Spotlight - Vietnam: September 12, 2023

On September 10, 2023, in Hanoi, the general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV), Nguyen Phu Trong, and U.S. president Joseph Biden elevated the United States-Vietnam comprehensive partnership to a comprehensive strategic partnership, skipping one level in Vietnam’s diplomatic nomenclature. This leapfrog surprised many observers, as Vietnam had been hesitant to upgrade the relationship to a strategic partnership in the previous three years of the Biden administration.

However, the upgrade to a comprehensive strategic partnership is logical. The two countries were poised to upgrade to a strategic partnership in 2019 when Trong, who also held the position of state president at the time, planned a state visit to Washington. The trip never took place due to his health problems. Hanoi’s subsequent hesitance can be attributed to uncertainty regarding an official visit by their leaders and escalating tensions between China and the United States. This year marks the tenth anniversary of the U.S.-Vietnam comprehensive partnership, providing the impetus for President Biden’s visit.

Two aspects of the upgrade are particularly noteworthy. First, the protocol of the upgrade contrasts with the comprehensive partnership of 2013, which was formalized by then-presidents Barack Obama and Truong Tan Sang. This time, it was the general secretary of the CPV who, alongside the U.S. president, announced the upgrade. This represents a significant win for General Secretary Trong and the CPV. The United States’ acceptance of this protocol signals its respect for Vietnam’s political system and the role of the CPV within it, bolstering the party’s legitimacy domestically and internationally.

The second point concerns the prioritization of areas of cooperation. The joint statement enumerates ten areas of cooperation. Predominantly a political declaration, the emphasis is first placed on political and diplomatic relations. Economic, trade, and investment cooperation, listed second, remains the engine of bilateral ties. While the United States is Vietnam’s top export market, it ranks only as the country’s eleventh largest foreign investor, indicating substantial potential for increased U.S. FDI in Vietnam. Thirdly, science, technology, innovation, and digital cooperation is regarded as a new breakthrough in bilateral relations. The United States’ ambition to transform Vietnam into a semiconductor powerhouse is backed by the International Technology Security and Innovation Fund, established under the CHIPS Act of 2022. Subsequent areas of cooperation include education and training; climate, energy, environment, and health; addressing war legacies; culture, people-to-people ties, sports, and tourism. Although bilateral defense and security cooperation is anticipated to intensify under the revamped partnership, it ranks only eighth out of the ten cooperation areas, succeeded by the promotion and protection of human rights and collaboration on regional and global matters.

Over the past decade, defense and security emerged as the most rapidly expanding domain of collaboration. However, Vietnam’s 4-no principle (no military alliances, no aligning with one country against another, no foreign military bases, and no use or threats of force) limits the extent of defense cooperation. While the United States remains committed to bolstering Vietnam’s maritime security and cybersecurity, both parties spotlight their collaboration in less contentious areas.

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

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