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Reviewing the US-Vietnam Relationship under the Biden Administration

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Abstract:

As the Biden administration has expanded US engagement in Southeast Asia, Vietnam, with its booming economy and strategic location on the South China Sea has become more important in US foreign policy. The two countries may consider next steps in their bilateral relations. For the past three years, the Biden administration capitalized on momentum built by previous administrations to foster US comprehensive partnership with Vietnam in different domains including security which is always sensitive to both sides. Growing Chinese assertiveness in recent years in the South China Sea, where Hanoi has overlapping sovereignty disputes with Beijing, has deepened the U.S.-Vietnam partnership.

The scientific of this paper is that it provides an insight into US-Vietnam bilateral relations since Joe Biden came to the White House. It critically analyses how Washington and Hanoi have bolstered their ties in three key areas:  trade and investment, politics and security, and people-to-people ties. It will also give a timely and critical analysis of the rationale for Hanoi and Washington in the advancement of US-Vietnam relations.

Key words: US, Vietnam, foreign policy, international relations, Biden administration, South China Sea

Introduction

Since President Joe Biden assumed office as the 46th President of the United States, his administration has taken a keen interest in improving bilateral relations with Vietnam.  On their part, Vietnam expressed a desire to work closely with the Biden administration, especially focusing on developing the US-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership to a new height. As both Hanoi and Washington have attached great significance to their bilateral relationship, the trajectory of their relationship has been remarkable since US-Vietnam diplomatic relations were established in 1995. With the Biden administration’s expanding engagement in the Indo-Pacific region, Vietnam has played a more important role in US foreign policy. This paper will look at how both sides have expanded their partnership under the Biden administration, analyzing new developments in three main fronts that affect people’s lives including trade and investment, political and security, and people-to-people ties. Besides highlighting important progress made under the Biden administration, the paper will also show obstacles (human rights, legacies of war) that both sides need to overcome to further advance their partnership. 

Trade and Investment

Vietnam and the US have collaborated effectively in trade and investment since 1995. Under the Biden administration, trade relationships between the two countries have flourished with visible outcomes. In 2022, the level of bilateral trade reached $139 billion, more than 300 times greater than it was in 1995 (US Embassy and Consulate in Vietnam, 2023).

According to the “Bilateral Relations Factsheet” published by the Biden Administration in April 2021, bilateral trade and US investments in Vietnam have grown significantly. The US is Vietnam's largest export market, worth almost USD 97 billion in 2021. In 2022, total US trade in goods with Vietnam amounted to USD 138 billion, with imports from Vietnam accounting for USD 127.5 billion and exports to Vietnam rising to USD 11.3 billion (Hanh Nguyen, 2023). Commenting on Vietnam - US relations at a regular press conference in Hanoi on March 2023, Deputy spokeswoman of the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry Pham Thu Hang highlighted that Vietnam has become the US’s eighth largest trade partner while the US has become Vietnam's first export market surpassing 100 billion USD in turnover (Hang Pham, 2023). She added that with a foreign direct investment of 11.4 billion USD in Vietnam, the US is currently in 11th place among countries investing directly in Vietnam (Ibid).

The United States is currently the biggest export destination for such Vietnamese products as textiles, footwear, and electronics. ?Vietnam purchased US goods including soybeans  and cotton. Vietnam also attracts investments from major US firms including?Apple, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, SpaceX, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Abbott, Visa, Citibank, Meta, and Amazon Web Services. Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Bell are now seeking to make investments in Vietnam. Ted Osius, president and CEO of the US-ASEAN Business Council emphasized that US industrial firms have seen Vietnam as a strategic market in the region and committed to investing in Vietnam and cooperating with Vietnamese businesses for a long period. He confirmed that the US private firms wanted to fulfill their commitment to being “reliable partners and resources in fostering mutual priorities and economic purposes” (Ted Osius, 2023).

On its part, the Vietnamese government has developed a favorable environment to continue to attract investments from US firms. Especially, Vietnam’s business authority has paid attention to boosting innovation and sustainable development on trade and investment fronts. Furthermore, Vietnam and the US have strongly supported each other in multilateral economic organizations such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and World Trade Organization. Through working closely with each other at these multilateral organizations, both sides have opportunities to better understand each other’s trade policy and foster their trade and investment relations.?For instance, Vietnam has strongly supported the US to host the 2023 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) (Masyitha Baziad, 2022).

