US national security advisor's Vietnam visit cements Southeast Asia commitment

By Phuong Vu, Thanh Tam   November 22, 2020 | 04:45 am PT
US national security advisor's Vietnam visit cements Southeast Asia commitment
U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien at a meeting with Vietnam Minister of Public Security To Lam in Hanoi, November 21, 2020. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam.
The recent Vietnam visit by national security advisor Robert O’Brien emphasizes Southeast Asia’s importance in U.S. foreign policy while enhancing bilateral relations, analysts said.

Experts also said that the three-day visit on November 20 and 22, taking place less than a month following the one by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, reinforces the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy.

O'Brien left for the Philippines after concluding his Vietnam visit Saturday.

In a Saturday meeting, O'Brien and Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc agreed to continue bilateral cooperation in dealing with common challenges and contributing to peace, stability, prosperity and cooperation in the region and the world.

At the 8th ASEAN-U.S. Summit on November 14, O'Brien had remarked the U.S.'s good relations with the region, saying the strategic partnership represents the will of around a billion people and has never been stronger.

Lucio Blanco Pitlo III, Research Fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation, said O'Brien's visit aimed to stress the importance of Southeast Asia for the U.S.’s Indo-Pacific strategy.

It also serves to cement the foreign policy legacy of U.S. President Donald Trump, of which the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy is a particular focus, he said. Such a visit near towards the end of Trump's presidency might push a possible administration led by Joe Biden, currently projected to win the 2020 U.S. presidential election, to maintain the same foreign policy stance, he said.

Jay L. Batongbacal, an associate professor at the University of the Philippines’s College of Law and director of the university's Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said O'Brien's visit can be seen as a last-minute effort to guarantee the consistency of U.S. foreign policies for Vietnam and the Philippines, even if the presidency switches from Trump to Biden.

As a Republican with a lawyer’s background, O'Brien is likely to hold the party’s traditional conservative stance of believing the U.S. plays a key role in maintaining world order, Batongbacal said.

As such, during his visit to both countries, O'Brien is likely to approach South China Sea (East Sea in Vietnam) issues from a legal standpoint. A possible Biden administration might also approach the issues with the same mindset, but may focus more on building alliances, partnerships and sharing burdens, he said.

O'Brien's visit to Vietnam was also a sign that showcased ever-deepening bilateral relations, as already evidenced by strong trade and diplomatic ties, experts said.

Carl Thayer, Emeritus Professor at The University of New South Wales, said that following O'Brien's visit, Vietnam might be ready to boost cooperation with the U.S. Coast Guard by welcoming its visits to Vietnam and conducting drills.

Vietnam is also likely to welcome the U.S. selling it more ships, drones and coastal radars to enhance maritime security, he said.

Such a relationship would still maintain Vietnam's basic tenets in foreign policy: no joining military alliances, not being any country's military ally, not allowing any foreign military base in Vietnam, and not relying on any country to counter another, said Thayer.

Under the Trump administration, the U.S. has continued to boost the Vietnam-U.S. comprehensive partnership while facilitating high-level visits, despite trade surplus still being an issue between the two countries, he added.

Under a possible Biden administration, Vietnam would hope to maintain such bilateral relations while enhancing its scope and level in certain areas. Vietnam would also hope to resolve existing economic issues between the two countries, Thayer said.

Vietnam and the U.S. are celebrating the 25th anniversary of the normalization of ties (1995-2020), which happened 20 years after the end of the Vietnam War.

The two countries are comprehensive partners today, with bilateral trade increasing from $450 million in 1994 to $77 billion last year.

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