US, Vietnam raise relations to highest level

The deal is about stability, not containing China, Biden says.

The U.S. and Vietnam have upgraded their relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership, putting Washington’s engagement with Hanoi on a par with that of Beijing’s and Moscow’s.

The move came during a two-day visit by Joe Biden, the first U.S. president to be invited to the country by a leader of the Communist Party of Vietnam.

Biden met with Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong on Sunday, flying straight to Hanoi from the G20 summit in Delhi. 

“Vietnam and the U.S. are critical partners at what I would argue is a very critical time,” Biden told Trọng, at the start of their meeting at communist party headquarters.

The upgrade comes 10 years after the two countries agreed a comprehensive partnership, and as the U.S. seeks to diversify its supply chain; de-risking not de-linking as the White House puts it.

U.S. President Joe Biden holds a press conference in Hanoi, Vietnam, September 10, 2023. Credit: Reuters

In a news conference on Sunday night, Biden said the elevated relationship with Vietnam was about building a stable base in the region and “not about containing China.”

Some analysts suggest that may not be the case. Hanoi based Vietnamese scholar Nguyen Quang A told RFA Vietnamese that both sides are seeking a hedge against Chinese influence in the region.

“China is becoming more and more aggressive in the South China Sea and Vietnam is a neighboring country affected by China's aggression,” he said, adding that the move also works for the Biden administration because: “the U.S, tries every way to have as many allies as possible, or parties that are not allies yet fall in the same direction in the confrontation with China.”

Vietnam watcher Carl Thayer said the move does not signal a Vietnamese shift away from its relationship with China.

“Vietnam will manage the new relations by not aligning with either China or the United States,” said the emeritus professor at the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra.

Trong’s legacy

Attorney Nguyen Van Dai from Germany said the upgrade in the bilateral relationship may also be a move by Trong to ensure a positive legacy as his tenure as Vietnam’s party chief draws to an end.

“Upgrading this relationship represents Mr. Nguyen Phu Trong's clearest personal ambition, while bringing an economic benefit to save the Party and the regime while Vietnam's economy is struggling,” he told RFA Vietnamese.

Vietnam’s exports have been hit by global trade headwinds with GDP growth slowing to 3.7% year-on-year in the first half of 2023, after an 8% growth in 2022.

However, the U.S. is still Vietnam’s largest export market with the value of exports nearly doubling since 2019 to an annual U.S.$127 billion last year according to America’s Census Bureau. 

US and Vietnam national flags fly on a street light in Hanoi on September 10, 2023, as US President Joe Biden visits Vietnam. Credit: AFP

For U.S. manufacturers, some of whose Hanoi-based representatives are meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken during the Biden visit, Vietnam offers cheap manufacturing without some of the political and economic uncertainties of a Chinese operation. 

“The U.S. is de-risking its dependence on China,” said Carl Thayer. 

“Some U.S. companies are relocating to Vietnam. The U.S. needs alternate sources of semiconductors.”

Arms deal not on the cards

Biden’s arrival in Hanoi came a day after the New York Times reported that Vietnam was making “a clandestine plan to buy an arsenal of weapons from Russia in contravention of American sanctions.”

U.S. Principal Deputy National Security Adviser Jon Finer told reporters on Sunday the U.S. did not have an arms deal to offer Vietnam  but wanted to help it diversify away from Russian supplies, Reuters reported. 

Attorney Dai told RFA he thinks an arms deal with the U.S. may still happen in coming months. 

“There is an urgent need for Vietnam to protect national sovereignty and security when they are clearly aware that the weapons they bought from Russia are backward and do not have enough ability to help Vietnam protect its national sovereignty,” he said.

“They need a variety of weapons, especially from the U.S. as well as from [other] Western countries.”

The visit comes amid calls by rights organizations in Vietnam and abroad for the U.S. to exert more pressure on Vietnam over its human rights record. Vietnam is holding at least 159 political prisoners, according to Human RIghts Watch, with at least 22 others in detention pending trial.

Pro-democracy group Viet Tan said an improvement in diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Vietnam is only meaningful if these concerns are addressed.

The Vietnamese Communist Party must commit to ending the arbitrary use of laws to arrest activists and suppress basic rights,” it said just ahead of Biden’s visit.

“Vietnam will truly contribute to a free and open Indo-Pacific when it has a free and open society.”

Edited by Elaine Chan.

This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By Mike Firn for RFA and RFA Vietnamese.

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