Blinken’s visit to Vietnam: What Does It Mean for China?

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Since the establishment of diplomatic normalization in 1995, U.S.-Vietnam relations have developed at a breakneck speed throughout the years. The formation of a “comprehensive partnership” in 2013, the deployment of two U.S. Coast Guard to Hanoi beginning in 2017, and port visits by U.S. naval vessels in 2018 and 2020 were all considered as signs of future growth of the relationship. But the Biden administration has made an objective to deepen ties with Vietnam a central part of its Southeast Asia strategy. With Blinken’s visit, The United States of America is anticipating a significant improvement in its ties with Vietnam and to coincide with the tenth anniversary of its comprehensive partnership with Vietnam.

Vietnam has hosted US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Hanoi from April 14 to16. During this visit Pham Minh Chinh, Prime Minister of Vietnam, and Antony Blinken both stated an intention to strengthen the connections as Washington attempted to strengthen military alliances in order to confront China’s growing assertiveness. Vietnam was also looking to diversify its military supply chain away from Russia, which is now its primary supplier. Washington and U.S. defense contractors have publicly emphasized that they wanted to increase its military supplies to Vietnam. Blinken’s visit was significant as both parties have discussed the development of trade and investment links, US’s increasing support of Vietnam’s energy transition and reaction to climate change especially in the Mekong Delta. The United States has been a significant investor in Vietnam, and an essential strategic partner for Vietnam from 2013. The United States has been a significant market for Vietnamese exports, notably textiles and electrical goods. During discussions, Vietnamese enterprises were exploring more and more for ways to extend their presence in the American market. The United States had promised to invest billions of dollars in the industrial and technological sectors of Vietnam that could contribute to the country’s economy. Through the visit, these two nations have agreed to enhance cooperation in maritime security. These long-term goals included establishing a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region, fostering honest economic governance in the Mekong subregion, and combating climate change in Vietnam and elsewhere. In this visit, Blinken has assured that Washington considers Hanoi to be an important partner in the global supply chain in supporting the United States and its allies in decreasing their dependence on Chinese suppliers.

For example, since normalization of relations, trade between the countries has increased by a factor of two hundred, and yearly investment from the United States in Vietnam has reached $2.8 billion. Vietnam has a very substantial trade surplus with the United States, totaling more than $116 billion last year. United States cooperates with Vietnam in a broad variety of fields, including military and security, while yet managing to keep the rapprochement moving at a pace that is comfortable for it. Two parties have been working together in multilateral organizations like the ASEAN, the United Nations, APEC, and the Mekong subregion to address regional and global problems of mutual concern relating to sustainable development and climate change. This collaboration has been improving Vietnam’s efficiency. The recent trip of Blinken to Vietnam along with a significant corporate group from the United States demonstrated a strong desire for both nations to further strengthen their comprehensive collaboration in financial sectors..  US–Vietnam have been already cooperating in the areas of anti-trafficking efforts, sustainable economic development, environmental sustainability, health initiatives. Before Blinken’s visit, a delegation of fifty-two United States companies, including Boeing and Netflix, traveled to Vietnam in the month of March 2023. This action underscored that Vietnam has emerged as an appealing possible alternative to China for US corporations who are trying to diversify their market presence and supply networks.

The United States wants to develop its relations with Vietnam in part because of Vietnam’s strategic position on the South China Sea, which is an area where Hanoi has long-standing territorial issues with Beijing. With Blinken’s visit, The United States hopes to improve trade and investment ties with Vietnam. US is building coalitions with numerous nations in this region to fight China and discourage any possible military action taken by Beijing against Taiwan that might present difficulties for the United States. There are a lot of nations in the area that are afraid to irritate China because China is not only a military force, but also an important trade partner and source of investment. Vietnam’s industrial sector is very dependent on China for the import of raw materials. In addition, China is a major investor in Vietnam, and Chinese companies have a presence in a variety of sectors in Vietnam, including the real estate market, the transportation sector, and the infrastructure sector. Despite the fact that US is Vietnam’s largest export market, China is considered a third-tier diplomatic partner at the present time. The countries of China, Russia, India, and South Korea make up its upper tier, while countries of Europe and Japan make up its lower tier.  As part of Japan’s efforts to establish a unified front against China’s threats to the rules-based system and Russia’s military attack of Ukraine, Tokyo has invited the heads of state of eight countries that are not members of the Group of Seven to attend the G7 leaders’ summit in May in Hiroshima. Vietnam is one of those eight countries.

The upgrading of ties with Washington remains a delicate topic in Vietnam. Even while Vietnam is concerned about China’s expanding military claims in the South China Sea, it has been a tough balancing act for Hanoi to further collaborate with Washington without upsetting Beijing. The ever-increasing closeness between Beijing and Moscow adds another layer of complexity to the diplomatic calculation for Vietnam. The Vietnamese would anticipate that such a cooperation would be formalized in the framework of a state visit, which would imply that the two sides would most likely consider the possibility of a Trong visit to Washington, maybe followed by a Biden visit to Hanoi sometime later this year. Even if Hanoi were to agree to the upgrade the strategic partnership with US, the action would probably simply be symbolic since Hanoi already derives a great deal of advantage from its present relationship with Washington, particularly in the form of investments and educational linkages.

This visit has generated accusations from the Chinese top tier officials that criticized United States for undertaking an objective of containment, encirclement against Beijing in the Indo- Pacific region. Chinese official argued that this approach included renewing alliances and increasing connections with China’s neighbors. In light of these developments, Vietnam is likely to pursue the continuation of its policy of maintaining economic cooperation with China and the United States. Also, Vietnam is gradually upgrading to a military and economic giant. In this scenario, Hanoi will aim to balance China without irritating it by pursuing multidirectional relations with various countries, both economically and diplomatically. In other words, the Vietnam will focus on expanding its strategic ties with other nations. However, if relations between the United States and China continue to deteriorate, Vietnam’s room for maneuvering between the two major powers will be reduced even further, which will make it more difficult to keep the balancing strategy in place.

In concluding remarks, it can be added that Vietnam must cooperate with both nations to manage their relationships with China and the United States at the same time. The United States is a crucial strategic alliance for Vietnam, especially in terms of security and reducing China’s increasing influence in the Asia-Pacific region.  On the other hand, Vietnam’s substantial economic relationships with China mean that any actions that could be deemed threatening toward China could have economic and financial consequences.  Despite this, there have been signs that the Vietnam government is eager to work with the Biden administration to further strengthen bilateral ties. In the meantime, Vietnam needs to keep their robust economic connections with China while simultaneously working closely with the United States on matters of national security and strategic coordination. For Vietnam to successfully navigate the complicated geo-political landscape and skillfully manage its ties with both of global powers, it must continue to balance between these two rival states.

– Aishwarya Sanjukta Roy Proma is a Research Intern at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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