By Jessica Bakas
We are at a point in which China is actively seeking to command the Pacific. This game of battleship between China and the U.S. is not a new game for the U.S., it is just a new round with a new complicated rival. We have learned from previous rounds with other rivals that partnerships and allyships win the game. So, while U.S. diplomatic relations with traditional partners like Western Europe still remain essential, the U.S needs to meet the demands of this round by prioritizing previously neglected, now up-and-coming regions of the world. The U.S. needs to focus on emerging countries with growing markets and growing importance to national security in order to be successful in the developing new world order of the times. In fact, President Biden recognizes the need for developing new U.S. partnerships in the March 2021 Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, highlighting the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries as of particular importance, and furthermore citing Vietnam specifically. While some may still think of the Vietnam War as the legacy of the U.S.-Vietnam relationship; it is time to transform this outdated legacy into an active, durable partnership.
First off, Southeast Asia is becoming ever increasingly important for U.S. national security and strategic diplomacy. Southeast Asia is positioned right underneath China, which makes it an area of interest to both China and the U.S. in their strategic competition–having the ASEAN states one side over the other is a win for the former and damaging to the latter. Their growing importance is in large part due to their emerging economies, which boast a combined GDP of 3.2 trillion USD–which had doubled in the past decade. They also have growing successful enterprises and a vibrant, highly educated populace to go with it– totalling 650 million people with half the population being under 30 years of age.
It’s important to first look at the strategic importance of Southeast Asia as a whole before looking into specific countries because the region has become increasingly united on security and economic issues–with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) being a recent large development in ASEAN integration. The RCEP is the largest free trade area which includes the major economies of Southeast Asia (including Vietnam) along with Australia, South Korea, Japan, New Zealand, and China. The ratification of this mega free trade agreement just emphasizes the need for the U.S. to create a strong relationship with Southeast Asia and its major players.
One major player, Vietnam, is especially important to the U.S. in a multitude of ways. Vietnam has transformed itself into a hybrid ASEAN state due to its economic acceleration–positioning itself in between the “Tier 1” and “Tier 2” of the association which gives it a unique leadership role. As stated above, the ASEAN states are a major strategic asset to the U.S.’s strategic competition in Asia, so having a major member with a durable, active partnership with the U.S. gives the U.S. a greater relationship with the association altogether.
Vietnam’s economy was on the rise before the COVID-19 Pandemic–largely due to many companies with low-skilled manufacturing shoring labor from Vietnam, out of China. Their economy has exhibited resilience in the Pandemic. In fact, Vietnam was amongst one of the only three Asian countries that experienced economic growth in 2020–in fact it was the top performer of Asia, outperforming China and Taiwan, charting 2.9% GDP growth in 2020. According to the World Bank, Vietnam is projected to accelerate to 5.5% growth in 2022 and its fiscal debt stands way below the statutory limit.
While the U.S. needs to strengthen its bond with the whole ASEAN bloc, Vietnam should be a priority country of interest because of its pace of growth and evermore global importance–it is predicted to be the next “Asian Miracle.” Having a steady, active open partnership with Vietnam would also allow the U.S. to hold a more favorable position amongst the ASEAN states which differ with the U.S. ideologically like Vietnam does–the relation can be used as an example. A strong U.S.-Vietnam partnership could be used to reach out to other ASEAN states where the U.S. shares a common interest, especially on the issue of maritime security and cyber security against the common aggressor: China. This could be the nudge the ASEAN states need to essentially pick a side of the U.S. in the U.S.-Sino strategic competition.
Strategically located right under China, Vietnam is of automatic military and security importance in the U.S.-China strategic competition and in countering Chinese aggression towards U.S. allies in the Pacific. Vietnam is officially neutral in the U.S.-China issue as it aligns with China ideologically but aligns with the U.S. on security issues. The country, however, has shown signs of being wary of Chinese aggression recently, so stronger relations with Vietnam is very much plausible as this would be mutually beneficial–the U.S. just needs to take the proper steps.
A very strong area of cooperation upon which to forge a durable partnership between the U.S. and Vietnam is on the South China Sea dispute. According to the Brookings Institute, Vietnam has emerged as “the most capable and determined Southeast Asian state to challenge China’s claims in the South China Sea.” The U.S. should show clear support for Vietnam’s efforts in countering Chinese claimants of islands in the South China Sea and act on their collective vision to see a “free and open Indo Pacific region.” While the U.S. has been giving Vietnam foreign military assistance in the form of financing and cooperative military exercise, the U.S. should make sure to increase military cooperation and joint military exercise and practice operations–particularly relevant to maritime security–in the post-Pandemic world.
Another potential area of major partnership would be in establishing a major free trade agreement between the U.S. and Asian states that would rival the RCEP. The U.S. and Vietnam have shown the desire and capability to cooperate on free trade, demonstrated through the highly successful U.S.-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement that went into effect in 2001. So, the U.S. and Vietnam, along with other major Pacific players like Japan and India spearheading a major Asian/Pacific free trade agreement would be of economic and security importance, and strategically competitive importance. This would show similar tones of what the Trans-Pacific Partnership would’ve done for the U.S.
Overall, the U.S.-Vietnam partnership is still a baby–2020 was the 25th anniversary of normalized diplomatic relations between the two countries. It requires and deserves to be nurtured. This will not just benefit the U.S. economy, security efforts, and its strategic competition with China; it will benefit Vietnam and allow them to pursue their very relevant security concerns in the Pacific. A strong U.S.-Vietnam partnership could act as an example to the other ASEAN states that the U.S. is willing and able to cooperate and form strong bonds with the other countries all who differ ideologically with the U.S.
Having the ASEAN bloc in favor of the U.S. and out of the influence of China would be a major win for the U.S. and its allies in containing the Chinese attempt at regional–and world– dominance. Since China is already trying to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Vietnam with the signing of the RCEP and propaganda, the U.S. needs to be vigilant in actively responding. If done right, it is very much possible for Vietnam to be a very important U.S. Pacific partner in the transforming world order just like Japan and Korea.