In May 2022, the United States launched the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF) with 14 countries in the Indo-Pacific region, including Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Fiji, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. As one of the initial partners, Vietnam has actively worked with the Biden administration to finalize text on all four IPEF pillars: (i) Trade; (ii) Supply Chains; (iii) Clean Energy, Decarbonization, and Infrastructure; and (iv) Tax and Anti-Corruption (US Trade Representative, 2022). It should be noted that there have been bilateral trade disputes between the United States and Vietnam during the Biden administration. However, most of them have been settled bilaterally. On 01 October 2021, the United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai announced a bilateral agreement to resolve the timber dispute, which includes Vietnam’s commitments to prevent illegally harvested or traded timber out of the supply chain and protect the environment and natural resources (US Trade Representative, 2021). Especially, the Biden administration has removed Vietnam from the list of ‘currency manipulators’ and “Unfair acts, policies, and practices”. This demonstrated the Biden administration’s desire to remove barriers raised by the Trump administration in the US-Vietnam trade relations (US Trade Representative, 2021).

The Biden administration seemed to realize that a hard-line approach on trade issues might negatively affect US bilateral ties with Vietnam. This is particularly relevant at a time when the Biden administration would like Hanoi to take part in the US network of partners to counter Beijing’s increasing assertiveness and influence in the Indo-­Pacific. The Biden administration continued to express its support for a strong, independent, and prosperous Vietnam.

In short, US-Vietnam trade and investment relations have flourished under the Biden administration. Both countries have reaped the benefits of their growing trade ties. Despite trade imbalances, protectionist practices, and other trade issues, it is undeniable that Hanoi and Washington have realized that it is in their best interest to maintain a strong relationship with each other and there is huge potential for further expansion in their trade and investment relations. As Vietnam continues to pursue its renovation policy to develop and modernize its economy, it will be essential for Vietnam to collaborate with the US to deal with the structural issues that may prevent both sides to broaden and deepening their trade ties. In the foreseeable future, trade and investment relations between the US and Vietnam will be a cornerstone for them to tighten their engagement in other domains namely defense and security, and people-to-people ties. The main trend in their trade and investment interactions will be a continuity of dialogue, cooperation, and a shared commitment to trade practices that are fair and mutually beneficial to them.

Political and Security

US-Vietnam political and security relations have been guided by the 2013 Comprehensive Partnership which has been supplemented and reinforced through the Joint Statements of 2015, 2016, and 2017 (US Department of State, 2020). In 2020, Vietnam and the United States commemorated 25 years of their diplomatic relations. Under the Comprehensive Partnership agreement, the US supports Vietnam in capacity building, law enforcement, regional cross-border cooperation, and implementation of international conventions and standards. 

Under the Biden administration, the US has continued to promote a “free and open Indo-Pacific” and wanted to “work alongside” Vietnam to advance Washington’s engagement in the region (White House, 2021). The Biden administration’s National Security Strategic issued in October 2022 underlined Washington’s affirmation of ASEAN’s centrality and its desire for “deeper bonds with Southeast Asian partners” (White House, 2022). The Biden administration wanted to continue to broaden its regional diplomatic, development, and economic engagement with a particular focus on Southeast Asia. The Biden administration has ostensibly referred that Vietnam was an important partner in Washington’s efforts to realize a “free and open Indo-Pacific”. With its constant recognition of Vietnam’s significance in the Indo-Pacific region, the Biden administration has highlighted its commitment to expanding and deepening the security cooperation with Vietnam. In the political discourse of both Vietnamese and US officials, it is common to see that leaders mentioned security as an important component of the US-Vietnam partnership. In the Fact Sheet released by the US Bureau of Political-Military Affairs on June 2, 202, it was stressed that US-Vietnam security cooperation is built based on the mutual commitment to deepen defense cooperation and shared resolve to address regional security challenges (US embassy in Vietnam, 2021).

