On Sunday, US President Joe Biden will begin his two-day visit to Vietnam, with an aim of upgrading the bilateral relationship between the US and Vietnam to a strategic partnership. Currently, the US is eager to court Vietnam and further enhance its relations with the country, in an attempt to target China. However, Hanoi is not destined to become the next Philippines in Washington's strategy.
The US is urgently seeking to upgrade its relationship with Vietnam to bring the latter into its anti-China circle. It is undeniable that with the upgrade of US-Vietnam relations, there has been an improvement in security and economic cooperation between the two countries. The US transferred Hamilton-class cutters to Vietnam in 2017 and 2020, claiming to assist in enhancing Vietnam's maritime law-enforcement capabilities. This time, US officials specifically mentioned cooperation with Vietnam in the semiconductor sector, hoping that Hanoi can become a link in the technology supply chain to contain China. The US' goal is to have Vietnam on its side.
In fact, Biden's visit is a long-discussed topic between the US and Vietnam. Reports indicate that Biden boasted that Vietnam told him it hopes to raise US-Vietnam diplomatic ties to a level as important as Vietnam's relations with China and Russia. However, there are also messages sent from Hanoi which has made it clear that Beijing is its top priority. The spokesperson for the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs also stated that Vietnam will only strive to upgrade bilateral ties when conditions are ripe.
Achieving an upgrade in US-Vietnam relations is an urgent matter for Washington. The US media has extensively publicized Vietnam's shift toward the US and exaggerated the so-called threat from China. An article in The Washington Post stated that the establishment of a comprehensive strategic partnership between the US and Vietnam shows that Hanoi is willing to take the risk of angering Beijing and sees the move toward Washington as necessary.
However, Vietnam cannot completely tilt its diplomatic focus toward the US, as The Washington Post suggests. Despite having certain disputes with China over maritime interests, Vietnam has a very close historical relationship with the country and shares cultural ties. From the perspective of national interests, it will not deviate from its policy of balancing between China and the US.
Undoubtedly, Vietnam has paid high heed to its diplomatic relations with both China and the US. The former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Vietnam, Pham Quang Vinh, expressed that the essence of the US-China competition is a struggle for global leadership between the two countries. Although the US has an advantage in the competition, it is impossible for it to completely defeat China.
As a matter of fact, Vietnam is cautiously pushing for further advancement in its relationship with the US. On the one hand, it wants to get closer to the US. On the other hand, it values its comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership with China. Vietnam strives to maintain friendly ties with China, learn from Chinese technology, and cooperate with China in extensive areas to maximize its own interests.
Although US-Vietnam relations may be upgraded, Hanoi is unlikely to become Washington's next pawn in Southeast Asia. In the US' new Southeast Asia strategy, the country hopes to turn Vietnam into a strategic pivot to contain China in Southeast Asia. However, Hanoi will not allow itself to be influenced by Washington and is more likely to maximize its own interests by exploiting the US' anti-China intentions.
Throughout the development, the biggest challenge in US-Vietnam bilateral ties comes from Vietnam's mistrust of the US. Many senior US officials publicly expressed that their country does not seek to overthrow Vietnam's communist regime and wants to see a strong, independent, and prosperous Vietnam. The top Vietnamese leadership clearly sees that Hanoi is temporarily safe under the current US-China strategic competition. However, they also believe that the US has no credibility in its competition with China, and it even lacks credibility toward its allies.
Vietnam believes that the US only temporarily needs to utilize it, and if the situation in the US-China strategic competition changes in the future, it is difficult to determine the US' attitude toward Vietnam. Hanoi will remain cautious toward Washington. This determines that there will be significant challenges for the US in further developing its relationship with Vietnam.
The author is director of the Center for China's Relations with Neighboring Countries at Fudan University.