On the heels of the G20 Summit, President Biden flew to Vietnam to meet with Communist Party leader General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong to expand relations amid a turbulent time in East Asia.
The Purpose of the Meeting:
The objective of the visit mirrors that of President Biden’s participation at the G20 summit: to consolidate international backing in response to the expanding sphere of Chinese influence.
Within the context of Vietnam’s diplomatic relations, the elevation of diplomatic status with the United States holds significance, as Vietnam only maintains exclusively high-level diplomatic ties with a select group of countries, comprising Russia, India, South Korea, and China.
Vietnam’s inclination to forge closer ties with the United States over China is primarily driven by a combination of historical tensions, territorial disputes, economic interests, and regional security concerns. Vietnam has a history of conflict with China, including a border war in 1979 that has left a legacy of mistrust. Territorial disputes in the South China Sea further strain relations, prompting Vietnam to seek support from the U.S. to assert its claims and maintain regional stability.
Economically, Vietnam benefits from its growing trade relationship with the United States, which is one of its largest trading partners. Access to the U.S. market is vital for Vietnam’s economic growth.
Additionally, Vietnam, like other Southeast Asian nations, is wary of China’s expanding influence and military presence in the region. By strengthening ties with the U.S., Vietnam aims to balance China’s dominance and bolster its security posture.
Vietnam’s foreign policy is pragmatic, seeking to diversify its international engagements. While Vietnam maintains diplomatic relations with both countries, its strategic alignment with the United States serves as a hedge against potential risks and reinforces its sovereignty and interests in a complex geopolitical landscape.
The United States seeks a closer alliance with Vietnam as a means to counterbalance China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific region. By strengthening ties with Vietnam, the U.S. aims to bolster regional stability and deter China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea.
Vietnam’s strategic location as a manufacturing hub makes it an attractive partner for diversifying supply chains, according to many experts, including U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo. Additionally, the United States can reduce dependence on China by supporting American economic interests abroad, with U.S. imports of Vietnamese products almost doubling since 2019 and now totaling $127 billion annually, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This alliance aligns with broader U.S. goals of fostering partnerships with like-minded nations in the Indo-Pacific to promote an alternative to China’s regional dominance.
Despite this, President Biden wishes to highlight his desire to not back China into a corner. “It’s not about containing China, it’s about having a stable base,” Biden said at a news conference in Vietnam’s capital.
The Content of the Meeting:
Hanoi has elevated the United States to its highest diplomatic status, making their relationship a “comprehensive strategic partnership”.
“I think we think too much in Cold War terms,” President Biden said during the news conference. “It’s not about that. It’s about generating economic growth and stability in all parts of the world. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”
“We have an opportunity to strengthen alliances around the world to maintain stability. That’s what this trip is all about,” he added.
The expanded collaboration signifies a wider initiative throughout Asia to mitigate China’s sway. President Biden has indicated that Vietnam aims to assert its independence to a certain extent, and American businesses are exploring alternatives to sourcing products from Chinese manufacturing facilities. In this pursuit, the U.S. is actively seeking potential allies while simultaneously working to alleviate tensions with China.
While Vietnam is cautious about appearing impartial in the U.S.-China rivalry, it does harbor shared apprehensions with the United States regarding China’s escalating assertiveness in the disputed South China Sea. Additionally, the United States, recognizing Vietnam’s significance as a crucial manufacturing center, has established a deepening trade relationship with the country. This has prompted Washington to consider Hanoi an essential partner in its efforts to diversify supply chains and reduce dependence on China, especially after recent disruptions to global supply chains rocked the world economy.
Human Rights Concerns:
Biden’s trip coincides with a recent condemnation of Vietnam by a U.S. government commission on religious freedom, which strongly rebuked the country for its “egregious, ongoing, and systematic violations” of human rights.
Vietnam has faced criticism for its modern human rights record, including restrictions on freedom of expression, a controlled media environment, limitations on political dissent, and suppression of religious freedoms. Critics point to the arrest and imprisonment of activists, journalists, and political dissidents. Concerns also center around issues like land rights abuses, discrimination against ethnic minorities, and restrictions on labor unions. While Vietnam has made economic progress, its political landscape remains tightly controlled by the Communist Party, leading to ongoing international scrutiny and calls for improved human rights protections.
The Biden administration has frequently voiced concerns about China’s human rights situation while maintaining a more reserved stance on Vietnam. Human rights advocates are concerned that the administration might not prioritize discussing this issue with Vietnam in an effort to secure stronger economic ties with the nation.
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan stated that Biden would raise American concerns related “to freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and other basic human rights”, however, it is unconfirmed the extent to which this was discussed.