Are Vietnam and America Headed Toward Strategic Partnership?

Are Vietnam and America Headed Toward Strategic Partnership?

The primary obstacle hindering any progress in advancing relations lies in Vietnam's apprehension of provoking China without a clear and tangible benefit.

Following sustained Chinese presence in Vietnamese-claimed territory in the South China Sea, the United States sent the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier to Vietnam for a port call visit this week at Vietnamese invitation—only the third such visit since the Vietnam War. This visit not only sent a powerful message of deterrence but also symbolized the incredible growth in relations between the two countries over the decades.

Just fifty years ago, the United States withdrew from Vietnam after over a decade of brutal conflict. Since then, the relationship has blossomed into a vital partnership, especially in recent years. Given the upward trend of relations and China’s increasingly coercive action in the South China Sea, some experts have either called for or predicted a formal upgrade of ties from a comprehensive partnership to a strategic partnership—something both countries have signaled a desire to do. However, given the apprehensions held by Vietnam regarding potential Chinese repercussions, the prospects of an upgrade in relations remain unlikely.

How We Got Here

Beginning in 1954, the United States and Vietnam fought a decades-long war that culminated in the U.S. withdrawal and a unified country under the Communist Party of Vietnam in 1975. The conflict resulted in the death of millions of people and a complete severance of relations between the two countries, with little optimism for reconciliation.

However, evolving geopolitical and economic circumstances resulted in a re-engagement between the two former enemies. Shortly after the war, Vietnam began experiencing severe economic difficulties partly due to a dysfunctional centralized economy, its evolving reliance on the fledgling Soviet Union, and its economic isolation from the United States following Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia to remove the Khmer Rouge in 1979. Yet, in 1986 Vietnam transformed its economy through economic reforms (Doi Moi), and in 1989 it withdrew its military from Cambodia. 

These two occurrences presented an opportunity for reconciliation with the United States, ultimately leading to the normalization of relations in 1995. One of the most immediate impacts of this normalization was observed in trade relations, further solidified by the signing of a bilateral trade agreement in 2001. Consequently, between 1995 and 2022, bilateral trade between the two countries increased from $451 million to $113 billion.

The culmination of these efforts occurred in 2013 when the two countries upgraded their relations to a comprehensive partnership. This upgrade established an overarching framework for the two Pacific powers to cooperate on trade, security, climate change, and people-to-people engagement.

Building on this momentum, in 2015, Vietnamese general secretary Nguyen Phu Trong made the first visit of a Vietnamese Communist Party leader to the White House. Less than a year later, President Barack Obama became the first president since Bill Clinton to travel to Vietnam for a bilateral visit and only the second since the war. These visits led to the Obama administration’s decision to remove the embargo on lethal weapon sales to Vietnam.

Lifting the embargo created space for both countries to elevate security relations. Since 2016 Vietnam and U.S. security cooperation has included the docking of U.S. aircraft carriers on several occasions, participation in a RIMPAC military exercise, the transfer of millions of dollars of defense equipment—particularly equipment related to maritime security like U.S. Coast Guard Cutters, a T-6 trainer aircraft, and metal shark patrol boats—and multiple high-level visits.

Upgrade as the Next Logical Step

Given this trend in relations, many expect both countries to upgrade relations to a strategic partnership, something both countries have transparently supported. In March of this year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to Vietnam, where both countries expressed a desire to grow their relations. Blinken said, “This is … one of the most important relationships we’ve had … It’s had a remarkable trajectory over the last couple of decades. Our conviction is that it can and will grow even stronger (emphasis added).” Similarly, as reported by Reuters, Prime Minster Pham Minh Chinh said the two countries “were looking to elevate ties ‘to a new height.’” Blinken even suggested a tentative “weeks and months” timeline for an announcement.

At face value, this upgrade in relations makes sense. As the United States attempts to disentangle its economy from China (“de-risking”), Vietnam has become a prime benefactor as a partial replacement in the supply chain. Major manufacturers, such as Microsoft, Foxconn, Apple, and Samsung, have moved some of their operations to Vietnam to mitigate the costs of future economic clashes between China and America or U.S. sanctions and restrictions placed on companies operating in China. This move has deepened their economic engagement even further.

