By Ngô Tự Lập*
US Vice President Kamala Harris’ high-profile visit to Vietnam aimed to bolster economic and security ties between the two former enemies. Right on the heels of a visit by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Mrs. Harris came to my country at a very significant moment, right when the fall of Kabul was reminding the world about the fall of Saigon in 1975, and when Chinese state-run media was striving to portray the United States as unreliable, hinting at the same “fate” for Taiwan.
During the first day in Hanoi, Mrs. Harris met with top Vietnamese leaders, attended the signing ceremony of a land lease agreement to build a new US embassy, and the inauguration of the US regional CDC in Hanoi, where she announced a gift of one million doses of Pfizer, bringing the total vaccine donation from the United States to Vietnam to six million doses. The gift is meaningful, as Vietnam has been facing the fourth and worst wave of COVID-19. It is worth mentioning that a couple of hours before Vice President Harris’s arrival, Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh had an impromptu meeting with a Chinese ambassador, Xiong Bo, who revealed that China would donate to Vietnam two million doses of COVID-19 vaccine. Of course, increasing numbers of Vietnamese are wary of Beijing’s Sinopharm doses. My university students only want to feel safer from the spread of coronavirus. That may explain why we are poised to lean into Washington rather than to rely upon America to rescue us from this battle with the virus.
But the more important topic between Vice President Harris and Vietnam’s leaders is certainly how to deepen the US-Vietnam bilateral relations. The comprehensive cooperation between the two countries has been developing at an astonishing pace during the past few decades. It is one of the hottest topics for the Vietnamese and international observers, and it’s now the time for Vietnam and the United States to upgrade their relationship to a “strategic partnership.”
While no one can have the last voice, it seems to be evident to most everyone, that the US-Vietnam relationship has been becoming increasingly strategic, regardless of whether the label is used or not. “The relationship between the two countries has been ripe, and it remains only a matter of time,” says Mr. Pham Quang Vinh, former vice-minister of foreign affairs and Vietnam’s ambassador to the U.S., in an interview published in the Vietnamese Laodong newspaper.
The US-Vietnam partnership is seen by many as a key factor in enhancing maritime security against Beijing’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea (East Sea for the Vietnamese). This important maritime area, which carries about 40% of the world’s shipping traffic and is rich in fishing and natural resources, has become a key arena of US-China rivalry because of its strategic geopolitical value. The dispute in the East Sea involves China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei, and also Taiwan. Drawing upon what is called the “nine-dash line,” China claims all the area within as its territory, an assertion that was rejected by the PCA tribunal in 2016.
To consolidate its claims, China has applied multiples actions, from publishing propaganda in the media, printing China’s map with the nine-dash line on its passports, to organizing military drills, preventing other countries from doing business in their exclusive economic zones, and to applying “gray zone” tactics to step up its presence in the area, to name only a few.
China insists that disputes must be solved bilaterally, refusing to allow them to be internationalized, which is nothing more than a “divide and rule” strategy, given the power gap between China and smaller littoral countries in the region. However, China’s increasing aggressiveness has pushed world powers to become increasingly involved in these disputes.
In July 2020, the US Secretary of State under Trump’s administration Mike Pompeo declared: “Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful.” The US’s protest was followed by similar actions from India and Australia.
In September 2020, France, Germany and the United Kingdom submitted to the UN a joint note verbal to refute China’s claims. The document highlighted that “claims with regard to the exercise of ‘historic rights’ over the South China Sea waters do not comply with international law and UNCLOS provisions.” This joint action is unprecedented, because it’s the first time the three major European powers expressed their opposition to China’s claims so directly and so strongly. In January 2021, Tokyo also sent to the UN a diplomatic note, rejecting China’s expansive territorial claims and denouncing China’s efforts to limit the freedom of overflight and navigation in these strategically important waters.
The increasing involvement of the world powers and the recent UN Security Council meeting on maritime security show the de-facto internationalization of the disputes of the East Sea, which can be seen as a victory for Vietnam and coastal countries. But maybe it is now the time for them, especially Vietnam in the first place, to work bilaterally with the United States and other powers to seek further solutions. It seems that that is what Mrs. Harris had in mind when she said the “the United States supports a strong, independent, and prosperous Vietnam and is committed to promoting stable and solid relations with Vietnam.”
Good luck, Madame Vice President and America. Vietnam learned some time ago that the only way to defy a strong aggressor is to be stronger.
*Ngô Tự Lập got his Degree of Engineer in navigation in (ex-USSR, 1986), Bachelor of Law (Vietnam, 1993), MA in French literature (France, 1986), and Ph.D. in English Studies (USA, 2006). He is currently director of the International Francophone Institute (Hanoi).
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Geopoliticalmonitor.com