Harris's visit generates momentum for US-Vietnam relationship for coming years

August 28, 2021 | 02:06 am PT
Pham Quang Vinh Former Vietnamese ambassador to the U.S.
When I heard U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris will pay a visit to Vietnam, my heart fluttered as I thought about its significance for the relationship between the two countries.

It strongly reminded me of the unknowns that were raised during the transition from President Barack Obama to President Donald Trump at the beginning of 2017.

At that time I served as Vietnam's ambassador to the U.S.

While Trump was a newcomer in American politics, knew little about Vietnam, my team and I at the embassy had to act quickly to break the ice, securing a call between Trump and Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc. The call was followed by a visit in May 2017 by Phuc, the first leader in Southeast Asia to visit the U.S. and meet the new president.

The success of our endeavors during high-level visits depends on the desire on both sides. There were discussions, but my team and I at Vietnam embassy always had to wait until the last minute to know the final answer. Many a time, it turned out in Vietnam's favors.

The wait was exciting.

I can imagine how thrilling it must be for Vietnam's current ambassador in Washington, DC, and his team before and throughout the visit of VP Harris.

At the beginning of the new administration, President Joe Biden and his team have to shape a comprehensive strategy. A visit paid by a high-level official to Asia used to be traditionally aimed at powerful allies such as Japan and South Korea. However, this time, Harris has chosen Southeast Asia with Vietnam and Singapore as her destinations.

The trip was special because she traveled amid a big surge in Covid-19 in Vietnam and other countries in the region, fierce strategic competition among great powers and the crisis in Afghanistan. And this was her first trip here.

U.S Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at a press conference in Hanoi, August 26, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy

U.S Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at a press conference in Hanoi, August 26, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy

In Hanoi, she was welcomed by her counterpart, Vo Thi Anh Xuan, at a ceremony, and met with Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh.

I can understand that Hanoi and Washington had been doing all to make it a good trip.

But Vietnam's ambassador to the U.S. would have concerns about whether her major engagements go smoothly, including the signing of a land lease agreement for the new U.S. embassy in Hanoi, and the launch of the Southeast Asia regional office of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

He could only watch them from afar.

Arriving in Vietnam at a time when the country was struggling with its worst wave of Covid, Harris gave her heart to the people here and ordered an urgent shipment of an additional one million doses of the Pfizer vaccine that "would start arriving within the next 24 hours."

It was more than a gift. It was a gesture for partnership.

She said vaccines are a priority because they help protect people's health.

Harris said she and Vietnamese leaders understand that there is a connection between a global public health crisis like Covid-19 and the production of necessary goods as well as the impact it can have on global economies and their workforce.

I'm sure the Vietnamese government will help American enterprises and other foreign companies doing business in Vietnam maintain their activities to avoid the risk of supply chain disruption in future.

It is not only a matter of bilateral economic cooperation, it is the fact that Vietnam is a crucial part of the global supply chain.

From the strategic perspective, the U.S. vice president came and shared U.S. vision on the Indo-Pacific. Then it would be a chance for Vietnam also to express its stand on the great power rivalry, ASEAN and the South China Sea.

Countries in the region do not want to take sides, neither do they want such a rivalry to harm peace and stability, or flout international laws.

The U.S. and China, two important partners of Vietnam, and of the region, should understand that clearly.

Vietnam wants to be friends with everyone. It is not taking sides. At the same time, it has to safeguard its national interests and sovereignty. Vietnam will therefore strongly support the respect of international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and object violations thereof. It is a matter of right or wrong based on international law.

Vice President Harris's trip to the region this time reaffirmed a message that Southeast Asia is central to its Indo-Pacific strategy, and Vietnam and Singapore are critical partners.

As the U.S. is to strengthen its partnerships in the region, it was useful that the U.S. had emphasized its Indo-Pacific vision was not designed to be against anyone but to uphold international rules.

ASEAN has over the years created a framework for superpowers to cooperate and compete with each other in the region.

Harris’s trip to Vietnam was a landmark. It's time to look ahead and to the next chapter in the U.S. - Vietnam relationship, as she said. The vice president had suggested the two sides engage in conversations and prepare the path towards a strategic partnership.

The relationship is indeed at an extremely important level. We could see one obvious example: bilateral trade was worth nearly $100 billion in 2020.

To me, and many others, this relationship is of both comprehensive and strategic nature. It’s time to give it a name, that reflects that. What would it be is for the two sides to decide. But, surely this will serve the interests of both nations.

That will also be in line with Vietnam’s foreign policy. Vietnam has a strategic partnership with several countries and made it clear that it does not go with one country against another.

Remarkably, Vietnam and partners with whom it has strategic partnership still have differences. The issue is how they manage them, with confidence and understanding, and on the basis of mutual respect and benefits.

To sum up, I believe that the visit to Vietnam by Vice President Harris has generated an advantageous momentum to deepen the bilateral relationship and to take it to a new level, that of strategic partnership. I hope that would happen during the current administration of President Joe Biden. For this, I congratulate Vice President Kamala Harris for her successful trip to Vietnam and to the region.

*Pham Quang Vinh is a former Vietnamese ambassador to the U.S. The opinions expressed are his own.

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