What does Biden presidency hold for Vietnam?

By Viet Anh   November 9, 2020 | 05:00 pm PT
What does Biden presidency hold for Vietnam?
Joe Biden, then Democratic U.S. presidential candidate, speaks at an event in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S., March 12, 2020. Photo by Reuters/Carlos Barria.
Vietnam’s geopolitical importance to the U.S. is only headed one way and that is upward amid the dramatic changes in its region, experts say.

"The administration of the newly elected U.S. President Joe Biden will further the momentum in cooperation with Vietnam," Prof Alexander Vuving of the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii, the U.S., told VnExpress International.

Biden, who defeated President Donald Trump to become the 46th president of the U.S. on Saturday, served as Obama's vice president from 2008 to 2016. In 2013 Presidents Obama and Truong Tan Sang launched the U.S. - Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership. In 2016 Obama announced that the U.S. had fully lifted the lethal arms ban on Vietnam, which Vuving thought began the "real normalization."

During Republican Trump’s time in the White House, bilateral diplomacy picked up momentum. Cooperation in security and defense between Vietnam and the U.S., especially maritime security, has grown strongly. U.S. aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson made a historic port call to Da Nang in March 2018, the first of its kind since the Vietnam War ended in 1975. Trade has become a major part of bilateral ties, increasing from $450 million in 1994 to $77 billion last year.

According to Vuving, regardless of its governing party, the U.S. has increasingly regarded Vietnam as a premier strategic partner in Asia. He pointed out it was recently invited by the U.S. to join a new grouping, the Quad Plus, along with South Korea and New Zealand. The original Quad comprised Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S.

"Under the Biden administration, the U.S. will maintain the bipartisan consensus on policy on Vietnam. In terms of importance, Vietnam is in a second tier after Japan, India and Australia, but perhaps in the same league as South Korea and Taiwan," Vuving said.

The priority in bilateral cooperation continues to be maritime security though fighting the Covid-19 pandemic is emerging as a great opportunity for collaboration, he said.

Murray Hiebert, senior associate, Southeast Asia Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), concurred with him, saying people could expect considerable continuity on Vietnam from Obama through Trump to Biden since Washington is expected to keep pressing China in the South China Sea.

"I expect Biden will continue to look for areas in which to deepen ties with Vietnam in the economic, political, military, and people-to-people spheres."

Vietnamese General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong (L), toasted with then- U.S Vice President Joe Biden on July 7, 2015 in Washington, DC. Photo: AFP.

Vietnamese General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong (L) toasts with then U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on July 7, 2015, in Washington, DC. Photo by AFP.

Different from Obama's Asia policy

Vuving said Biden's Asia policy would not be the same as Obama’s since the strategic environment has changed dramatically in the last four years. Both the Democratic and the Republican parties see the strategic competition with China and free and fair trade as foreign policy priorities.

"Biden's Asia policy will largely be defined by great power competition, which had risen during the Obama years and reached a new height during the Trump years."

The U.S. - China strategic competition emerged in 2019 with the fierce trade war and it has been spreading into other areas such as technology, Covid-19, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Taiwan, and the South China Sea. The relationship between the two powers has begun to be described as a new Cold War.

Vuving said the tipping point in the U.S. view of China, from "partner rather than competitor" to "competitor rather than partner," occurred in the final years of the Obama administration. But because Obama's priority was the Paris Agreement, the U.S. badly needed China’s cooperation and therefore preferred "cooperation more than competition" with it, he pointed out.

However, events in recent years have created a new situation in which the competition component has grown much larger than the cooperation component, and Joe Biden would inherit this, he said.

But the U.S.’s Asia policy under Biden would also be different from Trump's in that it would have less drama and no brinkmanship, and Biden might focus on stability, he said.

Hiebert agreed saying people should not expect a rollback of Trump's hardline China policy.

There is bipartisan agreement in the U.S. that China has taken advantage of it on trade, particularly in areas such as the theft of intellectual property rights and forced technology transfer, he explained.

Charles Dunst, a visiting scholar at the East-West Center in Washington, said given rising American antipathy toward Beijing, Biden will indeed not want to appear "soft" on China.

He also expected Biden to offer a return to normalcy and a less blatantly disrespectful attitude and transactional approach to partners in the region while maintaining some form of Trump’s hard line on China.

Besides, the President-elect is expected to try and demonstrate America’s reliability to Asian nations by deepening diplomatic ties, strengthening security relations, and, in one way or another, resurrecting the economic multilateralism of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), now CPTPP, he said.

