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US sees Vietnam as 'consequential' Indo-Pacific partner: experts

By Viet Anh   February 25, 2022 | 05:00 pm PT
US sees Vietnam as 'consequential' Indo-Pacific partner: experts
A Vietnamese saleswoman stands next to an American and a Vietnamese flag on sale in Hanoi. Photo by Reuters
A strong desire to foster cooperation with Vietnam is apparent as the U.S. sets out key issues for post-Covid recovery in its new Indo Pacific strategy, experts say.

"The U.S. new Indo-Pacific strategy is not new in recognizing the importance of allies and partners, and Vietnam is considered in it again as one of the more consequential partners in the region," Le Thu Huong, senior analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), told VnExpress International.

Huong was referring to the Indo-Pacific strategy announced by the U.S. Feb 11. She noted that the new strategy of the U.S. seems to be taking into consideration the priorities, urgency and needs of the region. It underlines the connectivity, resilience and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region, which are aspects that Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam, are most interested in.

These focal points are particularly important in the context of post-pandemic recovery, Huong said.

In terms of the strategic and security environment, which the Indo-Pacific Strategy also emphasizes this time, the U.S. and Vietnam share concerns about the rapidly changing, if not deteriorating environment. Both share similar outlooks on the commitment to sustain stability and prevent further escalation of tensions.

According to Gregory Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the new U.S. strategy has a major focus on working more closely with allies and partners to provide public goods and counter negative Chinese behavior. Vietnam is among the major non-ally partners on that front, alongside India, Indonesia and Singapore.

Poling anticipated that Washington would continue to deepen political and security cooperation with Hanoi, provide more support for vaccine distribution, clean energy and supply chain resiliency. It will also pressurize China to maintain good behavior on the South China Sea, known in Vietnam as the East Sea.

Charles Dunst, an associate at strategic advisory firm The Asia Group and a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the U.S., said it seems that top U.S. officials believe the U.S. can count on Vietnam as a strategic partner on all five focus points raised in the strategy.

The five focus points are the pursuit of a free and open Indo-Pacific, expanding cooperation, promoting prosperity, enhancing security, and strengthening the region's resilience.

Dunst predicted that the U.S. will seek to expand security cooperation with Vietnam, possibly by facilitating more arms sales and joint military exercises. Two U.S. aircraft carriers visited Vietnam during the Trump administration's tenure.

"None have gone during the Biden administration so far, but Washington may seek to change that if Vietnam is amenable."

Dr. Satoru Nagao, non-resident fellow, Hudson Institute, the U.S., said Washington will continue to expect Hanoi to play the role of defending a rule-based order.

Alongside naming Vietnam in the document, the U.S. has emphasized that it will work closely with like-minded partners to ensure that the region remains open and accessible, the region's seas and skies are governed and used according to international law.

In particular, the U.S. will build support for rules-based approaches to the maritime domain, including the South China Sea and the East China Sea, he added.

John Bradford, Senior Fellow at the, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said the public could expect to see increased diplomatic and economic outreach to Vietnam from the U.S. Visits by senior American leaders will become more common. Washington will also expand the maritime security capacity building opportunities it offers to Vietnam.

'Vietnam setting the pace'

Bradford said that while the U.S. would like to see expanded cooperation with Vietnam, it understands that the relationship will have to grow slowly with Vietnam setting the pace.

In the near term, Washington will rely on Hanoi more heavily for supply chain diversification and bilateral trade opportunities. Vietnam's diplomatic partnership as a Southeast Asian nation committed to support a rules-based order will also be highly valued, he stressed.

Dunst said at a time domestic American politics has made a bilateral free trade deal unlikely, Washington will work more informally to facilitate U.S. private sector investment in Vietnam, which remains a market of huge interest to American business.

Nagao said the U.S. has emphasized economic cooperation in the strategy, saying it will launch, in early 2022, a new partnership that will promote and facilitate high-standards trade, govern the digital economy, improve supply-chain resiliency and security, catalyze investment in transparent, high-standards infrastructure, and build digital connectivity. It would double down on economic ties to the region while contributing to broadly shared Indo-Pacific opportunity.

In this respect, Vietnam can play an important role as a major destination of factories owned by the U.S. and partners in the supply chain diversification process, he added.

However, Poling noted that the biggest question in the new Indo-Pacific strategy was the overall economic strategy, which the public still has not seen.

"Will the Biden administration be able to put together an economic framework that will provide tangible benefits for Vietnam and other partners? This is unclear," he said.

Bonnie Glaser, Director, Asia Program in the U.S.-based German Marshall Fund, said Vietnam has a strong interest in a free and open Indo-Pacific region.

"It is not just up to the U.S., but also up to Vietnam, to define Vietnam's role and seek ways to collaborate."

 
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