Vietnam, US show 'appetite' for stronger relationship: analyst

By Viet Anh    May 1, 2022 | 04:15 pm PT
Vietnam, US show 'appetite' for stronger relationship: analyst
The U.S. flag (L) flutters next to the Vietnamese flag during a welcoming ceremony for U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter (not pictured) at the Ministry of National Defense in Hanoi, Vietnam June 1, 2015. Photo by Reuters
The upcoming visit by Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh to the U.S. reveals both sides' desire to strengthen ties regardless of the changing global geopolitical situation.

On April 21 Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang confirmed that Chinh would attend the May 12-13 U.S.-ASEAN summit in Washington D.C.

He will also pay a "working visit" to the U.S. and work with the United Nations.

Le Thu Huong, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said it is important for Chinh and President Joe Biden to meet in person and establish a rapport.

Both countries saw leadership transitions early last year and the new leaders have yet to meet, she said.

Given the countries' growing strategic and economic ties, a personal meeting is "overdue," she said.

"Both sides recognize their mutual importance and there is an appetite to make the relationship stronger."

The two nations could showcase practical cooperation like maritime security, she said.

On April 20, the American ambassador to Vietnam, Marc Knapper, said the two countries are working together on issues that are basic to their well-being, and the U.S. is committed to working with Vietnam to strengthen its maritime security and maritime domain awareness capabilities

Khang Vu, a doctoral candidate in political science at Boston College, the U.S., said the fact that the Vietnamese PM accepted Biden's invitation shows Vietnam's foreign policy of multilateralization and diversification is at work.

"Vietnam needs to balance its relations with the major powers, and [its] participation in the summit shows that it is still invested in the U.S.-Vietnam partnership."

As a member of ASEAN, Vietnam embraces the bloc's vision of resolving conflicts peacefully and renouncing the illegal use of force, he said.

Whether engaging with the U.S. multilaterally or bilaterally, Vietnam signals an intention to improve relations with Washington to the extent it does not upset China and helps it resolve disputes in the South China Sea peacefully, he said.

But Vietnam has not shown a willingness to upgrade the comprehensive partnership with the U.S. to a strategic partnership, he said.

Vietnam has established comprehensive strategic partnership with China, India, and Russia, and strategic partnership with Australia, France, Germany, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Korea, Spain, Thailand, and the U.K.

Incremental advances

John Bradford, senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said the U.S.'s invitation despite its foreign policy attention being focused on the war in Ukraine shows that it continues to believe its relationship with ASEAN is important.

The U.S.'s Indo-Pacific Strategy does not include many surprising elements, and merely articulates the Biden administration’s already established approach, and so he does not anticipate big surprises at the meeting, he said.

"Instead we should anticipate incremental advances in existing areas of cooperation such as enhanced trade, cooperation on climate, the reorientation of the U.S. supply chain, and maritime security capacity-building."

He said, at the multilateral summit, while a meeting on the sidelines focused on Vietnam is possible, the U.S. would be focused on what can be achieved with the region.

Khang said though the U.S. supports ASEAN's centrality in Southeast Asia, it expects the bloc to fall in line with its Indo-Pacific strategy, which in essence is to check the rise of China.

ASEAN states would seek more clarification about the U.S.'s commitment to Southeast Asia, which the Indo-Pacific Strategy does not elaborate beyond diplomatic language, he said.

The public could expect both sides to commit to future high-level meetings to discuss how to deepen U.S.-ASEAN engagement, he added.

Huong said Vietnam would want both further deepening of bilateral relations and more of Biden's attention and commitment to Southeast Asia.

The summit has been postponed several times either because of the pandemic or scheduling issues, and has become a glaring gap in U.S.-ASEAN relations, she said.

In over a year since leadership change in Washington, the U.S.'s focus has not been on Southeast Asia despite calling it the priority theater and a rhetorical declarations of support to ASEAN, she pointed out.

Hanoi would hope that the recent geopolitical developments, particularly the war in Ukraine, would not preclude Biden's engagement with the region, she said.

"So it is important that ASEAN member states attend to make the summit more than just a photo opportunity."

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