Spotlight - Vietnam: September 2, 2021

On her first trip to Asia as vice president, Kamala Harris went to Singapore and Vietnam—the same two countries visited by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin one month earlier. As the first U.S. vice president to travel to Vietnam since 1975 and the highest-ranking Biden administration official to visit Asia so far, Harris’ trip to Hanoi signifies the United States’ commitment to strengthening U.S.-Vietnam relations.
Vietnam hosted both Harris and Austin despite facing its worst Covid-19 outbreak since May. Just one day prior to Harris’ arrival, the Vietnamese government deployed soldiers to help enforce a strict lockdown in Ho Chi Minh City.
Vice President Harris was welcomed by her Vietnamese counterpart Vo Thi Anh Xuan on August 25. She also met President Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh the same day. In her conversations with Vietnamese leaders, Harris confirmed that the United States valued its comprehensive partnership with Vietnam on the basis of “respect for each other’s independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political regime.” She reaffirmed that the United States would continue to challenge China’s excessive maritime claims in the South China Sea and find ways to “raise the pressure on Beijing” to abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Vice President Xuan and President Phuc stressed that the United States was one of Vietnam’s “leading important partners.” Prime Minister Chinh affirmed that Vietnam treasured ties with the United States and wished to foster bilateral cooperation.
Interestingly, a few hours before the vice president’s arrival in Hanoi, Prime Minister Chinh received Chinese Ambassador Xiong Bo and highlighted Vietnam’s foreign policy of independence, self-reliance, multilateralization, and diversification of external relations. He also reaffirmed that Vietnam would not ally with one country to fight another. Bo announced that China would donate an additional 2 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines to Vietnam, bringing the total donations from China to 2.7 million doses.
Given Vietnam’s priority of fighting the pandemic, Harris announced that the United States was donating an additional 1 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine to Vietnam, bringing the total U.S. donations to Vietnam to 6 million doses. She also launched the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Southeast Asia Regional Office in Hanoi to underpin the U.S. commitment to regional health security cooperation.
The vice president witnessed the signing of a land lease for the construction of a new U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, launched Peace Corps Vietnam, and paid tribute to the late Senator John McCain on the third anniversary of his death by visiting the monument where his plane was shot down in 1967.
On her last day in Hanoi, Vice President Harris met with civil society change-makers. She said she had discussed issues of human rights and political dissent with Vietnamese officials, adding that the United States would not shy away from difficult conversations with Vietnam. Harris said her trip to Hanoi “signals the beginning of the next chapter” in the U.S.-Vietnam relationship. President Phuc invited President Joe Biden to visit Vietnam in the near future. When the two leaders meet, the United States and Vietnam might formally upgrade their comprehensive partnership to a strategic partnership.
Bich T. Tran
Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Southeast Asia Program