By Anita Powell
President Joe Biden on Sunday affirmed that the United States and Vietnam would elevate their relationship to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” — a move the White House described as “unprecedented and momentous,” and that brings the U.S. level with its main adversary, China, which has the same upper-tier diplomatic status with Vietnam.
“Vietnam and the United States are critical partners at what I would argue is a very critical time,” Biden said during his first meeting after arriving to a triumphant welcome in Vietnam’s verdant capital, Hanoi, where thousands of residents watched his motorcade pass by. “I’m not saying that to be polite. I’m saying it because I mean it from the bottom of my heart.”
“Vietnam will continue to strengthen its ties to the U.S. and other international partners in the spirit of Ho Chi Minh after Vietnam achieved its independence,” said Nguyen Phu Trong, the general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, who is considered the nation’s most powerful and respected political official.
“Vietnam is a friend, a reliable partner and a responsible member of the international community,” he added.
Neither spoke overtly about Beijing’s increased ambitions or its apparent moves, through a new map, to claim territory that Vietnam claims.
“The Vietnamese want a stronger relationship with the United States,” John Kirby, director of strategic communications for the National Security Council, told VOA on the sidelines of the trip. “The Vietnamese share many concerns that the United States has, both economically and from a security perspective in the region. We share a lot of interests; we also have a shared perspective of some of the challenges including the course of behavior of the PRC. It’s really quite a stunning turn of events over recent decades to see our two countries working together this closely.”
This is a big step from a nation that only established relations with the U.S. in 1995, and which has carefully calibrated its relationship with its powerful northern neighbor, China.
In recent years, that bond has strengthened.
Trong and Biden have met before. Trong was the first Vietnamese Communist Party leader to ever visit the U.S., in 2015, and he was hosted for dinner by then-vice president Biden.
The elevation from comprehensive partnership to comprehensive strategic partnership is significant. Vietnam counts only four other nations on that level: China, Russia, India and South Korea.
The difference “sounds like word soup to those of us in the U.S., but for Vietnam, a communist state with a pretty rigid kind of Leninist hierarchy of diplomatic relations, this stuff actually matters,” said Gregory Poling, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“Vietnam has a very clear hierarchy of diplomatic relations,” said Poling, who also serves as director of the Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the CSIS.
“There’s also rumors they may do that for Japan and Australia as well, all of which suggests that the Vietnamese are willing to take a bit of retaliation from China now to make that happen,” he added. “And that will send a message, I think, up and down the Vietnamese government that senior levels are committed to a closer relationship with the Americans, so everybody get on board.”
Bich Tran is a postdoctoral Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. Tran said the relationship was “due for an upgrade.”
“An official upgrade will empower Vietnamese officials in engaging with their American counterparts,” she said. “This year is considered the best time to do so because it marks 10 years of comprehensive partnership and 50 years of diplomatic relations. An upgrade will entail deeper security cooperation between the two countries and Vietnam’s commitment to further improve its human rights record.”