Vietnam walks a tightrope between China and the US

Hanoi is engaged in a difficult balancing act with Washington and Beijing after Biden summit

The elevation of the US-Vietnam relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership shows an increasing level of shared interests between the two countries. But the enhanced ties do not mean Hanoi is drifting away from Beijing, its traditional partner, according to analysts.

The two countries upgraded their bilateral ties when President Joe Biden met with Vietnamese Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong in Hanoi in early September. 

Since 2013, the countries have characterized their relationship as a comprehensive partnership, with a lower level of diplomatic engagement.

“The two leaders underscored the need to continue deepening political and diplomatic relations, and will promote regular exchanges of delegations at all levels to strengthen mutual understanding and enhance political trust,” the White House said in a statement.

The diplomatic upgrade reflects a shared perception by Washington and Hanoi that both will benefit from enhanced cooperation as Beijing becomes increasingly aggressive in the region, analysts and independent news outlets pointed out.

Aggressive action

The New York Times described China as an “important subtext” for the upgrade, as Biden “works to establish a network of partnerships in the region to counter aggressive action” by Beijing.

Nguyen Khac Giang, an analyst at the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, told The Guardian newspaper: 

The influence of China cannot be overlooked. Vietnam is among the few nations in Asia prepared to challenge China’s regional ambitions, all while maintaining open lines of communication with Beijing.

Flagging a new partnership between the US and Vietnam. Photo: File

The comprehensive strategic partnership is Hanoi’s highest level of diplomatic engagement with foreign countries.

The upgrade places Washington on par with Beijing in its diplomatic ties with Hanoi. A comprehensive strategic partnership with China was agreed in 2008. Vietnam also has comprehensive strategic partnerships with Russia, India, and South Korea.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning called on the United States to “abandon hegemony and Cold War thinking” in her response to the US-Vietnam upgrade, as reported by the Reuters news agency.

“We demand that the United States, when dealing with relations with Asian countries, must respect the common aspiration of regional countries for stability, cooperation, and development, abide by the basic norms of international relations,” Mao said.

Balancing act

Analysts say the new partnership is a remarkable improvement in US-Vietnam ties, but it should not be seen as Hanoi’s attempt to distance itself from Beijing to align with Washington.

Nguyen Hong Hai, a senior lecturer of politics and international relations at Hanoi’s Vin University, stressed the elevation of ties means Hanoi will engage in a balancing act between Washington and Beijing.

“No matter how close Vietnam leans toward the US, the relations between Vietnam and China will not fundamentally change unless China changes it themselves,” Hai said in an email to Voice of America Vietnamese.

He added that Hanoi will do its best to juggle its relationship with Washington and Beijing to avoid being caught in their “strategic rivalry” by drawing from its painful experience of siding with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Washington and Hanoi are forging closer economic ties. Image: Shutterstock

“The best way for Vietnam to navigate this strategic rivalry is not becoming dependent on any powers, both politically and economically,” he said.

Zachary Abuza, a Southeast Asia expert at the National War College in Washington, agreed. He said the elevation of ties does not reflect a fundamental change in relations or orientation in Hanoi’s foreign and security policies.

The two countries have drawn closer mainly on the economic front, Abuza pointed out.

VOA Vietnamese reached out to the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to ask what the highest-level ties with the US mean for its security but did not receive a response.

Picking sides

Vietnamese Ambassador to the US Nguyen Quoc Dung told the Tuoi Tre daily newspaper that Vietnam wants to build a good relationship with all powers rather than picking sides.

The move serves Vietnam’s highest strategic interest of peace, stability, and development, Dung was quoted as saying by Tuoi Tre.

Washington, meanwhile, rejected the notion that Beijing was a key factor in upgrading its ties with Hanoi.

“There’s intrinsic value in the US relationship with Vietnam,” Marc Knapper, the US ambassador to Vietnam, told VOA Vietnamese.

China’s PLA Navy in the South China Sea. Photo: PLA Navy

Speaking last week during Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh’s visit to the United States for the United Nations General Assembly, the ambassador told VOA Vietnamese the two countries are aligned on goals such as net zero emissions.

The leaders’ statement, however, expressed “unwavering support for the peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law,” in what appeared to be a reference to China’s aggressive behavior in the resource-rich South China Sea.

Ambassador Knapper said Washington wants to ensure that no country can change the status quo in the South China Sea unilaterally. “We want to ensure Vietnam’s Coast Guard has the means to defend its interests at sea,” he said.

Strong protests

Still, the new partnership between the US and Vietnam is unlikely to change Beijing’s behavior in the South China Sea.

“China has the military and economic strength to do what it wants, and it knows that Vietnam will not ally with the US against it,” said Bill Hayton, an associate fellow with the Asia-Pacific program at Chatham House in London.

Last month, Beijing published a new national map reasserting sovereignty over nearly the entire waters, drawing strong protests from its neighbors, including Vietnam.

Le Nguyen and Khanh An report for Voice of America.

This article is republished courtesy of VOA. Read the original article here.

The views and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.