New Vietnam-US relationship means more 'strategic' foreign policy

By Thanh Danh   September 11, 2023 | 03:40 pm PT
Vietnam and the U.S. establishing a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership represents a shift in U.S. perspectives on the "strategic" factor of foreign relations between the two partners, an expert says.
U.S. President Joe Biden and General Party Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong in an official reception ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi, September 10, 2023. Photo by AFP

U.S. President Joe Biden and General Party Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong in an official reception ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi, September 10, 2023. Photo by AFP

Tran Nam Tien, a lecturer from the Department of International Relations at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in HCMC, said the partnership is in the highest category of foreign policy relationships Vietnam fosters with other nation.

He said the U.S. partnership demonstrates the U.S.'s awareness regarding the "strategic" factor in its relations with other countries.

Discussions of an official partnership began as Vietnam shifted its foreign policies in the 1990s, mending relationships with several countries and integrating itself as an nation open to the region and the world.

At the 9th National Congress of the Party in April 2001, Vietnam proclaimed that a major goal was deepen its international relations across the globe. Leaders presented the need to establish strategic partnerships, and then higher-level ones, in order to develop and ensure Vietnam's interests in three significant aspects: security, prosperity and international standing.

Vietnam saw that when it comes to strategic partnerships, the three aforementioned concepts had the same level of importance. The "strategic" factor is not only about security, which is a common foreign policy understanding among nations.

As Vietnam began its official "integration" into the mainstream contemporary socio-geopolitical world, several countries and territories have cooperated with Vietnam profoundly in many fields, but few have yet to reach the level of "strategic partnership" per the government's official definition, normally due to the differences between two sides' perspectives on certain issues.

Vietnam therefore established the "comprehensive partnership" concept as a framework to begin strategic cooperation. Vietnam later established comprehensive partnerships with 12 countries, including the U.S., to highlight the positive aspects of international collaboration and continue to foster trust, Tien said.

He said Vietnam's foreign policy mindset is not about making security issues the top priority in a strategic partnership, but its main goal is for the partnership to also serve its other two major priorities: prosperity and international standing. The goal of deepening relationships with other countries is to progress swiftly in all three of these fields.

Meanwhile, the U.S. deems close cooperation on the security and defense an indispensable aspect in "strategic" relations with other countries, for example Saudi Arabia.

The U.S. and Saudi Arabia established their strategic partnership over 80 years ago, in which security operations were always a priority. Saudi Arabia is the U.S.'s largest weapon buyer, having bought a total of over $100 billion weapons from the world's largest national arms supplier, according to statistics from the White House. Since the 1950s, U.S. military engineers have also played a key role when it comes to both civilian and military structures in Saudi Arabia.

Tien said that before Vietnam and the U.S. established their comprehensive partnership in 2013, the two countries already had most of the factors in place necessary for a strategic partnership. But their differences in perspectives on the "strategic" aspect of foreign policy might have become an obstacle that impeded efforts on both sides.

However, U.S. administrations over the years, especially the administration under President Joe Biden, have experienced major changes in the nation's official foreign policy views, and U.S. leaders no longer considered the security aspect as obstacle to strategic relations.

In strategic U.S. documents on a "free and open Indo-Pacific," the North American superpower has introduced a new level of cooperation to the traditional "strategic ally" relations the U.S. has been deploying since the Cold War period: Washington has since introduced a new approach called "new partners."

The U.S. seemingly realized that not all partners want to focus on security and defense as the singular or highest priority basis for bilateral relations to reach the strategic level. As such, the U.S. wants to establish new more egalitarian partnerships with other nations in which military and security operations do not take center stage.

This was demonstrated when the U.S. and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) decided to upgrade relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership at the 2022 ASEAN Summit in Cambodia last November. When it comes to international relations, ASEAN policy is to not pick sides, and its members are not affiliated in a military-oriented way. Instead, the influential regional body focuses on economic cooperation and other development-related issues.

This parallel new awareness from the U.S. side has been seen as a step towards building a "strategic trust" that is more appropriate for countries like Vietnam, which have initiatives similar to ASEAN's foreign policy regarding non-military integration and focus on development.

The previous deepening of ASEAN-U.S. relations was in fact a stepping stone for the U.S. to signal that Washington’s focus and ambitions really were changing, and from this new awareness the bolstering of relations with each ASEAN member state, including Vietnam, would reach new heights.

The U.S. also wants to send the message that they want to enhance relations to a higher level, not for building an alliance against a third-party or ensuring security from afar for Washington, but to truly see if the other party is a developmental partner that the U.S. can form an equal relationship with, according to some analysts.

As such, Tien believes that ASEAN and the U.S. upgrading their relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership in 2022 was a milestone and an important indicator of things to come in terms of bringing the potentials of Vietnam-U.S. relations to fruition.

Both countries have built several mechanisms for dialogue at various levels of leadership and in different fields of cooperation to foster trust. Over the period that followed 1995, Washington's awareness of the "strategic" factor has also become more appropriate towards Vietnam's policies regarding peace, cooperation, development, international integration, and other areas.

Both countries have had frequent exchanges and more congruent institutionalizations of shared perspectives and mutual interests, leading to reduced disagreements and differences.

Tien said the main benefit of the comprehensive strategic partnership that Vietnam and the U.S. recently established as compared to its original "strategic partnership," is not only the more "comprehensive" nature of collaborations between the two governments and both nation's financial enterprises, but the more profound "strategic trust" that is growing stronger.

The lecturer also said this new relationship would not stray from Vietnam's steadfast 30-year foreign policy of independence, peace and development.

In the official highest-level state dialogue on Sunday, Trong affirmed that the motto and signature for the development of the Vietnam-U.S. relations is "overcome differences and utilize similarities."

He emphasized that Vietnam highly respects and appreciates the U.S. commitment to help support a strong, independent, and prosperous Vietnam.

Trong affirmed that mutual understanding between the two great nations would continue to grow over time.

General Party Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong holds a dialogue with U.S. President Joe Biden at the office of the Central Party Committee in Hanoi, September 10, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy

General Party Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong holds a dialogue with U.S. President Joe Biden at the office of the Central Party Committee in Hanoi, September 10, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy

Biden said he supported the beginning of a new era in economic and science-technology cooperation between the two countries towards the development of climate change responses and clean energy. Biden said Vietnam and the U.S. upgrading their relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership would be beneficial for both countries and common international interests.

The White House said in a statement that it and Vietnam would bolster cooperation in eight major fields – including the top priorities of economics, science and technology, and commerce and trade – as the driving forces of the new high-level partnership.

On security cooperation, the U.S. expects to announce programs and aid packages to provide new equipment to Vietnam, helping the nation's ability to fight transnational crime. The U.S. also plans to bolster medical cooperation, help resolve the consequences of the war and enhance business relationships between the two countries.

Vietnam has established a comprehensive strategic partnership with China, Russia, India and South Korea.

Tien said the new relationship was significant because the U.S. is only the fourth major country Vietnam harbors this level of relations with, after China, Russia and India.

"Strategic relations with all four major countries will bring Vietnam great opportunities for development, spreading influence and diversifying cooperation," he said.

"A comprehensive strategic partnership with the U.S., along with dialogue and cooperation mechanisms, would ensure that Vietnam would keep its balance more effectively in its relationships with all countries, especially amid today's complex international competition."

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