Uncertain times, uncertain ties: Washington courts Vietnam amid regional tensions

Uncertain times, uncertain ties: Washington courts Vietnam amid regional tensions

Last week, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc travelled to Washington for a four-day summit. The visit is expected to further cement the economic and strategic partnership, considered a prelude to Washington’s more dynamic engagement in the region.

Pivotal relations between Vietnam and the U.S. are expected to strengthen in the aftermath of Prime Minister Phuc to Washington. The Trump Administration has shown willingness to discuss a new approach to strengthen and expand bilateral and regional cooperation with Hanoi vis-à-vis the emerging role of Vietnam as a strategic and economic partner as stressed in the U.S.-Vietnam Joint Statement. The Trump Administration has emphasised Washington’s commitment to significantly foster economic, diplomatic and security ties with the ASEAN community, considered as a critical partner in the shaping of a regional architecture more aligned to Washington’s great strategy and paramount to regional stability and economic growth. The Trump Administration’s decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership has certainly alimented concerns about Washington’s real intentions to pursue an assertive strategy in the Asia Pacific region. Yet, the need of forging strong regional relationships within the ASEAN community remains a critical priority for Washington.  

The U.S. Commerce Department has confirmed the signing of a comprehensive $8 million package deal with Vietnam that could create more than 23.000 jobs, enhancing economic growth and the employment target promised by the Trump Administration. Boston-based General Electric (GE.N) has successfully set a  $5.58 deal and it will be playing a central role in the expansion of Vietnam’s industrial and energy sector, supplying power generators and aircraft engines. Moreover, bilateral ties will be enhanced through the joint development of new gas power plants and the creation of a significant 800-megawats in Soc Trang under the supervision of the local Phu Cuong Group. Through the decades, Vietnam has become a critical trade partner with its $45.1 billion revenue generated by bilateral trade in 2015, and it is the 13th largest source of American imports. Vietnam’s economy has greatly expanded in the last two decades, following a similar path of other Asian tigers such as South Korea and Taiwan, with nearly 7% growth rate.

Stepping up security cooperation

Aside from Washington’s desire for a closer economic and trade integration with Hanoi, defence cooperation certainly remains one of the central aspects of the renewed partnership with the former enemy. As China has aggressively pursued a new strategy and doctrine challenging the U.S.-oriented regional status quo in the Asia-Pacific region, expanding the level of cooperation with a large number of ASEAN countries has become a critical priority for Washington since the unveiling of the Asia-Pivot strategy under the previous Administration. Curbing the expansion of China and its self-proclaimed defence of its national interest through the expansion of its military presence brings concerns to a large number of Asian nations unable to contrast China’s expansionism. Beijing’s restless efforts to increase the construction of military infrastructure and the defence system on a large number of the artificial islands close to Fiery Cross, Mischief Reef and Subi Reef are proceeding at a fast pace towards the militarisation of an area through the waters, with $5.3 trillion in trade passes.

Last year, the Obama Administration fully lifted a decades-old arms embargo on Vietnam, in an attempt to further normalize relations while ensuring Vietnam would have access to modern equipment that could represent a valuable asset in deterring any sudden shifts in the South China Sea. A large number of the Southeast Asia Nations such as Cambodia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, Singapore and Vietnam continue to oppose Beijing’s claims of sovereignty over the islands and the waters in the area. The level of cooperation already enhanced during the previous Administration preannounces a more assertive role of Washington in the region, as proven by the renewed presence of a US Navy destroyer close to a South China Sea artificial island constantly patrolled by the People’s Liberation Army Navy.

Due to the emerging threat represented by North Korea’s most recent nuclear crisis, the Trump Administration has deescalated pressure on the South China Sea dispute, despite the initial concerns expressed during the presidential campaign. Yet, the Trump Administration’s decision to reiterate its pledge to protect the freedom of navigation in the region, ensuring free trade, safe and secure sea lines of communication (SLOCs), clearly reflects Washington’s desire to challenge Beijing’s claims over a critical area, a significant trade knot where a consistent portion of the world’s merchant shipping transits every year. On May 24th the U.S. conducted the first patrol operation close to Mischief Reef under the Trump Administration, reiterating Washington’s assertiveness to protect critical sea-lanes from Beijing’s attempts to extend its sovereignty further.

According to many observers, Vietnam is considered a critical player in supporting Washington to contain Beijing’s ambitions in the South China Sea, especially after the Philippines have shifted towards China’s orbit. The Trump Administration is expecting to face a constant challenge in reinsuring the ASEAN community about Washington’s stable commitment in the region vis-à-vis the natural opposition of Beijing, which still perceives any shifts in the regional architecture fuelled by the Obama Administration’s rebalance to the Asia narrative as an attempt to undermine its role and core strategic interest in the region. Strategically speaking, American-Vietnamese cooperation can be seen as a major tool to expand Washington’s influence in the region, boosting Hanoi’s role within the ASEAN community and also fostering a more robust strategic entente.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Economics

About Author

Daniele Ermito

Daniele Ermito is a London-based analyst. He is also a GRI analyst and regular contributor for the Foreign Policy Association, where he writes mostly on the Koreas ‘blog. He holds a BA (Hons) in International Relations from the University of Bologna and a MSc in Asian Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies. His areas of research include Northeast Asia security, Japanese politics and Chinese foreign policy. You can follow him on Twitter @DanielRmito.