There have been exchanges of high-ranking defense officials between the US and Vietnam. For instance, in mid-2021, the Biden administration showed its desire to expand its engagement in Southeast Asia, with both Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s trip in July and Vice President Kamala Harris’s visit in August choosing Vietnam as a destination. In Hanoi, Defence Secretary Austin Lloyd stressed the key issues of bilateral ties, including COVID-19 cooperation and war legacy initiatives. Meanwhile, Kamala Harris’s visit was another demonstration of Washington’s intention to reinforce relations with Hanoi by pledging to support “Vietnam’s enhancement of its maritime security and law enforcement capabilities” (Kamala Harris, 2021). Especially, in September 2023 President Joe Biden’s visit to Vietnam proved successful with the elevation of US-Vietnam diplomatic relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership. This is Hanoi’s highest level of international partnership, which it was held with China and Russia. The development has opened a new chapter in US-Vietnam ties and is considered as an important role in maintaining regional stability and global power balance. Washington demonstrated its wish to collaborate with Hanoi to strengthen the rule of law and governance and maintain peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region.

Along with the remarks on strengthened security cooperation by both Hanoi and Washington, it is noted that both sides have focused on various areas of the security domain including UN peacekeeping operations, disaster relief, humanitarian assistance, military medicine, and capacity building for the Vietnam Coast Guard force. For instance, in December 2022 when Vietnam hosted the very first international defense expo, the US-ASEAN Business Council (USABC) sent its aerospace, defense and security (ADS) industry delegation to Vietnam. Hanoi’s hosting of the defense expo signified its efforts to modernize and diversify defense supply chains. Imelda Martin-Hum, President & CEO of I.M. Systems Group and Chair of the US-ASEAN Business Council’s Aerospace, Defense and Security Committee congratulated Hanoi on leading this and confirmed the U.S. defense industry’s willingness to be a resource and partner for the Vietnamese government in its military modernization and technological innovation (US-ASEAN Business Council, 2022).

Especially, speaking to the media on the sidelines of the international defense expo, the U.S. ambassador in Vietnam Marc Knapper underlined that the expo “represents a new stage in Vietnam's efforts to globalize, diversify and modernize, and the United States want to be part of it,” U.S. ambassador in Vietnam Marc Knapper told media on the sidelines of the event.

In June 2023, the USS Ronald Reagan, along with the guided missile cruisers USS Antietam and USS Robert Smalls, arrived in Da Nang, Vietnam. During their five-day stay in Da Nang, the US Navy Convoy Command Group visited the leaders of the Da Nang city’s People’s Committee and the Third Naval Region Command. In addition, the officers and crew on the US ships joined cultural and professional exchanges, community service projects, sports competitions, and humanitarian activities. This was the third time that a US Navy aircraft carrier visited a port in Vietnam since 2018 (Vietnam News Agency, 2023). The aircraft carrier’s port call demonstrated Hanoi and Washington’s wish to foster their security and defense cooperation.

In a nutshell, during the Biden administration, US-Vietnam political and security cooperation has continued to develop. Hanoi wanted to enhance its security relations with Washington to support Vietnam’s socio-economic growth and promote its image in the region and the world. Given China’s growing assertiveness in the region, particularly in the South China Sea, a strengthened partnership with the USA would be in Vietnam’s interests as Hanoi would be able to leverage Washington’s material resources and support to address long-term maritime territorial disputes with China. The U.S.-Vietnam security relations under Biden’s presidency have been in alignment with the comprehensive partnership in recent years, particularly under the Obama and Trump administrations.

People-to-people Ties

People-to-people ties have been strengthened with over two million Vietnamese-Americans and over 30,000 Vietnamese students studying in US education institutions, the fifth-largest group of foreign students in the United States (US Department of Treasury,2023).

The number of Vietnamese students at US universities remains high and stable despite of the impact of COVID-19. The Ho Chi Minh Consulate General is in the top 20 for nonimmigrant visas and ranked the fourth largest immigrant-visa workload of US consular posts worldwide.

