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Vietnam-US ties enter new phase after Biden visit

September 11, 2023

What does the newly strengthened partnership mean for the United States and Vietnam — and how does China view their reinforced alliance?

US President Joe Biden speaks to the media after a meeting with Vietnam's Communist Party leader Nguyen Phu Trong
Vietnam has elevated its ties with the United States to its highest diplomatic status, comprehensive strategic partnerImage: Luong Thai Linh/AFP

The United States and Vietnam signed a "comprehensive strategic partnership" during US President Joe Biden's 24-hour visit to the Southeast Asian country.

Washington and Hanoi — former adversaries — only resumed diplomatic relations in 1995, two decades after the end of the Vietnam War. 

Since then, bilateral trade has grown to the tune of $138 billion (€129 billion) a year.

Diplomatic milestone

For Vietnam, the upgraded relationship is significant. The US will be added to a small but illustrious list of strategic partners that also includes China, India, Russia and South Korea.

The US is Vietnam's most important trading partner after China — and the United States is Vietnam's largest export market.

US President Joe Biden attends a meeting with Nguyen Phu Trong, the leader of Vietnam's ruling Communist Party
The new partnership includes a deal on semiconductors, with the US committing to help Vietnam develop its capabilitiesImage: Evelyn Hockstein/REUTERS

Biden's visit prompted fresh partnerships and business deals, which were welcomed in Vietnam, said Hanh Nguyen, a research fellow at the Yokosuka Council on Asia Pacific Studies (YCAPS).

"The Communist Party in Vietnam wants to turbocharge the economy with technology investments, such as in the semiconductor industry, to capitalize on concerns over Taiwan tensions," he told DW. "Therefore, strategic cooperation might help Vietnam to maintain its access to US consumer markets."

Countering China's growing assertiveness

Many see Washington's strengthening ties with Hanoi as part of a US campaign to counter Chinese influence.

However, Biden said on Sunday that the agreement with Vietnam was not aimed at containing China — but rather to create stability in the Indo-Pacific region.

The US is principally focused on deepening ties with other members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) or Quad, which also includes Australia, India and Japan, said Ali Wyne, a senior analyst at Eurasia Group, a geopolitical consultancy in New York.

"To demonstrate, however, that it is invested in the entirety of the region, it is increasingly working in parallel to shore up ties with ASEAN members, which are generally warier of embracing strategic competition with China," Wyne added.

Managing tensions in the South China Sea

Territorial row over South China Sea

Biden's visit to Hanoi came amid ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea between Beijing and Indo-Pacific countries — including Vietnam.

For example, increased tensions between the Philippines and Chinahave seen confrontations between Philippine supply ships and the Chinese Coast Guard.

Manila has tightened military ties with the US in efforts to bolster its maritime security.

Communist allies

Bill Hayton, an associate fellow with the Asia-Pacific Programme at Chatham House, a think tank in London, said, however, that Hanoi was strategizing for its own benefits and not looking to side with the US in its tensions with Beijing,

"Many in the US are deluding themselves into thinking that Vietnam will become a partner in a contest with China," he told DW, saying Vietnam had no intention of playing such a role — a view echoed by Hanh Nguyen, who said that Hanoi is hedging its bets regarding its relationships with both US and China.

"Vietnam wishes to maintain an equidistance between China and the US, to get the benefits from both partnerships and avoid having to take sides," Hanh said.

Meanwhile, Joel Atkinson, a professor at Seoul's Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, said that the Chinese state media had made a special point of emphasizing that even though the Vietnam-US relationship had been raised to the "comprehensive strategic partnership" level  it fell short of China's party-to-party "comprehensive strategic partnership" with Vietnam.

Edited by: Keith Walker

Tommy Walker
Tommy Walker Reporter focusing on Southeast Asian politics, conflicts, economy and society.@tommywalkerco