More importantly, from a security perspective, both have aligned interests in the Pacific on maintaining a rules-based order with skepticism about China’s intentions. The initial catalyst for improved cooperation was China’s increasing aggression in the South China Sea, where it has overlapping claims with Vietnam over the Paracel and Spratly Islands. Consequently, China has infiltrated Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) (including this month), occupying vast Vietnamese-claimed territory in both island chains. This incursion threatens Vietnamese resources, trade, strategic autonomy, and territory.

This fear is not theoretical but rather rooted in a history of Chinese invasion and colonization spanning thousands of years—something China has also reaffirmed more recently. In 1979, Vietnam fought a short but bloody war that killed millions after China invaded its northern territory to pressure Vietnam to evacuate Cambodia. In the 2014 China-Vietnam oil rig crisis, which occurred when China moved an oil rig and three oil and gas service ships into Vietnamese-claimed territory, there was a months-long standoff and Vietnamese riots, which were targeted at ethnic Chinese, resulted in the destruction of various Chinese businesses and the death of six Chinese citizens.

This concern is still palpable among Vietnamese. The Singaporean-based think tank ISEAS, which conducts an annual survey of business and policy leaders in Southeast Asia, found that just 1.5 percent of respondents have confidence in China to provide leadership to maintain the rules-based order and uphold international law.

The United States shares this concern about Chinese intentions and has a vested interest in ensuring China doesn’t control the South China Sea. America’s prevailing interest in the disputes revolves around international law—if China can throw out UNCLOS, it can dispense with other international laws and norms. Additionally, as U.S. secretary of defense Lloyd Austin said, “[The] Indo-Pacific is at the heart of American grand strategy.” China threatens this grand strategy if it can bully its way into control of the South China Sea and threaten the United States' ability to ensure the free movement of goods and station forces throughout the region.

With an Eye Toward China

Despite the momentum of relations and aligned interest, an upgrade has yet to manifest, despite having an auspicious opportunity. Earlier this year, Blinken visited Vietnam to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War and the tenth anniversary since the last time the two countries upgraded ties. Still, the visit came and went with nothing but lip service to their desires to upgrade relations.

This lack of progress is primarily because Hanoi is careful not to pivot too close to Washington to avoid ire from Beijing, which has a history of choosing punitive measures when states pursue policies China finds unacceptable. The most recent example occurred in 2020 when China applied tariffs on various Australian agricultural products following Australia’s call for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic

Given Vietnam’s geographic proximity to and economic interdependence on China, its prudence is well-founded. China's track record of encroaching upon Vietnamese territory and Vietnam's reliance on Chinese exports partnership further compound the risk faced by Vietnam. This reality leaves Vietnam vulnerable, especially when factoring in its skepticism of American commitment to the region.

Similarly, although China would likely respond with punitive measures, it isn’t clear what tangibles would result from upgrading relations with the United States. As Bich T. Tran notes, U.S.-Vietnamese officials have argued that the relationship is already strategic in practice. Put another way, Vietnam values the United States as a security partner to deter Chinese aggression, but growing that security partnership doesn’t require an upgrade in relations. Therefore, by not upgrading relations, Vietnam avoids a high-risk, low-reward scenario and can continue to grow its security partnership with the United States while preserving relatively healthy relations with China. 

Vietnamese anxiety about Chinese reactions contributes to how each envisions the upgrade in relations and how it would serve overlapping yet distinct objectives. As the Diplomat’s Southeast Asia editor, Sebastian Strangio, wrote in the lead-up to Blinken’s visit to Vietnam earlier this year, “What Vietnam wants out of its relations with the U.S. (strategic autonomy, economic growth, and the preservation of CPV rule) differs from what the United States wants … (a partner in the containment of Chinese power and influence).”

Other impediments do exist. For example, Vietnam has existential concerns with getting too close to the United States and the repercussions that will have on democratic progression in its own country—something Vietnam expert Bill Hayton argues the Vietnamese leadership considers the “single biggest threat they face.” Likewise, the United States is troubled by Vietnam’s authoritarian government and close relationship with other autocratic powers, such as Russia. There are also lingering grievances from the war, such as the accounting and returning POW remains on the American side and Agent Orange clean up in Vietnam.