On September 10, U.S. President Joe Biden traveled to Hanoi to announce a historic agreement with Vietnam’s Communist leader, Nguyen Phu Trong. Despite the relatively recent establishment of ties between the United States and Vietnam, the two countries have jointly agreed to elevate their existing relationship to a “comprehensive strategic partnership,” an arrangement that Vietnam reserves for only a handful of close partners.
To many observers, the visit signals the culmination of the Southeast Asian country’s growing strategic alignment with Washington. Marking ten years since the two countries entered a lower level of cooperation (what the Vietnamese refer to as a “comprehensive partnership”), the new arrangement gives the United States a central position in Vietnam’s security policy. The announcement also shows the extent to which China’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific has pushed these former foes closer together.
Indeed, U.S.-Vietnamese relations have come a long way since the countries normalized ties in 1995. After fighting one of the bloodiest conflicts since World War II, the two countries have now elevated their relations to the highest level possible, at least according to Vietnam’s hierarchy. And despite being governed by dramatically different political systems—Vietnam is still a one-party, communist state—Washington and Hanoi have also begun to cooperate on a wide range of issues, such as semiconductors, clean energy, and public health. Given China’s growing pressure on Vietnam, including limiting its access to the South China Sea, a growing security alliance with the United States may seem particularly advantageous to the Vietnamese leadership.
Yet it is far too simplistic to assume that Vietnam is choosing to align with the United States. For one thing, although Vietnam reserves its comprehensive strategic partnerships for a select group of countries, that list also includes China, India, Russia, and South Korea. And it maintains other levels of partnerships with many other states. In fact, such complex and multilayered ties—including with countries that are themselves rivals—is characteristic of Vietnam’s approach. The government has long sought to align itself with multiple countries rather than a single power. At the same time, for Vietnam, it is no secret that China is both an obstacle to and an impetus for enhanced security ties with the United States. Getting too close to Washington too soon could be seen as a provocation to Beijing and would likely invite some form of retaliation that Hanoi seeks to avoid.
In this sense, Vietnam’s agreement with the Biden administration should be seen as an important step forward in bilateral ties, bringing enormous benefits to Hanoi. But it is not an arrangement that is likely to change the Vietnamese government’s fundamental orientation. Rather than choosing between the United States and China, Hanoi sees itself as reinforcing its omnidirectional foreign policy in which it strives to keep equidistant from both. Elevating the relationship with the United States is just another part of that master plan.
FOES INTO FRIENDS
That Vietnam and the United States have come this far is a significant achievement. Vietnamese political elites had long resisted such a deal. For a long time, even after the normalization of ties nearly three decades ago, they remained suspicious of Washington and its intentions toward the Vietnamese Communist Party, which has ruled the unified country since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. Well into the twenty-first century, Hanoi considered the threat of democratic change, or what in Vietnam is referred to as “peaceful evolution” —potentially instigated with the support of the United States and any remaining sympathizers of the fallen South Vietnamese regime—as one of its top national security threats.
Over the past decade, however, successive U.S. administrations have reassured the Vietnamese that the United States respects Vietnam’s right to self-determination and has no intention of meddling in its internal politics. In 2018, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in an attempt to reach a breakthrough with North Korea, highlighted Vietnam as a model for how to open up and modernize while remaining communist, and in 2019, Hanoi hosted the second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Although the talks with Pyongyang were short-lived, the spotlight placed on Vietnam reassured the country’s leaders not only that Washington accepted their regime but also that it sufficiently trusted them to serve as honest brokers for these difficult negotiations.
Vietnam is arguably more exposed to China than any other country.
Geopolitical changes in Southeast Asia have also provided an important catalyst. In sharing a land border with China and having a long coastline on the South China Sea, Vietnam is arguably more exposed to Beijing’s growing assertiveness than any other country in the region, especially given that Vietnam has no formal external defense guarantees. China’s flouting of international maritime law, particularly the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, its refusal to play by the rules, and its penchant for flexing its military muscles have alarmed Hanoi. Along with China’s failure to recognize a 2016 ruling of a UN court of arbitration dismissing the historical basis for Chinese claims in the South China Sea, Beijing has militarized artificial islands in the disputed waters, used maritime militia to menace Vietnamese fishing vessels and Vietnam’s coast guard, and frequently obstructed Vietnam’s ability to exercise economic rights within its Exclusive Economic Zone.
