“Thank heaven we are here today. To see the sun through parting fog and clouds”, The Tales of Kieu, then-Vice President Joe Biden, 2015.
From the first term of Bill Clinton’s presidency to the two terms of Barack Obama and the single term of Donald Trump, the Vietnam – U.S. relationship has achieved significant progress, from enemy to friend, then to comprehensive strategic partner. Until the final days of Biden’s first 100 days, Vietnam – U.S. relations continue to be consolidated, developed, and stepped forward to the new, deeper, and broader heights.
The early days of the Biden administration have been marked by tangible strategic moves such as the Biden administration’s recent official statements in the “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance” emphasizes strengthening relations with allies and partners to keep the region “free and open” and avoid being imposed by China. The Biden administration specifically names Vietnam as a major partner in the Indo-Pacific region: “We will… work with New Zealand, as well as Singapore, Vietnam and ASEAN members to promote shared goals”. Most recently, the Biden administration also removed Vietnam from the list of U.S. currency manipulators. Accordingly, the Biden administration will continue to increase relations between Vietnam and the U.S. upward.
One of the most fundamental points creating the impetus for the Vietnam-US relationship to be continuously consolidated and expanded over the past 25 years in all fields is that the two countries have many similar interests, especially in the South China Sea. In the statement of Secretary of State Antony Blinken in “A Foreign Policy for the American People” speech, he reaffirmed the shift of the South China Sea policy announced by predecessor Mike Pompeo in July 2020 to recognize the existence and legitimacy of exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of the parties opposed to China’s claim to “nine-dashed line”, based solely on historical rights, in contravention of international law.
The Biden administration will keep prioritizing the role of international law in the maritime domain, mainly as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and to facilitate cooperation, including in the area of maritime security, to deal with challenges to the law-based maritime order in the East and South China Seas.
Not since the new administration was established has Vietnam been an enthusiastic supporter of the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy even under the Trump era. Although it did not make a public declaration to avoid vain aggression with China, Hanoi appreciated Washington’s focus on the region, especially on sovereignty disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea.
For Vietnam, it welcomes U.S. assistance to protect the freedom of navigation operations (FONOP) and official statements. In a short time since taking power, the Biden administration has conducted three publicly disclosed freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, twice near the Spratlys and once in the Paracel region. Furthermore, in the latest White Paper, Vietnam opened the possibility of alliance in case of need. Accordingly, Vietnam will consider developing necessary defense and military relationships with other countries regardless of differences in political institutions and levels of development. It not only paves the way for Vietnam to cooperate more deeply with other democracies, not just the U.S., but also creates an opportunity for Vietnam and the U.S. to upgrade their relationship to the next level.
Human Rights as a Major Hindrance
A sensitive issue for Vietnamese Communist Party leaders is the potential consequences of closer alignment with a Washington government with a strong voice on these profiles, as the U.S. is doing to China on its treatment of the Xinjiang Uighur minority. Human rights are among the most significant differences between the two countries and the most “delicate” issue in the Vietnam – U.S. relationship. Despite the annual Human Rights dialogue, human rights are still a challenge. However, both countries have reached a point where there is nothing to hide, but how it will evolve remains how the Biden administration applies this policy to Vietnam.
The positive and significant dynamics could help Vietnam – the U.S. bilateral relationship go further. The Biden administration may seek to alleviate Vietnam’s concerns to further strengthen Hanoi’s support for the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy, such as inviting Nguyen Phu Trong to visit the White House. In turn, Vietnam should be open to the new U.S. administration and potential changes in Washington’s approach over the next four years.