Would the U.S. be successful in wooing Vietnam to counter China? 

Lambasted and shunned by China, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met Vietnamese Prime Minister Phạm Minh Chính in Hanoi, Vietnam, on April 15 2023, in an effort to boost bilateral ties. 

Both the US and Vietnam have increasingly intertwined trade relations, as well as common fears about China’s rising regional military and economic assertiveness. This year marks the 10th year of Vietnam’s “comprehensive partnership” with America.

“We think this is an auspicious time to elevate our existing partnership,” Blinken told reporters.

“We’ve had for the last 10 years this comprehensive partnership that has created an incredibly strong foundation of cooperation across many different areas. As a result, we think this is a good moment to go even further.” 

Notably, the construction of a new US$1.2 billion US embassy compound in Hanoi, has been deemed as “a demonstration of the enduring commitment to the United States–Vietnam relationship during the 10th anniversary of the Comprehensive Partnership,” the US State Department disclosed.

Blinken revealed that both countries would be working on boosting cooperation “in the weeks and months ahead”.  He stated also that they were finalizing the deployment of a third US Coast Guard cutter to Vietnam to bolster its “capacity to contribute to maritime peace and stability in the South China Sea”.

In turn, Phạm gave the green-light to raise “bilateral ties to a new height”.

Evidently, Blinken’s trip showcased the desire of President Joe Biden’s administration to reinforce American ties with Southeast Asian nations in light of an increasingly pugilistic China. The American diplomat’s visit was a follow-up to a call last month between Biden and the General Secretary of Vietnam’s ruling Communist party, Nguyễn Phú Trọng.

It is also noteworthy that Blinken’s visit came around two weeks after the 50th anniversary of the withdrawal of US combat troops from South Vietnam, marking the end of America’s direct military involvement in the long-drawn and bloody Vietnam war.  

However, amid all the diplomatic fanfare and choreographed state photographs, would America succeed in courting Communist Vietnam, a country that it had vehemently fought for almost two decades and bombed with lethal napalm, to counter China? 

American advantages

Given Vietnam’s longstanding struggle against Chinese influence and history of tense relations with its larger neighbor, it may seem at first glance that Hanoi would welcome Washington’s diplomatic overtures without much hesitation. 

Also, Vietnam has been a key regional trading partner for America, and has been critical of China’s military claims in the disputed South China Sea waters. What is more, to maintain strategic independence from China, Vietnam has been open to partnerships with several countries, particularly those in the fields of trade and industry. 

In an interview with the South China Morning Post, Carl Thayer, a specialist on Vietnamese defense matters, opined that the time “is ripe” for a bilateral relationship upgrade “laying the groundwork” for a possible visit by Biden in May to coincide with his trip to the G7 Summit in Hiroshima, Japan. 

On its end, America views Vietnam as a crucial counterweight to China and has tried to tap on the country’s strained ties with China to increase its clout. 

Vietnam’s strategic calculations

While enhanced security due to American military presence in the region and trade with the world’s largest economy would certainly be favorable to Vietnam, Hanoi has been cautious about becoming too chummy with Washington, fearing the potential economic, military and political consequences on its dealings with China. 

Admittedly, the US has been facing challenges in a bid to build a coalition of Southeast Asian states to tackle China and prevent any Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Understandably, countries in the region do not wish to rattle a militarily and economically potent China by moving too far into the American orbit. 

On top of that, if Vietnam were to be firmly entrenched in the American fold, the US would very likely attempt to mold Communist Vietnam according to American political and socio-cultural values over time. 

Given Hanoi’s close ideological relations with Beijing, as well as the former having become gradually authoritarian, reflecting Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s tightening of power in China, it would only be a matter of time before America would have a bone to pick with Vietnam in issues pertaining to religious freedom and human rights. 

Already before Blinken’s recent trip to the country, human rights activists expected the American diplomat to broach Vietnam’s worsening treatment of state dissidents in his talks with government officials.

In a press release on April 12, Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), called on Blinken to ask Vietnam “to end its systemic abuse of freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and release the more than 160 political prisoners imprisoned for exercising their rights.”

Robertson further urged Blinken to “make a special appeal for the immediate and unconditional release” of Vietnamese journalist Phạm Đoan Trang, who was slapped with a nine-year jail sentence for alleged “anti-State activities.” 

The HRW deputy director also singled out Vietnam’s imprisonment of two academics, legal specialist Hoàng Ngọc Giao and Nguyễn Sơn Lộ, head of Southeast and North Asia (SENA) Institute for Research and Development.

Pragmatism wins? 

Undeniably, Vietnam is very much aware of the ramifications should it fail to comply with America’s political ideology and values. Owing to geopolitical dynamics, American media outlets are presently awash with reports critical of China’s treatment of minorities and religious believers, whereas Vietnam largely goes unnoticed.

Nonetheless, should Vietnam follow in China’s footsteps and gain political, economic and military ascendancy, threatening American livelihoods and products, it would be unsurprising if the American government and press begin to villainize the country. Suffice it to say that in light of American actions towards China and North Korea, it would be highly improbable that America would tolerate another assertive and potent communist state in Asia. 

Although China has challenged Vietnam’s territorial sovereignty, as in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, Beijing still acts as an ideological backing for Hanoi and does not challenge the legitimacy of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP), which Chinese dictator Mao Zedong helped to assume power. 

Unless there is a change in Vietnam’s leadership and communist ideology, the country’s leaders would most likely leverage their pragmatic partnership with China to hedge against Washington’s dominance, while concurrently reaping the benefits of American trade and security. 

Photo credit: iStock/ Tanaonte

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