Hanoi faces balancing Act with China as Vietnam-US ties tighten

U.S. President Joe Biden attends a meeting with Vietnam's Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, at the Communist Party of Vietnam Headquarters in Hanoi, Sept 10, 2023. [Reuters]

The elevation of the U.S-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, analysts say.

The two countries upgraded their bilateral ties when U.S. President Joe Biden met with Vietnamese Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong in Hanoi in early September. Between July 25, 2013, and September 10, 2023, the countries had characterized their relationship as a comprehensive partnership, 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 and engagements at all levels to strengthen mutual understanding and build and enhance political trust,” the White House said in a statement about Biden and Trong’s meeting September 10 in Hanoi.
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, according to analysts and independent news outlets.

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 China.

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.”

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, which established a comprehensive strategic partnership with China in 2008. Vietnam, a communist country, 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 Vietnam-U.S. upgrade, as reported by Reuters.

"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 on September 11.

Balancing act

Analysts say the new partnership is a remarkable improvement in U.S.-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, social change and international relations at Hanoi’s Vin University, said the elevation of ties means Hanoi will engage in a balancing act between Washington and Beijing.

“No matter how close Vietnam leans toward the U.S., the relations between Vietnam and China will not fundamentally change unless China changes it themselves,” Hai said in an email to VOA Vietnamese on September 17.

He added that Hanoi will do its best to balance ties with Washington and Beijing to avoid being injured by their strategic rivalry, drawing from its painful experience of siding with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

“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 and professor at the National War College in Washington where he focuses on Southeast Asian politics and security issues, agreed.

He said the elevation of U.S.-Vietnam 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 said.

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

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

The elevation of ties with the U.S. serves Vietnam’s highest strategic interest of peace, stability and development, Dung was quoted as saying by Tuoi Tre.

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

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

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

Biden and Trong did not cite China directly during their meeting, nor did their joint statement name China.

Growing concern

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.

Knapper said the U.S. wants to ensure that no country can change the status quo in the South China Sea unilaterally, and that no country is being pressured or bullied into making unwanted decisions.

“We want to ensure Vietnam’s Coast Guard has the means to defend its interests at sea,” he said.

Analysts say the new partnership between the U.S. 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 U.S. against it,” said Bill Hayton, associate fellow with the Asia-Pacific program at Chatham House in London.

In August, China published a new national map reasserting sovereignty over nearly the entire waters, drawing strong protests from its neighbors, including Vietnam.