Among China’s most recent provocations was its release in late August of a new “standard map” showing that most of the South China Sea belongs to China, in defiance of the 2016 UN ruling. In early September, in what was seen as a warning from Beijing regarding Biden’s upcoming visit to Vietnam, the Chinese coast guard used water cannons against Vietnamese fishing boats operating in the vicinity of the disputed Paracel Islands, over which China, Taiwan, and Vietnam all claim sovereignty. China has also used its dams upstream on the Mekong River to significantly restrict Vietnam’s water supply. And Beijing is vastly expanding Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base to create what analysts suggest could be a major overseas installation for the Chinese navy. Assertive moves such as these have rankled Hanoi, making it feel doubly squeezed—on sea and land—by its giant neighbor.
Amid these tensions, both the Trump and Biden administrations set out to enhance relations with Vietnam. In fact, it was in Vietnam, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Da Nang in 2017, that Trump for the first time articulated the United States’ “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” concept, which seeks to formalize the sovereign rights of independent states in the region and limit coercive behavior by Beijing and which became a prelude to the Indo-Pacific strategy, which the Biden Administration has further developed. Trump’s remarks referring to Vietnam’s proud history of independence and sovereignty and to its current struggles with China over maritime claims were received in Hanoi as an unequivocal expression of U.S. support.
SEA CHANGE ON CHINA
A shared perception of the Chinese threat now anchors U.S.-Vietnamese relations. Under Trump, the United States also went through a drastic transformation in its attitude toward China. In the final six months of Trump’s presidency, the State Department departed from its policy of not taking sides in the claimants’ disputes in the South China Sea and issued statements explicitly rejecting China’s claims, condemning its coercive actions toward Vietnam, and affirming Hanoi’s sovereign rights to exploit natural resources within its Exclusive Economic Zone.
Paradoxically, although Trump’s disregard for a more traditional values-based foreign policy may have been detrimental to U.S. relations with democratic allies and partners, it assisted the rapprochement between Washington and Hanoi, making it easier for the two sides to come together despite major differences in their respective norms, values, and political systems. This convergence has evidently deepened under the Biden administration, and a rare bipartisan consensus has emerged regarding China. In July 2021, the Biden administration made its first cabinet-level visit to Southeast Asia when Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin traveled to the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam. Two of those countries were natural destinations: the United States has extensive defense commitments with its formal treaty ally, the Philippines, and Singapore has long been its most important security partner in the region. Vietnam, however, stood out, particularly given that Thailand, Washington’s other partner in the region, and Indonesia, the region’s largest player, were not given a similar level of attention.
When Biden skipped the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Jakarta in September and attended only the G-20 in India and then headed to Vietnam for a bilateral visit, it said a great deal about the importance Washington now places on Hanoi. And although other regional capitals may take it as another U.S. snub to ASEAN and its multilateral gatherings, for the Vietnamese, this prioritization is a sign of prestige. In formal speeches, U.S. officials stress that they are not pressuring governments in the region to choose sides. Yet by proactively strengthening bilateral ties with countries such as Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Vietnam while downplaying multilateral gatherings that include China, Washington itself seems to have made a choice: it is working with those that it finds like-minded in regard to strategic competition with Beijing.
Washington and Hanoi have come together despite vast political differences.
In some respects, Washington’s new understanding with Vietnam has extended to other issues. For example, it has helped both countries address the lingering wounds of the Vietnam War. Traditionally, Vietnamese foreign policy elites have been more receptive to engagement with the United States, whereas the country’s defense establishment has been more resistant, given the personal experience of many of its members who fought in the war and for whom the legacy of the war holds greater importance. In the memorandum of understanding signed during Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s visit in 2021, the United States promised to help search for Vietnamese soldiers listed as missing in action, reciprocating for years of Vietnam’s help in finding lost American soldiers and repatriating their remains since the normalization of ties in 1995. As recently as 2018, and despite strong advocacy from Vietnamese and international humanitarian groups, the United States was reluctant to help clear unexploded ordnance, land mines, and Agent Orange residue in Vietnam that has contaminated the land and devastated people’s health. This breakthrough signals that the Biden administration understands the importance these issues have for advancing future security cooperation.
