If you were to tell an American in 1973 that there would come a time when a future U.S. president was warmly greeted in Hanoi, he or she might have called you crazy. And yet, that’s precisely what happened last weekend, when President Joe Biden flew into the Vietnamese capital, met with the senior leadership of the Communist Party of Vietnam and departed with a strategic partnership agreement in his back pocket.
If anything, Biden’s trip has demonstrated that nothing is permanent in international relations: Bitter enemies can over time become partners due to circumstance and the geopolitics of the moment. “Vietnam is a friend, a reliable partner and a responsible member of the international community,” Biden remarked during his meetings. Nguyen Phu Trong, Vietnam’s most senior Communist Party official, was just as effusive, marveling at the fact that U.S.-Vietnam relations have grown by “leaps and bounds.”
Washington and Hanoi didn’t reach this status quickly. It took decades of trust-building and hard work to realize it. The U.S. lifted a trade embargo on Vietnam in 1994 and normalized diplomatic relations in 1995, 20 years after the last U.S. helicopters frantically departed the U.S. Embassy grounds in Saigon. In 2016, the Obama administration lifted the decades-long arms embargo on the Southeast Asian nation. U.S.-Vietnamese trade is booming, with the total reaching over $138 billion last year.
Biden’s quick trip to Vietnam was therefore a logical next step. U.S. and Vietnamese officials hammered out a wide-ranging deal encompassing a number of areas, from agriculture and defense exports to supply chains and education. The U.S. is seeking to expand Vietnam’s role in the semiconductor supply chain, and U.S. technology companies like Amkor Technology and Synopsys are investing in the Vietnamese market.
For the Biden administration, expanding ties with Vietnam is yet another component in its wider Indo-Pacific strategy. Notwithstanding Biden’s proclamation that he doesn’t want to contain China, his strategy of building strategic relationships with countries around Beijing’s periphery will certainly be seen by Chinese leader Xi Jinping as a concerted attempt to do precisely that.
On this, China only has itself to blame. Indeed, it’s hard to envision these agreements happening over such a short time frame if it wasn’t for Beijing’s abrasive foreign and security policies. China’s ongoing military modernization program, its nuclear weapons buildup and its repeated attempts to normalize Chinese incursions in disputed waterways have all led its smaller neighbors to look to Washington for assistance. Middle powers are doing what middle powers have done throughout history: balancing against bigger states in their immediate neighborhood.
Vietnam is a perfect case study. Although it’s true that relations between China and Vietnam are oftentimes complicated (the two fought a short border war in 1979), it’s also true that Beijing’s aggressive conduct in the South China Sea has long grated on Vietnamese defense officials. Chinese coast guard and surveillance vessels challenging Vietnamese fishing boats on the high seas is almost a regular occurrence. According to one estimate, 98 Vietnamese fishing boats have been destroyed by Chinese vessels between 2014 and 2022.
For Vietnam, last weekend’s highly publicized visit with Biden wasn’t specifically about containing China — it was about expanding its relationship with the world’s largest economy, keeping its options open and sending a message to Beijing that its actions have consequences. This makes perfect sense from Vietnam’s perspective; China, after all, is its largest trading partner. As much as Washington may brag about its newfound strategic partnership status, Vietnam has had a similar agreement with Beijing for a decade. Hanoi simply can’t wish China away; geography welds the two together whether they like it or not.
Vietnam also has a “Four No’s” policy that serves as the backbone of its wider strategy: no military alliances, no foreign military bases on its territory, no use of force to settle international disputes and no partnership with one country over another. In short: Vietnam wants positive relationships with everybody, the U.S., China and Russia all included.
One hopes the Biden administration recognizes the complexity of all of this. Elevating the U.S.-Vietnam relationship to a strategic partnership is indeed a noteworthy accomplishment. But if Washington and Hanoi have different interpretations of what this status means, then both countries could be flirting with trouble down the road.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune.