Decoding President Joe Biden’s Recent Vietnam Visit

Tuong Vu is Professor in the Political Science Department and director of the US-Vietnam Research Center at the University of Oregon. He has held visiting appointments at Princeton University and National University of Singapore and taught at the Naval Postgraduate School. Vu is the author or co-editor of many books, including Toward a Framework of Vietnamese American Studies: History, Community, and Memory (Temple, 2023); Building a Republican Nation in Vietnam, 1920-1963 (Hawaii, 2022); The Republic of Vietnam, 1955-1975: Vietnamese Perspectives on Nation-Building (Cornell, 2020); and Vietnam’s Communist Revolution: The Power and Limits of Ideology (Cambridge, 2017). He has also authored numerous articles on the politics of nationalism, communism, revolution, and state-building in East and Southeast Asia.
Jian Athena Ke '26 interviewed Dr. Tuong Vu on September 23, 2023.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Tuong Vu.

What was the primary motivation behind President Joe Biden’s visit to Vietnam? 

The main motivation was to announce an agreement between the US and Vietnamese governments to upgrade bilateral relationship to “comprehensive strategic partnership.” Although the US denies it, this partnership is intended to help strengthen the network of friends and allies of the US in the face of rising tensions with China. The US has been actively pursuing a closer relationship with Vietnam for nearly two decades, dating back to President Bill Clinton's time in office. Over the years, the US has made numerous efforts to engage with Vietnam on various fronts, including defense. However, Vietnam has been lukewarm in responding to US overtures.

The dynamics in this relationship have been influenced significantly by China's actions in the South China Sea. On one hand, China's activities have raised concerns among Vietnamese leaders about the potential for conflict with China. On the other hand, these developments have also created domestic pressure on Vietnamese leaders because the majority of Vietnamese citizens expect their government to take a stronger stance in the South China Sea conflict.

Besides the defense and security motives, the US also aims to encourage American companies to shift their supply chains away from China to other countries like Vietnam. Vietnam has been touted as a promising destination for US investment as part of a general shift away from China.

Based on the announced outcomes of the visit, do you believe Biden has achieved his objectives?  What would you consider to be the key achievements of this visit? 

The US has been working for years to upgrade its relationship with Vietnam, and the recent public announcement and ceremony indicate some success in this regard. However, the recent visit was mostly symbolic, lasting less than a day, with several meetings and announcements about the new relationship. It reflected the joint efforts of both governments to advance the relationship but remained symbolic since we still must wait and see how Vietnam cooperates with the US on defense matters. We will also wait to see if US companies proceed with investments in Vietnam. So, it was a friendly gesture with symbolic significance, with some practical developments in the future.

How has China reacted to the situation? What specific concerns do you have regarding the development of closer ties between Vietnam and the United States concerning China?

China has long been Vietnam’s comprehensive strategic partner. Beijing has not shown any public reaction to recent developments, while Vietnam has downplayed the issue publicly. While the US visited Vietnam, the Vietnamese government also discussed upgrading its relationships with Australia and Japan to the same comprehensive strategic level. This was done apparently to avoid highlighting the US relationship upgrade, with Vietnam pursuing similar arrangements with other countries. On Vietnam's side, it's likely that they kept China informed about these developments. In fact, President Xi Jinping of China sent a special envoy to Vietnam just days before Biden's visit. This envoy likely received a briefing on the situation and signaled to the US that Vietnam maintains close ties with China despite any upgrading in its relationship with the US. Following Biden's visit, there will likely be more high-level exchanges and visits between China and Vietnam. China may actively pursue this to prevent Vietnam from drifting further away from its sphere of influence.

To take a step back, could you explain to us the geopolitical significance of Vietnam?

Vietnam's significance lies in its geographic location, situated right next to China, and in its status as one of the largest countries in Southeast Asia. Additionally, Vietnam is embroiled in an ongoing conflict with China over the South China Sea. Given these factors, Vietnam appears to be a natural strategic ally for the United States when it comes to containing or countering China's influence in Southeast Asia.

Are there any blind spots or unrealistic expectations for both the U.S. and Vietnam regarding this relationship?

Some US policymakers may have been overly optimistic about Vietnam's willingness to cooperate with the US. Vietnam still harbors suspicions due to historical US hostility towards communism, as well as concerns about Vietnamese American groups operating against the Vietnamese government. There is also unease about US criticisms of violations of human rights and religious freedom in Vietnam. In terms of political and cultural values, the US and Vietnam are quite divergent, with Vietnam viewing American values as a threat to its regime. In contrast, China shares a similar communist system with Vietnam and refrains from criticizing Vietnam's domestic issues, making them naturally more aligned.

Vietnam is cautious about getting too close to the US due to fears that US values might spread within Vietnam, potentially destabilizing the government. Some US policymakers initially underestimated these differences, wrongly assuming that Vietnam had always been opposed to China historically. However, in recent years, many policymakers have come to recognize the complexity of the situation. While they advocate for closer ties with Vietnam, they focus more on strengthening relationships with other regional countries like Australia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, and India, which they view as potentially more reliable allies in the event of a conflict with China.

Jian Athena Ke '26Student Journalist

The White House, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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