assets that the other side needs. Vietnam wants help from the United States in sharing technology to develop its nascent semiconductor industry and maritime surveillance. American technology companies looking to diversify away from China have found that Vietnam can be a partial alternative.
Analysts say Vietnam is likely to present its deepening alignment with the United States to China in economic terms. The United States is now the biggest export market and the second-biggest trading partner for Vietnam. In 2022, U.S.-Vietnam trade reached $124 billion, still lower than China-Vietnam trade at $176 billion.
There are other signs that Vietnam is seeking to soften the impact on China of a closer bond with the United States.
In recent months, Mr. Trong has met with multiple senior Chinese officials, ostensibly to notify them about the upgrade in ties with the United States. On Wednesday, the Chinese Communist Party’s international department head Liu Jianchao met with Mr. Trong and “both sides agreed to consolidate political mutual trust.”
Mr. Liu told representatives from some Vietnamese think-tanks and media that “China is willing to join hands with all peace-loving” countries.
In response, a Vietnamese official told him that “in the face of the current complex and changing international situation and emerging global crises, countries around the world should strengthen unity and cooperation.” The official called on China to “make greater contributions to regional and world peace.”