The rapprochement has had other effects, as well. The vaccines that the United States and its partners donated to Vietnam since 2021 were instrumental for the country as it struggled to cope with the outbreak of the Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus. Washington is building a sprawling new embassy in Hanoi at a cost of $1.2 billion, making it the most expensive U.S. diplomatic complex in the world. The United States has become Vietnam’s top export market (to the point that it has left the United States with an awkward $116 billion trade deficit, as of 2022). And as the U.S.-Chinese trade war has intensified, Vietnam has become a popular destination for multinational corporations seeking to leave China. Notably, a number of large technology companies, including Apple, Dell, Google, and Microsoft, have invested in Vietnam in recent years. Conversely, Vietnam’s biggest outbound business investment so far has been in the United States, with VinFast, a Vietnamese electric vehicle maker, announcing in 2022 that it would invest a stunning $6.5 billion in a manufacturing complex in North Carolina.
Nonetheless, China still enjoys respect from Vietnam’s political leaders. In October 2022, despite a general reluctance to travel and lingering health issues, Trong ventured to China to become one of the first foreign leaders to congratulate the Chinese leader Xi Jinping on his third term in office. And as security negotiations with Washington have progressed, Hanoi has been careful to avoid provoking Beijing. In what appears to be an attempt to downplay the significance of the new comprehensive strategic partnership with the United States and double down on its multialignment policy, Vietnam has signaled its intentions to elevate its relations with Australia, Indonesia, and Singapore to the same status in recent weeks.
BALANCING, WITH BENEFITS
Vietnam’s deepening security cooperation with the United States certainly marks an important turning point for both countries and will be especially important in managing its power asymmetry with China. But it does not suggest that Hanoi is abandoning formal opposition to military alliances and to hosting foreign bases—two of the key prohibitions in its Four Nos policy, articulated in its defense white paper in 2019. Hanoi will always seek to make sure that it is not solely dependent on the United States and that Washington is not its only choice. Not only it is seeking to balance between the United States and China; Vietnam also maintains good—and, when it comes to defense contracts, cozy—relations with Russia, even since its illegal invasion of Ukraine. So it would be a mistake to interpret the new U.S. agreement as a prelude to Vietnam joining a Washington-centered block to collectively contain China. Rather than taking sides in the current U.S.-Chinese tensions, Vietnam will always choose Vietnam. Still, Washington can support Vietnam in ways that also serve U.S. interests.
The United States has much to offer Vietnam. By helping build up the country’s industrial know-how and supporting the growth and diversification of its economy, Washington can expand Hanoi’s options for resisting Chinese coercion. Technology transfer and training, including expanding Vietnam’s capacity in maritime surveillance, are of particular interest to Vietnamese officials. Hanoi has ambitious plans to stake out a more important position in global supply chains, especially when it comes to semiconductors, and the United States and its allies can help Vietnam achieve that goal. Indeed, along with the joint U.S.-Vietnamese announcement of the new elevated partnership, the two countries have launched substantive plans for technology investment, education and research, and other initiatives aimed at building Vietnam’s digital labor force. Notably, Biden was accompanied on his visit by the executives of top American chip-making and tech companies, suggesting that these industries will be a significant focus of future bilateral cooperation.
For its part, the United States is interested in Vietnam chiefly in the context of its competition with China, but there could also be important economic advantages. For example, Vietnam’s defense industry is becoming a significant international player, including as a supplier of semiconductors, defense equipment, and training for both sides in the war in Ukraine. This sector is of interest to the United States, as well. Last December, Vietnam organized its first-ever defense exposition, where it signaled a strong desire to expand its range of international suppliers and boost its own indigenous production. U.S. contractors Lockheed Martin and Raytheon had a strong presence at the expo. Given that the U.S. embargo on lethal weapons sales to Vietnam, in place since the Vietnam War, was lifted only in 2016, this development is remarkable.
Is the entente between Washington and Hanoi sustainable? The answer truly depends on how hard China pushes. For now, the Vietnamese leadership is doing its best to make up for its lack of a formal security alliance while taking care to avoid overcommitment. Hanoi is thereby turning the country’s vulnerability into a strength by maintaining relations with both China and the United States and even benefiting from their competition. If that balance continues to hold, Vietnam may become a model for other countries in the region increasingly caught between two powerful rivals.