This, coupled with a more "normal" approach to diplomacy, would bring back predictability and perhaps reliability to U.S. foreign policy in Asia, he hoped.

Why Vietnam matters in Asia

Paul Pillar, nonresident senior fellow, Center for Security Studies, Georgetown University, said the principal difference between Trump's approach to the region and Biden's would be that the latter sees the value of multilateral diplomacy and would attempt to work in harmony with Asia rather than try to do everything on a bilateral basis.

"In this regard, Vietnam will have an important role."

The new administration, according to Pillar, will try to work in concert with Vietnam in addressing economic and trade grievances that many countries, not just the U.S., have with China.

Vietnam is also an important player in reaching understanding about strategic stability in the South China Sea, given its direct stake in that area, he said.

He guessed that the most important objectives of the new administration would be to resolve the trade war with China and find military and strategic understanding that would avoid a dangerous clash at sea or elsewhere.

Kent Calder, director, the Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies, Johns Hopkins University SAIS in the U.S., said he believed Biden appreciates the importance of multilateralism.

He would continue and expand Trump's support for the Quad and Quad Plus concepts, broadening coordination beyond Australia/India/Japan to other major nations, certainly including South Korea, and possibly Vietnam, he said.

He listed four reasons why Biden would be positively inclined to deepen relations with Vietnam: his likely support for the Quad Plus' grouping of Indo - Pacific nations, support for multilateral trade arrangements and efforts by American firms to move away from China and his appreciation of Vietnam's effective policies to control Covid-19.

"Overall, I expect that relations between Vietnam and the U.S. would be relatively good under Biden unless complicated by an unexpected upsurge in trade tensions."

Scott MacDonald, chief economist at Smith’s Research and Gradings, whose analyses are an indispensable part of Wall Street and the world's capital markets, said under the Biden administration, people are likely to see the return of the U.S. as more supportive of the multilateral system.

That translates into rejoining the Paris Agreement on climate, support for other climate-friendly global policies, less talk over dismantling NATO, and a move away from the "America First" rhetoric, he said.

It is also possible that President Biden would keep many of the tariffs imposed on China by President Trump and work closer with U.S. allies vis-à-vis China and Russia, he said.

"Biden is likely to build on what Trump has done to build up a front with Australia, Japan and India, to Europe, and to some degree Vietnam, on trade matters involving China’s penetration into European and Middle Eastern markets."

He said Biden and the Democratic Party are at heart protectionist while Trump brought change to a Republican Party that is traditionally pro-trade.

This also fit Trump’s policies for Asia, which were dominated by the new Cold War with China and trade, and there is no reason for Biden to change direction, he explained.

During his campaign, the president-elect prioritized domestic investment over trade liberalization and tightening "buy America" rules that will force the federal government to buy from U.S. suppliers at the expense of foreign competitors.

This raises many questions as to what this means in terms of policy, MacDonald said.

Nevertheless, a Biden presidency might be more "constructive" for Vietnam, he said.

In October the U.S. Trade Representative announced an investigation of Vietnam for currency manipulation, reportedly on Trump's orders.

Most of the accusations against Vietnam come from its large trade surplus with the U.S., which widened to $44.3 billion in the first nine months of this year from $33.96 billion in 2019. Part of that surplus is due to U.S. companies leaving China and developing new supply chains out of Vietnam.

Hiebert said: "Vietnam needs to make a strong case to the incoming Biden administration that it wants to end the back-and-forth talks over its alleged currency manipulation, which started in 2017.

"Biden assuming the presidency is probably a plus for Vietnam, though this is going to be conditioned by trade concerns and the tone of China-U.S. relations."

People don't know if Biden would continue Washington's investigation of Vietnam for currency manipulation launched by Trump, he said, adding perhaps he would look at dropping the case.

Dunst said whereas Trump berated Vietnamese leaders on issues like deportations and the trade deficit, Biden would engage Hanoi more respectfully. Ultimately, he expected Biden to both deepen bilateral security ties with Vietnam and offer the country economic benefit through some new version of the TPP.

Vuving agreed that Biden would favor dialogue and multilateral cooperation with Asian partners but he saw little chance for the U.S. to rejoin the TPP since the multilateral trade agreement has few supporters in the U.S.

Regarding bilateral relations, he said the two countries would most likely upgrade their relationship to an official "strategic partnership" in the next few years.

U.S. foreign policy is not decided by the president alone but also by their cabinet, Congress, the situation, and other countries, and this would also be true with Biden, he said.

"We need to wait to see who will be secretary of state, secretary of defense and national security adviser to [know] about the new policy."

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