First US vice president visit to Vietnam raises high expectations

By Viet Anh   August 23, 2021 | 07:34 pm PT
First US vice president visit to Vietnam raises high expectations
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris speaks during a meeting at the White House in Washington, U.S., August 10, 2021. Photo by Reuters/Evelyn Hockstein
Both Vietnam and Washington are expecting to reap significant benefits from Kamala Harris’s visit to Vietnam, the first by a U.S. vice president, experts say.

James Borton, senior fellow with the Johns Hopkins University Foreign Policy Institute, said that during Harris’s visit, senior officials are likely to discuss the U.S.'s additional pledged vaccine doses to combat Covid-19, additional funding to support Lower Mekong Delta climate change issues through the Mekong-U.S. Partnership, and elevating the Trade and Investment Agreement (TIFA) to more senior officials from the Office of Government in Vietnam and the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) in Washington.

"I can confirm that VP Kamala Harris will offer additional vaccination doses", he said.

In broad agreement with Borton was Bonnie Glaser, Director, Asia Program, German Marshall Fund of the U.S.

She said the Biden administration was well aware that the top current priorities of Vietnam and other Southeast Asia countries are Covid-19 control and economic recovery and therefore, these topics will be at the top of the agenda.

Pham Quang Vinh, former Vietnamese ambassador to the U.S., said he was optimistic that the U.S will be able to meet the vaccine needs of Vietnam in coming time. The pressure on manufacturers in the U.S. and in Europe could be reduced thanks to their capacity, despite the demand for the third dose.

Vinh noted that the U.S. was one of largest vaccine providers for Vietnam under the governmental program, with 5 million doses via Covax, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization. Besides, it has assisted Vietnam’s pandemic fight with $20.9 million in medical supplies and technical support. Vietnam is in the regional top priority list for the 500 million doses that the U.S. has earmarked for the region.

"I am confident that Vietnam will continue to have this position, because Hanoi is a major partner for Washington."

Vinh expected that Vietnam would make clear to the U.S. its need for further financial and technical assistance to help Vietnam become more self-sufficient in vaccine production and medical supplies.

Vietnam is carrying out research on its domestic vaccines and is discussing vaccine technology transfer and quality medical infrastructure with American partners. It could take on the role as "a hub" in this area for Southeast Asia, which would be in line with U.S. aims with the Harris trip: increase bilateral cooperation and regional cooperation.

In its latest meeting, regional bloc ASEAN had also expressed the same desire to become self-sufficient in vaccines in the near term.

Gregory Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a U.S. think tank, said he expected Harris to make Covid-19 cooperation a centerpiece of the visit to Vietnam, including with the opening of the new CDC regional office and a virtual engagement with all the health ministers from ASEAN and Papua New Guinea.

The VP will also focus on supply chain issues, Poling said, adding that Washington and Hanoi seem to see eye to eye on these issues. "With the recent delivery of U.S. vaccines to Vietnam and the end of the U.S. investigation into alleged currency manipulation by Vietnam, it seems that continued progress is likely," Poling said.

Business interests

Nirav Patel, CEO and co-founder of The Asia Group (TAG), a strategic advisory firm based in Washington DC, said that given the Covid-19 situation, Vietnam and the U.S. should focus on increasing cooperation in healthcare and biosciences.

TAG is principal strategic and sales advisor for collaboration and licensed production agreement between Arcturus Therapeutics Holdings Inc. and Vingroup to start clinical trials of the former's Covid-19 vaccine in Vietnam.

Patel said the two countries should also increase business engagements in high technology, for example in consumer electronics, because Vietnam is a leading manufacturer and has a lot of advantages in the field.

Homegrown Vietnamese technology entrepreneurs, who are creating the next generation of apps or fintech products, would also welcome partnerships with American venture capital and other firms, he said.

Aerospace and defense are sectors in which the comprehensive partnership between the U.S. and Vietnam creates tremendous opportunities for cooperation, he said.

Former ambassador Vinh said the two countries have great potential to boost economic cooperation, noting that bilateral trade has nearly doubled from $45 billion in 2015 to over $90 billion in 2020.

Vietnam should quickly resolve differences with the U.S. to boost cooperation in digital trade and e-commerce, which is vital for countries in Covid-19 times. He said Vietnam has a "good foundation of high standards" based on free trade agreements with Europe and previous discussions with the U.S. on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Vinh said Vietnam should also catch up with the U.S.'s priority in climate change, focusing on economic structural transformation towards a green economy.

"Vietnam needs to be ready to embrace opportunities in the high quality supply chain with infrastructure, human resources and policy framework," he said.

He said the Biden administration has showed its determination to enhance economic and security relationships with partners both in the Asia-Pacific region. After withdrawing from the TPP trade pact, the U.S. had fallen short in establishing strong economic connections with the whole region. But it could not act as an outsider anymore.

"Vietnam should take the chance to come on board as the U.S. has a new initiative on supply chains. The issue is how Vietnam will prepare for it."

Glaser of the German Marshall Fund said: "The U.S.-Vietnam relationship has not only become increasingly comprehensive, but also increasingly strategic, whether or not the two countries agree to use that label."

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