Vietnam: The Bipartisan Thorn in China’s Side

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Vietnamese Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son. (Photo by Luong Thai Linh/AFP/Getty Images.)

This month, as Xi Jingping further consolidates his power during Communist China’s 20th Party Congress, a massive construction project will move forward in North Carolina. The project is an important marker in the evolution of the United States’ Asia strategy, one intended to combat Chinese ambitions.

In March, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper announced his state would get its first vehicle manufacturing plant, with production expected to start in 2024. The company making the $2 billion investment to build electric vehicles isn’t headquartered in Japan, South Korea, or China, but Vietnam. A few months later, Secretary of State Antony Blinken congratulated the “people of Vietnam on the occasion of Vietnam’s National Day” and stressed the U.S. “commitment to a strong, independent, and prosperous Vietnam.” Forty-seven years earlier, in 1975, Americans watched U.S. helicopters frantically loading U.S. government employees on an apartment rooftop in Saigon as North Vietnamese forces neared full control of the capital. 

The journey from enemies to partners, reflected in the steady stream of American officials visiting Hanoi and Vietnam’s inclusion as a “partner” nation in the Biden administration’s’ Indo-Pacific Strategy, is a bipartisan accomplishment. It is an outcome forged over many years by successive administrations and Congresses and rooted largely in a mutual interest in countering China’s expansionism. As much as Vietnam divided our politics before, the U.S.-Vietnam relationship could be evolving into a strategic partnership.  

American and allied navies have enhanced security ties through regular port calls there; bilateral trade and investment are robust; and the U.S. has joined with Vietnam and other regional nations to oppose China’s belligerent declarations and actions in the South China Sea. 

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  • Interesting read, thanks Dan.

  • I was the US Air Attache at our embassy in Hanoi from 2013-16, so I have a few thoughts about this.

    One: The primary impediment to upgrading our relationship with Vietnam to a strategic partnership is Vietnam. It's not for lack of interest or effort on our part. Every ambassador we send wants to upgrade the relationship, but Vietnam--like almost all nations on China's periphery--plays a very careful hedging game to avoid provoking the dragon's wrath. Every action Vietnam takes with the US risks some PRC response, so Vietnam moves carefully.

    Two: Vietnam's official "partnerships" don't really mean what you may think. We have a "comprehensive partnership", while China has a "comprehensive strategic" one, which is their top level and two levels up from ours. But actually none of that means much of anything. China is still Vietnam's #1 adversary and threat. It's mostly just words on paper.

    Three: Our best shot at improving our relations was the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Vietnam joined but we pulled out of. More US market access is what they want most from us.

    Four: The military relationship will continue to grow ... slowly. Vietnam has mostly bought Russian equipment through the years, but they know Russia's a problem and the west has better stuff. They bought from Russia because it was cheaper and there was plenty of opportunity for graft for all involved. Now they are starting to diversify, but US equipment remains expensive and politically more difficult (again, because of China). Still, we are finding inroads. I expect that very soon you will hear an announcement about T-6C training aircraft, a deal that has been in the works since I was there, and one I very much hope and believe will lay the groundwork for more robust military relations going forward. Vietnam moves slowly on such things, so this will be a big step (and one I'm personally very gratified to see).

    1. Great insights, much appreciated. I hope the relationship continues to grow, and Vietnam opts for a more open and just society. I don’t expect authoritarian regimes to suddenly adopt western political practices and human rights standards, but gradual progress would be welcome. China used much of their new wealth to create a technology-driven police/surveillance state, one would hope emerging Asian economies would concentrate more on expanding their middle class and raising living standards. Better to have a prosperous population willingly supporting the government than people merely acquiescing out of fear. Broad based economic growth lends itself to domestic political stability, and with hundreds of millions, even billions, of Asians in developing nations surrounding China, stability will be an essential element of deterrence. At the same time, prosperous nations will be less prone to bowing to Chinese demands out of economic necessity.

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