On June 30, Kate Bartlett, the Cultural Attaché of the US Embassy in Vietnam and Dong Huy Cuong, Director of the Institute for International and Public Diplomacy Studies met and discussed many people-to-people exchange activities to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the Comprehensive Partnership between the two countries (2013-2023). In 2023, there will be a friendship concert, a Cultural Exchange Day and a conference jointly organized by the US and Vietnam. Especially, there have been various cultural exchange events open to the public in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, which will bring together both the local community and the expat community to foster mutual understanding, good friendship, and partnership between the two nations (Vietnam Times, 2023). On 28 June 2023, the first Vietnam-US Cultural Festival took place at the Vietnam Centre for Exhibition of Cultural and Arts. The event attracted many people and “successfully strengthened cultural bonds” between the Vietnamese and US people as pointed out by the chairwoman of the Hanoi Association for Communication and Public Relations, Ha Pham (Vietnam News, 2023). Along with that, US and Vietnamese governments have supported facilitation of professional engagements between officials and representatives of government organizations, political parties, and research organizations.

Indeed, these people-to-people ties have enhanced the US-Vietnam relationship on a personal, grassroots level which in the long term will help to boost US exports of education and tourism services. US support for English language training, higher education, and human capital development will assist Vietnam reach its full potential as a knowledge-based economy. Hanoi and Washington’s efforts will lay a foundation of mutual understanding which is crucial to the advancement of the US-Vietnam partnership to a new height in the decades to come.

Conclusion

Shelving the past and putting differences aside, Vietnam and the US have endeavored to develop their bilateral relationship significantly. Under the Biden administration, trade and investment, political and security, and people-to-people ties between the two countries continue to see rapid growth. The growth of the US-Vietnam bilateral cooperation is closely linked with the current regional state, in which the importance of mutual stability and prosperity has broadly embedded in the nation’s political discourse. Notably, the relationship between Vietnam and the US has been assumedly even more significant in the ever-changing landscape in the Indo-Pacific region with challenges and uncertainty posed by the great power competition between the US and China, the Russian war in Ukraine, and such non-traditional security as cyber security, transnational crime, climate change, diseases, and human trafficking. 

To deal with those challenges, Hanoi and Washington see that it is in their interest to cooperate, therefore they have stronger determination to promote their partnership through joint initiatives at both bilateral and multilateral levels. Like Obama and Trump, President Biden is committed to reinforcing the relationship with Vietnam as this would contribute to the expansion of US presence in the Indo-Pacific region.

As for Hanoi, a regional environment of peace, stability, cooperation, and development is of strategic significance. Henceforth, both Hanoi and Washington have found that there has been room for deeper and wider collaboration and cooperation, given the mutual interests and shared objectives. Put differently, the growing strategic convergence of interests has been factored in the growth of Vietnam and the US, in which Hanoi and Washington have their rationale to maintain a good relationship with each other.

Nga Hong Nguyen is a lecturer at the Faculty of Law and Tourism Tue Tech University, Vietnam. She is an expert in administrative law and international law. She received a BA and an MA in Law from Hanoi Law University. She has supervised many undergraduate students to successfully complete their law theses. She can be reached at: hongngapt@yahoo.com

References

Hang Pham, 2023– Deputy Spokewoman: Vietnam Ready to Cooperate with US, https://en.qdnd.vn/foreign-affairs/bilateral-relations/deputy-spokeswoman-vietnam-ready-to-cooperate-with-u-s-550569

Hanh Nguyen, 2023– US-Vietnam Trade Ties: Challenge Ahead, Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs, https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/JIPA/Display/Article/3344116/usvietnam-trade-ties-challenge-ahead/

Kamala Harris, 2021– White House Highlights Enhancement of US-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership, https://baocantho.com.vn/news/white-house-highlights-enhancement-of-us-vietnam-comprehensive-partnership-a137178.html.

Masyitha Baziad, 2022– Informal Senior Officials’ Meeting Honolulu: APEC Rolls out Priorities for 2023,https://www.apec.org/press/news-releases/2022/apec-rolls-out-priorities-for-2023

Ted Osius, 2023– Biggest ever US Business Delegation Comes to Vietnam to Seek Investment Opportunities, https://tuoitrenews.vn/news/business/20230322/biggestever-us-business-delegation-comes-to-vietnam-to-seek-investment-opportunities/72207.html

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US Trade Representative, 2022– Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF), https://ustr.gov/trade-agreements/agreements-under-negotiation/indo-pacific-economic-framework-prosperity-ipef

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