Losing Momentum and Passing Opportunities in the U.S.-Vietnam Relationship

In 2023, the United States and Vietnam will celebrate the 10th anniversary of their comprehensive partnership. The occasion will provide a window of opportunity to elevate the relationship to a strategic partnership. However, there are signs that Washington and Hanoi are losing momentum in bilateral security cooperation and passing opportunities to make necessary preparations for the upgrade to happen.

During his nomination hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Ambassador Marc Knapper stated that, if confirmed, he would prioritize deepening the United States’ strategic relationship with Vietnam. He would take steps to raise the current comprehensive partnership to a strategic partnership by “strengthening even further our security relationship,” “deepening our economic partnership,” and “deepening our people-to-people ties.”

Since the signing of the U.S.-Vietnam comprehensive partnership in 2013, bilateral trade and investment have grown quickly. In 2021, two-way trade volume almost reached $113 billion. The United States is now Vietnam’s third-largest trading partner (after China and South Korea) and its biggest export market. In 2020, U.S. foreign direct investment in Vietnam was $2.8 billion. Furthermore, Vietnam recently became one of the 14 members of the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, promising to raise the two countries’ relations to a strategic level.

People-to-people ties are likely to be strengthened. There are more than 21,600 Vietnamese students in U.S. universities (before the Covid-19 pandemic, the number was over 30,000). Vietnam is ranked sixth among source countries for foreign students, adding up to $1 billion to the U.S. economy every year. Vietnamese people hold strong positive sentiments toward the United States, and many want to live, study, and settle down there.

On July 5, 2022, Radio Free Asia reported that the USS Ronald Reagan was scheduled to visit Da Nang in the second half of July. This would mark the third biennial visit by a U.S. aircraft carrier to Vietnam. The first visit was conducted by the USS Carl Vinson in March 2018, and the second by the USS Theodore Roosevelt in March 2020. An aircraft carrier visit in 2022 would cement the practice of conducting one every two years, maintaining a momentum in bilateral security cooperation. Regrettably, the visit did not take place.

Thayer Consultancy suggested that the Vietnamese side canceled the visit because of “concerns about a possible Chinese attack on Taiwan,” as the U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi planned to visit the island. Duan Dang—a Twitter account with more than 24,000 followers—shared a map showing that the USS Ronald Reagan was on its way to central Vietnam and then suddenly diverted, heading to Singapore instead.

Furthermore, Vietnam did not participate in the 2022 Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC)—the world's biggest international maritime exercise held by the U.S. Pacific Fleet—while five of its Southeast Asian neighbors did. After sending observers in 2012 and 2016, Vietnam fully participated in RIMPAC for the first time in 2018 but could not do so in 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Vietnam’s participation in RIMPAC 2022 would have been not only an opportunity for Vietnamese naval forces to learn from international counterparts, but also an indicator of an uptick in U.S.-Vietnam defense cooperation.

The act of upgrading the U.S.-Vietnam comprehensive partnership to a strategic partnership would most likely be marked by a joint statement signed by the two heads of states. During Vice President Kamala Harris’s visit to Vietnam in August 2021, President Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Vietnamese Communist Party general secretary Nguyen Phu Trong invited President Joe Biden to visit Vietnam in the near future. The same invitation was conveyed by Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh when he attended the U.S.-Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Washington, D.C. in May 2022. President Biden accepted the invitation and said he would visit Vietnam within a reasonable time.

Thayer Consultancy reported that there was a plan for U.S. secretary of state Antony Blinken to visit Hanoi in July 2022. Such a visit would have paved the way for President Biden to visit Vietnam the following year, a perfect occasion to elevate the U.S.-Vietnam relationship to a strategic partnership as the two countries celebrate the 10th anniversary of their comprehensive partnership. Unfortunately, Blinken’s visit was either postponed or canceled.

Although it is unclear what caused the change, the same report said that the Blinken visit was planned close to the visit by Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov to Vietnam, which took place from July 5 to 6. To put this in context, Russia has been isolated and punished by the United States and its allies for invading Ukraine. During the G20 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on July 8, 2022, Blinken and several other Western foreign ministers refused to meet with Lavrov. In a press conference in Hanoi, Lavrov blamed the United States and Western countries for the challenges facing the global economy. He accused the West of being involved in “state-sponsored terrorism” by providing weapons to Ukraine and condemned them for “illegal unilateral sanctions.” It would have been uncomfortable for both the United States and Vietnam if Blinken had visited Hanoi around the same time as Lavrov.

U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Vice President Harris, have repeatedly called for upgrading the partnership with Vietnam. However, Hanoi has not responded favorably. Former Vietnamese ambassador to the United States Ha Kim Ngoc said that the content of the partnership was already strategic, just not in name. This has led to speculation that China is the reason behind the Vietnamese government’s lukewarm attitude.

Vietnam has already signed strategic partnerships with 17 countries and dedicated the highest level, a comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership, to China. By looking to China too much, Vietnam risks undermining its foreign policy of independence. In addition, after all the security assistance from the United States to improve Vietnam’s maritime capabilities, Hanoi’s unenthusiastic attitude toward upgrading the partnership risks losing support from U.S. constituents.

Formally upgrading the relationship with the United States to a strategic partnership is important for two main reasons. First, a written joint statement will assure both sides’ commitments. As China has been increasingly aggressive in the South China Sea, the United States is the only country that has the ability and willingness to defy China. Second, Vietnam has tried to elevate its status by strengthening its relations with all five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. So far, Vietnam has a comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership with China, a comprehensive strategic partnership with Russia, strategic partnerships with United Kingdom and France, but only a comprehensive partnership with the United States.

From now until the 10th anniversary of the U.S.-Vietnam comprehensive partnership, Blinken will still have the opportunity to meet with Vietnamese leaders to prepare for President Biden’s visit to Vietnam next year. Then, the two countries can formally upgrade their relationship to a strategic partnership.

Bich T. Tran is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Bich Tran
Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Southeast Asia Program