A Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with Vietnam
Although the United States remains the sole global power in the foreseeable future, China is rapidly narrowing its power gap with the United States in the East Asia region and is poised to become America’s peer regionally. U.S. primacy in this region is being replaced with a new, bipolar regional configuration that features the United States and China as its two poles. In order to stand the ground and maintain its influence, the United States will badly need regional allies.
If allied with the Unites States, Vietnam can augment American power to a great extent. This additional power stems primarily from Vietnam’s strategic location along a bottleneck of the region’s lifeline and at a major gateway to China and its defense capabilities rooted in a large population of more than ninety million and the rich historical experience of dealing with China in war as well as in peace for more than two thousand years.
This alliance is more than just a defense treaty and may not require the formal defense commitment similar to that between the United States and its treaty allies in the region. It needs codification and this can take the title of a “comprehensive strategic partnership.”
Washington and Hanoi have been moving in this direction. The U.S.-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership declared in 2013 calls for cooperation in a full range of areas, stretching from political and diplomatic relations to trade and economic ties, from technology and education to defense and security, from culture, sports and tourism to war legacy issues, and from environment and health to the protection of human rights. Facing with the growing challenge from China, this partnership needs to be deepened and upgraded to a more strategic level that will allow the United States and Vietnam to adequately meet the epochal challenge.
Speaking to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer on May 20 in Hanoi, Prime Minister Phuc said, “I would like to see the United States continue to maintain its presence in the region.” Just five years ago, this was what some top leaders in Hanoi could only think privately but not say publicly. The field of possibility for U.S.-Vietnam interaction has expanded significantly over the last two decades. The limits and shape of this field of possibility result from both countries’ policies toward each other, which in turn reflect the perceptions of leaders in Washington and Hanoi of the global and Asian balance of power. A key to win the geopolitical game in Asia lies in the skillful management of these perceptions.
At its core, a winning U.S. policy toward Vietnam must perform three major tasks. It must conclude a forward-looking trade and investment agreement that helps to improve Vietnam’s domestic environment, creates an expanding market for high-quality U.S. goods and shrinks the market for low-quality Chinese goods. It must transform the United States’ approach to the South China Sea from one that is wedded to the status quo to one that endeavors to enforce the international law of the sea. Finally, it must achieve a U.S.-Vietnam alliance that can neutralize Chinese primacy in Southeast Asia.
Alexander L. Vuving is Professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. Part of the research for this article has been supported by the MacArthur Foundation Project on Energy Security and Maritime Strategies in the Indo-Pacific. The author alone is responsible for the views expressed in this article.
Image: Fishermen on Hai Hoa beach in Vietnam. Pixabay/Public domain