On August 28, 2023, U.S. Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre announced in a statement that President Joe Biden will meet Vietnamese General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong on September 10 in Hanoi to “explore opportunities to promote the growth of a technology-focused and innovation-driven Vietnamese economy, expand our people-to-people ties through education exchanges and workforce development programs, combat climate change, and increase peace, prosperity, and stability in the region.” Biden’s trip is expected to see an upgrade of a “comprehensive strategic partnership”––the highest rank in Vietnam’s diplomatic hierarchy. In the context of China’s increasingly aggressive behaviors in the South China Sea, the possibility of a U.S.-Vietnam alliance is increasingly debatable.
Hanoi appears to leave the door open for deepening security cooperation with the United States. Despite the potential of an elevated partnership between the United States and Vietnam being forged during the Biden trip, I argue that the likelihood of a strategic alliance is highly unlikely. Apart from Vietnam’s adherence to the “Three No’s” policy, it is unlikely for both states to enter into an alliance for two reasons. First, Vietnam and the United States have non-overlapping interests in the South China Sea. Second, Vietnam has a deep-seated suspicion of U.S. peaceful evolution.
China’s recent assertive actions in the South China Sea may prompt Vietnam to consider aligning more closely with external powers like the United States. Many scholars believe that the U.S. presence in the South China Sea serves as a crucial factor in counterbalancing China’s aggressive behavior. However, whether the United States is willing to form an alliance with Vietnam against China is still highly doubtful, as Hanoi itself is uncertain on what position it would play in U.S. China strategy. Put differently, what cost would the United States be willing to bear to help Vietnam in the South China Sea disputes?
Vietnam is one of the main claimants having very high stakes in the South China Sea. The most important goal in Vietnam’s maritime policy is to defend its national sovereignty and territorial integrity, which is critical to the Communist Party of Vietnam’s legitimacy. In the short term, Hanoi aims to maintain the territorial status quo and protect its waters in order to keep conducting regular economic activities such as oil drilling and fishing. In the long term, Vietnam attempts to recover its lost territories in the South China Sea. Hence, security and resources are two of Vietnam’s existential interests in the South China Sea.
While the United States has increased its naval presence in the disputed waters of the South China Sea to indicate its strong opposition to China’s activities, the United States has not employed its forces to protect claimant states’ security and resource rights. Instead, the United States has justified its interests in terms of upholding freedom of navigation by conducting freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in defiance of Chinese claims. For instance, the United States deployed its Navy ships and Air Force jets to patrol the waters of the Philippines in order to protect “freedom of navigation and overflight rights,” and called on China “to abide by its obligations under international law.”
Thus, we should not assume that the United States has high stakes in the South China Sea. If the United States does not protect its allies’ security in the sea, it may lose their trust. However, the United States does not suffer any direct losses to its truly vital security interests. Accordingly, while Vietnam’s concerns over territorial security, resources, and legitimacy may push policymakers in Hanoi to pursue an alliance with the United States policy, Hanoi needs to think twice about how far the United States is willing to go to defend Vietnam’s security. The exaggeration of U.S. interests in the South China Sea could undermine Vietnam’s long-term maritime policy.
Although Vietnam and the United States share significant concerns about China’s hegemonic maritime ambitions in the South China Sea, Vietnam remains highly skeptical about U.S. intentions regarding democracy, human rights, and religion, constraining the possibility of an alliance. In fact, according to the Vietnamese Communist Party propagandists, “Vietnam is still a major target of the hostile forces and reactionaries’ ‘peaceful evolution strategy,’” and “[g]iven the duplicity of several Western administrations, there remain plots and activities that take advantage of cooperative relationships to carry out the ‘peaceful evolution strategy’ in Vietnam, notably support of several administrations for individuals and organizations hostile towards Vietnam. These organizations still capitalize on American standards on ‘democracy,’ ‘human rights,’ ‘freedom of speech,’ ‘freedom of religion,’ etc., to slander Vietnam about violation of democracy and human rights, and use it as a driver to bolster the domestic forces politically and spiritually.”
Just ahead of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Hanoi on April 15 this year, the United States condemned Vietnam’s jailing of a political activist and called for his release and the release of other human rights activists. The U.S. State Department spokesperson added that “Vietnam is an important partner in the Indo-Pacific, and that partnership can only reach its full potential if its government takes concerted steps to meet its obligations and commitments under international law and improve its human rights record.”
The Vietnam-U.S. alliance has always had two sides to it, and Hanoi needs to consider this dichotomy thoroughly before entering into an alliance. On the one hand, the alliance would strengthen Vietnam’s defensive capabilities against China’s intimidating behavior in the South China Sea. On the other hand, the alliance possibly impairs the Vietnamese government’s capability to implement self-reliant defense policies.
All this said, regardless of the shared concern about China, it is unlikely that Vietnam and the United States will join in an alliance due to the non-overlapping interests between the two states in the South China Sea and Vietnam’s deep-rooted suspicions of U.S. political intentions.
Thi Mai Anh Nguyen holds a Master of International Relations from the University of Massachusetts Boston. She studies Vietnam’s foreign policy, U.S.-Southeast Asia relations, China’s foreign policy, and non-Western international relations theories.