US sees Vietnam as prominent in relations with Southeast Asia

By Viet Anh   May 20, 2022 | 04:35 pm PT
US sees Vietnam as prominent in relations with Southeast Asia
Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh and President Joe Biden before attending the U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit at the White House on May 12, 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Duong Giang
The U.S. has showed how important Vietnam is to its Southeast Asia policy, experts say.

"During Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh's visit to Washington, the Biden administration demonstrated by word and deed that Vietnam occupies a prominent role in U.S. relations with Southeast Asia," Carlyle Thayer, emeritus professor, University of New South Wales Canberra at the Australian Defense Force Academy, told VnExpress International.

Chinh concluded his U.S. trip on May 17 after attending the U.S. – ASEAN Summit and holding various bilateral meetings.

Thayer noted that he was the only ASEAN leader personally received by President Joe Biden at The White House.

At their meeting on May 13 at the White House Biden said he agrees with Chinh on respecting nations' independence and sovereignty.

Washington wants to cooperate with and support developing countries in multiple areas, including commerce, disease prevention and climate change response, Biden said.

Thayer said relations between the U.S. and Vietnam became strained at the end of President Donald Trump’s term over trade and related issues, with the Covid-19 pandemic making diplomacy more difficult by preventing face-to-face meetings.

Now Vietnamese and U.S. officials are able to hold meetings in person and get to know and understand each other better, he pointed out.

Bilateral relations have got a boost through Chinh’s meetings with Biden, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and USAID Administrator Samantha Power, he said.

Other meetings with high-ranking U.S. officials such as Vice President Kamala Harris, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, cabinet members, and Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry were invaluable to both sides in getting to know each other’s priorities and concerns, he said.

Both sides laid out their future commitments and expectations, and "This will form the basis for future cooperation."

Chinh described ties with the U.S. as a "special relationship." He welcomed continued U.S. cooperation in disease prevention, digital transformation, climate change mitigation, and human resource training.

He also sought U.S. support for developing a green economy, diversify supply chains and transition to sustainable energy.

Thayer said, "In the coming years we will see much closer interaction in these priority sectors."

According to Gregory Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a U.S. think tank, Chinh and the government of Vietnam invested the most in the summit with a packed schedule of meetings with a variety of U.S. government and business leaders in multiple cities as well as the only public speech by any of the ASEAN leaders during their time in Washington.

Poling said the U.S. and Vietnam share a similar strategic view of the Indo-Pacific.

They are also increasingly connected economically, and as Chinh pointed out at the CSIS, Vietnam is the U.S’s largest trade partner in ASEAN and the U.S is Vietnam’s second largest trading partner.

"I am confident that these converging interests will continue to drive greater cooperation in the economic, diplomatic, people-to-people, and security fields."

Hoang Viet, a lecturer at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Law and a researcher who closely follows U.S.-Vietnam relations, said Chinh’s visit showed that bilateral ties are growing "dramatically."

"The short meeting between Biden and Chinh is a very positive sign for the bilateral relationship."

He expected trade ties between the two countries to soon reach "a new level."

Fill the gap

Thayer said the U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit was the first time in 45 years that ASEAN heads of government were received at the White House.

At the recent summit ASEAN leaders agreed to raise relations with the U.S. to the level of a comprehensive strategic partnership on a par with the blocs ties with China and Australia.

Biden took this opportunity to nominate a U.S. ambassador to ASEAN after a five-year gap.

"This is a significant recognition of ASEAN’s importance and its role in the Indo-Pacific," Thayer said.

The U.S. and ASEAN have been strategic partners since 2015.

Future relations will be shaped by the Joint Vision Statement adopted at the recent summit and agreement by both sides to elevate relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership.

The Joint Vision Statement spelled out eight areas of cooperation: fighting the Covid-19 pandemic and better health security, strengthening economic ties and connectivity, promoting maritime cooperation, enhancing people-to-people connectivity, supporting sub-regional development, leveraging technologies and promoting innovation, addressing climate change, and preserving peace and building trust.

Biden agreed to provide $150 million for new initiatives, including $60 million for maritime security and $40 million for clean energy infrastructure.

Viet said while the U.S. considers ASEAN central to its Indo Pacific Strategy, and the bloc wants to foster relations with Washington, the latter also wants to foster relations with China.

So he does not expect to see a breakthrough in ties between the U.S. and ASEAN anytime soon.

Besides, it appears that ASEAN leaders have not shown that the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework is clear to them, he claimed.

Collin Koh Swee Lea, a research fellow at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said in terms of optics both Biden and ASEAN leaders achieved what they strived for at the summit.

Though there seemed to be broad agreement on several issues, the focus appeared to be slanted toward economic aspects, reflecting concerns about challenges to post-pandemic economic recovery and growth, he said.

However, whether the Biden administration is going to place more emphasis on Southeast Asia remains to be seen, he added.

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