The timing of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent trip to Vietnam was crucial, diplomatically coinciding with the 10th anniversary of the two ex-battlefield adversaries’ comprehensive strategic partnership, which ushered in a new era of bilateral cooperation in the 21st century.
With bilateral trade and investment between the two former foes booming in recent years, reaching a whopping US$139 billion last year, Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh emphasized how “satisfied with what we have achieved thus far and the time to come.”
Blinken, for his part, said the US is “more committed than ever to elevating the US-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership and to working together to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific region” over his Twitter account.
Indeed, major American companies, not least tech giant Apple, have committed to Vietnam as one of their global production hubs as decoupling from China gathers pace.
Beneath the diplomatic confab and investment flows, however, it’s clear that Vietnam has not quite turned out to be the anti-China ally the US has hoped for in recent years.
If anything, Vietnam’s communist leadership has leaned on century-old communist party-to-party ties with China in order to deepen economic ties and effectively manage differences, most especially in the hotly-contested South China Sea.
Meanwhile, Vietnam is also yet to translate its comprehensive strategic partnership with Washington into robust defense deals, largely thanks to the US Congress’ misgivings about the communist nation’s poor human rights record.
Significantly, the Biden administration condemned Hanoi’s crackdown on dissidents, including a prominent activist and journalist, Nguyen Lan Thang, just hours before Blinken’s visit, warning that bilateral relations would only blossom in full if the communist regime embraces a more democratic path.
For Vietnam, there is little incentive to fully align with the US. After all, the Southeast Asian nation has found itself in a strategic sweet spot by carefully balancing relations with multiple superpowers while steadily nurturing strategic ties with like-minded nations across the Indo-Pacific.
More than most, Vietnam has successfully pursued a strategy of “multi-alignment” while preserving its image as a non-aligned power in a strategically vital region.
Scarred by fatal reliance on Maoist China and later the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War period, Vietnam has embraced a distinct non-aligned foreign policy in the past decades.
Specifically, the Southeast Asian nation adopted a “Three No’s” national security doctrine, namely (i) no military alliance with a foreign power; (ii) no hosting of foreign military forces on its soil, (and (iii) no alignment with rival power against the other.
But China’s rapid rise and its fast-expanding strategic footprint across the South China Sea has forced Vietnam to recalibrate its strategic posture. Between 2008 and 2018, Vietnam and the US engaged in a series of high-stakes agreements and events amid shared concerns over a resurgent China.
First came Hanoi’s participation in the Barack Obama-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) trade pact, which kicked off a series of high-profile visits by top US and Vietnam officials to each other’s capitals.
By 2013, the two former adversaries felt comfortable enough to sign a comprehensive strategic cooperation agreement, just as Beijing accelerated its militarization of the South China Sea disputes by building a sprawling network of artificial islands in the Hanoi-claimed Paracel and Spratly group of islands.
The Vietnam-US strategic embrace arguably reached its zenith in 2018, when the US deployed the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier for a goodwill visit to the Southeast Asian nation, marking the first such docking in more than four decades.
The Donald Trump administration largely built on its predecessor’s outreach by identifying the communist nation as a “cooperative maritime partner” in Asia in its National Security Strategy (NSS) paper.
A year later, Trump was in Hanoi to hold his historic meeting with North Korean supreme leader Kim Jung Un, cementing Vietnam’s position as a new pivot state in the Indo-Pacific.
Despite the Biden administration’s efforts to elevate bilateral relations to a new level by deploying two cabinet-level officials to Hanoi in its first year in office, Vietnam began to demure amid deepening disagreements over human rights and democracy issues.
Ahead of US Vice President Kamala Harris’s visit to Hanoi in 2019, Vietnam’s then-premier met a special Chinese envoy to signal his country’s unwillingness to align with any superpower.
Months later, Vietnam openly expressed its dissatisfaction with the White House’s refusal to invite the communist regime to its global Democracy Summit, a centerpiece of Biden’s values-based foreign policy agenda.
In a strongly worded statement, Vietnam’s foreign ministry reiterated the country’s commitment to build “a Socialist democracy in tandem with upholding people’s rights to democracy in all aspects of their social life.”
The Communist Party-led regime defended its political system as “a means for the people to exercise their rights to freedom and equality, and identifies the people as the one who can exercise this power.”
A few months later, ideological differences were fully on display following Vietnam’s refusal to condemn and sanction Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The US-led sanctions against the Eurasian power, meanwhile, undermined Vietnam’s robust defense and economic ties with Moscow, a top source of high-end defense equipment over the past three decades.
That same year saw Vietnam’s Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong become the first foreign leader to visit Beijing following Chinese paramount leader Xi Jinping’s consolidation of a third term in power.
The meeting resulted in as many as 13 major agreements that underscored a shared commitment to preserving stable ties between the two communist nations.
Meanwhile, the US Congress, citing human rights issues, has been lukewarm towards longstanding plans to build strong defense ties with Vietnam’s communist regime.
The upshot has been the lack of any significant defense deal between the two sides a decade after signing a strategic partnership agreement. That’s despite four decades of normalized ties and just as neighboring Indonesia, Taiwan and the Philippines explore big-ticket arms purchases from Washington.
Under pressure at home, Blinken likely slighted his Vietnamese guests by again raising human rights issues while in Hanoi.
“[W]e respect Vietnam’s right to shape its future under its own political system. At the same time, we continue to underscore how future progress on human rights is essential to unleashing the full potential of the Vietnamese people,” Blinken said during his visit.
“That’s the central focus of the US-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue,” he added, pushing back against claims that the Biden administration is sacrificing values for expediency in its bilateral relations with the communist regime.
Rather than overreliance on either the US or China, however, Vietnam is steaming ahead with its “multi-aligned” foreign policy by actively pursuing warmer ties with middle powers across the Indo-Pacific.
On one hand, Vietnam has been exploring the purchase of prized BrahMos anti-ship cruise missiles as well as warships from India, while Japan has been assisting the Southeast Asian nation’s maritime security capabilities.
As for the European Union, it has a defense cooperation pact with Vietnam which is seen as a stabilizing regional force by Brussels. With all this dynamic hedging, Vietnam is in a strategic sweet spot, which allows it to manage booming ties with both the US and China without undermining its own strategic autonomy.