U.S.-Vietnam Relations: China Threat Paves Way to Upgrading of Bilateral Ties

Vietnam has upgraded its relationship with the United States, with which it once engaged in warfare, to the highest rank as a friendly nation, alongside China and Russia. As China is intensifying its hegemonic moves, it is hoped that the relationship will be capitalized on to maintain regional stability.

U.S. President Joe Biden recently visited Vietnam for the first time since taking office and met Vietnam Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, the country’s supreme leader. They issued a joint statement. This makes Biden the fifth U.S. president to visit Vietnam since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.

The joint statement stipulates that the U.S.-Vietnam relationship has reached a “new phase” after their relations were elevated by two levels to the highest “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” from the previous “Comprehensive Partnership.”

It is unusual that the United States, Vietnam’s former enemy, has been equated with Russia, with which Vietnam traditionally has strong military ties, as well as China, a country with the same socialist system as Vietnam.

For Vietnam, it is greatly alarmed by China’s unilateral maritime expansion in the South China Sea.

In the waters disputed by China and Vietnam, there have been a number of cases of Chinese government ships hitting and sinking Vietnamese fishing boats. Last month, it was reported that China was constructing a new airstrip on an island in the disputed waters.

China’s repeated attempts to make its effective control of the area a fait accompli may have led Vietnam to decide to upgrade its relations with the United States.

The U.S.-Vietnam joint statement also included a commitment to accelerating defense cooperation, in addition to holding annual foreign ministerial talks. This will provide deterrence capability to counter China’s maritime expansion.

The United States, this time, has pledged equipment and other assistance to Vietnam to help the country improve its maritime security capabilities.

The China Coast Guard overwhelms the Vietnamese side in terms of both quantity and quality. In order to deal with the coercive behavior of Chinese government vessels, it is important for the United States to continue its involvement and proceed with support such as providing patrol vessels and conducting joint drills with Vietnam.

The United States also agreed to support Vietnam’s semiconductor industry. Washington is building supply networks for semiconductors and other important materials that does not depend on China. Cooperation from Vietnam will serve as a tailwind for this move.

In contrast, there is a big difference between the United States, which promotes democracy, and Vietnam, which has a one-party system ruled by its Communist Party. The United States must not turn a blind eye to the human rights situation in Vietnam by putting too much priority on strengthening relations.

China claims that the recent proximity of Washington and Hanoi is a reflection of U.S. hegemony, but this is out of line. China should be aware that its own aggressive maritime expansion has led Vietnam and the Philippines to strengthen their relations with the United States.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Sept. 18, 2023)