Vietnam has growing role in US's eyes: experts

By Viet Anh    August 2, 2021 | 10:30 pm PT
Vietnam has growing role in US's eyes: experts
Vietnamese National Defense Minister Phan Van Giang (L) and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin bump elbows after the signing the Vietnamese Wartime Accounting Initiative Memorandum of Understanding between the two countries in Hanoi, Vietnam, July 29, 2021. Photo by the U.S. Department of Defense/Chad J. McNeeley.
The visit of U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to Vietnam and the upcoming trip by Vice President Kamala Harris indicate Hanoi's rapidly growing importance for Washington.

The U.S.'s appreciation for Vietnam's role is increasing, and it is carrying out diplomatic moves to gain Vietnam's support, both from its leaders and people, for its position in the region, Le Hong Hiep, a fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, told VnExpress International.

Austin arrived in Vietnam on July 28 for a two-day visit as part of a Southeast Asian tour, the first by a top member of the Biden administration.

During his stay in Vietnam, he met his counterpart, Minister of National Defense Phan Van Giang, President Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh.

The U.S. has donated more than five million doses of Covid-19 vaccines to Vietnam, called off investigation into Vietnam's so-called currency manipulation, donated the second coast guard vessel recently.

The visit by Harris this month would mark the start of a deeper engagement between Biden's administration and Vietnam in the next few years, Hiep said.

He said the public may see the bilateral relationship to be upgraded to the level of a strategic partnership.

"That could create political and legal frameworks for fostering the bilateral relationship in a far-reaching way, especially in security - defense, to benefit the two countries' national interest."

Carlyle Thayer, emeritus professor, University of New South Wales Canberra at the Australian Defense Force Academy, said the Biden administration views Vietnam as a priority partner in achieving U.S. objectives such as freedom of the seas and a free and open Indo-Pacific Region as well as non-traditional security issues.

In this regard, the forthcoming visit by Harris would reaffirm U.S. continuing engagement with Vietnam beyond defense and security across a range of common issues including combating and recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic and mitigating climate change, he said.

Thayer stressed that the significance of the two visits lies in the Biden administration's identification of Singapore and Vietnam as priority security partners in the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance issued in March.

This document emphasizes both traditional issues (defense and security) and non-traditional ones like Covd-19, climate change and digital trade.

Austin did mention the U.S.'s expectations of a higher level in the relationship with Vietnam, Thayer pointed out.

At his meetings with both President Phuc and Prime Minister Chinh, he suggested elevating the relationship between the two countries, he said.

Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at U.S. think tank RAND, highlighting the fact that Harris would become the first sitting vice president ever to visit Vietnam, said her trip would speak volumes about where the U.S.-Vietnam relationship is today and where it is heading in the coming years.

He would not be at all surprised if before or after her visit, Vietnamese leaders traveled to China or hosted Chinese leaders in order to keep the balance in the relationship with two powerful partners, he said.

'Resounding success'

Grossman said Secretary Austin’s visit to Vietnam kept U.S.-Vietnam security ties moving along in a positive direction and focused on war legacy challenges and people-to-people ties, both central to maintaining a healthy bilateral relationship.

Other sensitive issues were clearly discussed as well, and perhaps people would get a better sense of what those were as time goes on, he said.

"Austin's visit was a resounding success."

Thayer said in his view Austin’s trip to Vietnam set the foundation for continuing cooperation to address war legacy issues (Agent Orange, unexploded ordnance and the search for the remains of U.S. and Vietnamese soldiers missing in action) and maritime security cooperation.

Both Phuc and Chinh stressed the importance of the comprehensive partnership that the two sides formed in 2013, he said.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin meets with President Nguyen Xuan Phuc of Vietnam in Hanoi, July 29, 2021. Photo by the U.S. Department of Defense/Chad J. McNeeley.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin meets with President Nguyen Xuan Phuc of Vietnam in Hanoi, July 29, 2021. Photo by the U.S. Department of Defense/Chad J. McNeeley.

Phuc was quoted as saying he believed Austin’s visit "will make practical and effective contributions to the promotion of the comprehensive partnership between Vietnam and the U.S in the immediate and long-term."

Chinh spoke along similar lines, saying he believed that Austin’s visit would "contribute to a more substantive development of relations between the two countries in line with the relationship between the two countries’ comprehensive partnership."

He also suggested strengthening cooperation in trade and investment, climate change science and technology and education and training.

Chinh noted that economic cooperation "still has a lot of room for development" and could take advantage of the strengths and weaknesses of both sides.

Gregory Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, another U.S. think tank, said Austin did everything he needed to do on this trip.

He assuaged concerns that the Biden administration is not paying attention and framed his remarks in Singapore around how the U.S. could be a productive partner rather than around China, he pointed out.

In Vietnam and the Philippines, he secured important deliverables like a memorandum of understanding on the legacies of war and saving the Visiting Forces Agreement that provide opportunities to deepen defense cooperation, he said.

The trip buys the Biden administration some time to deliver more support to the region, particularly on Covid, and it now has to build on that with Blinken's participation in the ASEAN Regional Forum next week and Harris's visit later in the month, he added.

Hiep said the event where General Giang and Austin witnessed the signing of the MOU on cooperation in searching, gathering and identifying the remains of Vietnamese martyrs is of great emotional and spiritual significance to the Vietnamese people.

It showed that the two sides are truly seeking reconciliation and are committed to together and sincerely resolving historical issues, he said.

The security - defense relations between the two countries would become more and more substantive with time, contributing to each side's strategic goals, especially in responding to emerging common security challenges in the region, he said.

"The U.S. and Vietnam are looking to the future as each other's reliable strategic partners, based on the increasingly firm foundation of bilateral trust.

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