To lay the scene, what you would argue motivated Vice President Harris's trip to Hanoi?
Vice President Kamala Harris’s visit was intended to achieve two big goals as well as other less important things on the agenda. The first big goal was to signal to China and Southeast Asian countries that the U.S. was back to Asia. The U.S. had been so preoccupied with the Middle East for decades. Under Obama, Washington declared a pivot to Asia, but not much has happened since. Thus, one of the big goals of the visit, not just by Harris, but also by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin before that, was to signal to Southeast Asian countries and China that the U.S. is back. The second big goal was to try, with regard to Vietnam, to upgrade the relationship from “comprehensive” to “strategic,” to facilitate an increase in US defense cooperation with Vietnam especially on the South China Sea issue. There are other minor things on the agenda such as economic cooperation and the inauguration of the new regional Center for Disease Control in Hanoi.
How would you evaluate the trip in terms of achieving these goals?
Given the goals, the trip achieved only mixed results. I would give it a score of five out of ten. The timing of the trip was unfortunate because it took place in the middle of the chaotic and tragic withdrawal of U.S. personnel from Afghanistan, which raised deep questions about U.S. credibility and competence, including military competence. I was in Washington, DC at the time, and all the news was about Kabul, with all these hourly updates by U.S. top government officials about the mayhem at the Kabul International Airport. It totally overshadowed the Vice President’s visit to Singapore and Hanoi, which is really unfortunate. The Afghan debacle undermined the symbolic value of the trip since it raised doubts about American commitments to its allies and ability to challenge China. The fall of Kabul also drew parallels to the fall of Saigon in 1975. In Saigon, the U.S.-supported government was defeated by the very communist government that Harris was to meet with. The whole situation was thus laced with irony about U.S. involvement in Asia.
Also, the goals were not achieved because the U.S. was upstaged by China. China's Ambassador to Hanoi made a call to the Prime Minister of Vietnam just before Harris’s visit. During his meeting with the Chinese Ambassador, the Prime Minister of Vietnam reiterated Vietnam’s long-standing policy that it would not ally with any country against another. This meeting took place right before the visit, showing that symbolically, China still had Vietnam in its orbit. In fact, throughout the Vice President’s visit the Vietnamese government was lukewarm about US proposal to upgrade the defense relationship and preferred discussing economic cooperation. Thus, the U.S. made an effort but the timing of the visit was bad and China was able to upstage it. The trip had limited impacts besides the minor things on the agenda that were accomplished.
In light of this subpar visit, what can or should the U.S. do to improve its strategic posture in Southeast Asia, if anything?
The Biden administration has tried its best but the U.S. only has limited leverage vis-a-vis Vietnam. China still exerts a big influence on Vietnam, which hinders US efforts. For Southeast Asia as a whole, the U.S. is encountering many obstacles that are difficult to overcome. First, Southeast Asian countries do not want to take sides in the U.S.-China rivalry, nor do they support the containment of China, because they can still benefit economically from China. Currently, most Southeast Asian countries are not affected by Chinese aggressive policy in the South China Sea. Vietnam and the Philippines are the countries most affected but for the other countries located further away, the issue is not as important to them as the economic and political relationship with China.
Another hurdle for the U.S. is that authoritarian regimes have risen in Southeast Asia. We have had a military regime in Thailand for many years. Cambodia now has a single-party regime after the ruling party banned the main opposition party three years ago. In Burma (Myanmar), the military seized power from a civilian government in February and has killed more than 1,000 people who dared to protest against that coup. And Vietnam has also increased its crackdown on dissent and opposition under the current General Secretary of the Communist Party since 2012. These four countries have become much more authoritarian, and this poses a challenge for the U.S. because one of the main pillars of U.S. foreign policy has been the promotion of human rights and democratic rule. Defense cooperation with these authoritarian regimes would require the U.S. to de-emphasize or ignore their serious violations of human rights.
Harris argued, during her visit, that Southeast Asia is vital to U.S. security and prosperity, particularly in the face of China. How vital do you think a strong relationship with Vietnam is for the U.S. to maintain a strong position in the Indo-Pacific region, even if it's not necessarily looking probable right now?
A strong relationship with Vietnam is vital to the U.S., and I support a strong relationship. But, the reality is that the U.S. cannot obtain it if the Vietnamese government does not want it. If the U.S. tries to reach out too much and makes many concessions to court the conservative leaders in Hanoi, they might take it for granted and even increase their demands. Or at least not come to the table fully willing to cooperate. The hurdle is just very high for the U.S. to overcome even though a strong relationship is what we want.
Right, so moving forward, what do you think comes next for the U.S. and Vietnam relationship?
It will likely stay at this level for a few more years. Unless we have a new leadership in Hanoi, the relationship is not going to move forward very much. Currently, Vietnam is struggling with the COVID pandemic, with severe lockdowns in large cities, low vaccination rates, and an economic slump. Vietnamese leaders will be preoccupied with the pandemic for this year and next year. And beyond that, I don't see the relationship will go very far, at least for the next two, three years.
One of Vietnam’s main reservations is the fear of alienating China. The fear of China's economic and political retaliation is important because the Vietnamese economy is highly dependent on the Chinese economy at this point. If China retaliates, the Vietnamese economy will suffer a great deal, especially now that its economy is being in the throes of the pandemic. Within the next two years, Vietnam is not going to do anything because of that. Then the second reservation that Vietnam has is its lack of trust in the U.S. and its fear that a closer relationship with the U.S. would allow the latter to intervene into Vietnamese politics and open the country to democratizing influences from America.
Do you think that China is winning in the region?
In this round, China is still holding the cards. In the long term, I'm not sure that China is winning because China’s strategy has been to use economic benefits to gain the support from these countries, and the Chinese economy actually may not be performing well in the medium to long term. China’s growth rates have declined significantly. The strength of the Chinese economy is likely weakened in an intense competition with the U.S. So how attractive China is economically for these countries remains to be seen five years from now. And the second thing that China has been doing is to provide support to authoritarian regimes in Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, and Vietnam. That has made China very unpopular among the citizens of these countries. In the future, if they are able to force their governments to change, then China stands to lose much of its influence in the region.
United States Senate Office of Kamala Harris, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons