From former enemies, the United States and Vietnam became partners when they formed a comprehensive partnership in 2013. Under the Trump administration, U.S.-Vietnam relations have made remarkable progress. As Joe Biden is set to become the 46th president of the United States, U.S. foreign policy is expected to shift significantly. What will it mean for American-Vietnamese ties?
What will change?
Vietnam’s human rights record is the most sensitive issue in its relations with the United States. Although Washington recognizes that Hanoi has made some progress, concerns remain in freedom of expression, freedom of religion, ethnic minority rights, and labor rights. Members of the U.S. Congress, especially those whose constituencies include substantial Vietnamese American populations, have put pressure on the U.S. government to criticize Vietnam’s human rights practice.
The Trump administration, however, has downplayed the promotion of human rights in its relations with Hanoi. President Trump has not raised the issue to Vietnamese leaders even though he had the opportunities to do so during his speech at the2017 APEC Summit in Da Nang, when he met President Tran Dai Quang afterwards, and during his second visit to Hanoi in 2019. The subject of human rights is also absent in the statement from the Press Secretary commemorating 25 years of diplomatic relations between the United States and Vietnam, which talks about people-to-people ties, trade and investment, legacy of war issues, military ties, and peaceful resolution of disputes.
Unlike Trump, Biden pledges to prioritize U.S. commitments in “fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism, and advancing human rights in their own nations and abroad”. In fact, Biden was U.S. vice president when the United States paid attention to Vietnam’s human rights practice. President Barack Obama discussed human rights issues with Vietnamese leaders during his remarks to welcome President Truong Tan Sang to the White House in 2013, his meeting with General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong at the Oval Office in 2015, and his speech to the people of Vietnam during his visit to Hanoi in 2016.
More important, Biden vows to renew U.S. democracy at home and promote it abroad. He asserts “democracy is not just the foundation of American society” but also “the wellspring of our power.”For Biden, democracy is his and his country’s value. These are the reasons to believe that the Biden administration will address Vietnam’s human rights record in its relations with Hanoi.
One of the main irritations in bilateral trade relations is U.S. trade deficit with Vietnam. The figure has grown steadily since 1997 and surpassed $20 billion since 2014. From $39.5 billion in 2018, it grew up to $55.8 billion in 2019, and despite the disruptions in trade caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the figure reached$42.36 billion as of August 2020.
Trump has repeatedly complained about Vietnam’s large trade surplus with the United States. In February 2020, his administration removed Vietnam from the list of self-declaring developing countries that receive preferential trade benefits under the World Trade Organization. Although the Treasury’s report in January 2020 found that Vietnam exceeded the threshold for only one of the three criteria for currency devaluation—the bilateral trade deficit, the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) launched another investigation into Vietnam’s alleged currency undervaluation under Section 301 in October 2020. In the latest move, the U.S. Department of Commerce announced on November 4th, 2020 that it would impose tariffs on passenger vehicles and light truck tires from Vietnam.
It is likely that the Biden administration will take a softer approach in dealing with Vietnam’s trade surplus. It will have several options, including keeping the tariff against Vietnam, filing a case at the World Trade Organization, seeking compensation through negotiation, or just simply dropping the case. It is important to note that the increase in the U.S. trade deficit with Vietnam is partly due to the U.S.-China trade war. Moreover, Biden does not believe in trade barriers and protectionism, so it is unlikely that his administration will further impose tariffs on Vietnam.
What will continue?
In the context of U.S.-China strategic competition, Vietnam has become increasingly important in U.S. foreign policy. The Trump administration identified Vietnam as an emerging economic and security partner in the 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy, the 2018 U.S. National Defense Strategy, and the 2019 Indo-Pacific Report.
China’s provocative and unilateral actions in the South China Sea have driven Vietnam closer to the United States at a remarkable pace. From former enemies, the two countries became comprehensive partners in 2013. The Trump administration has strengthened its relations with Hanoi in various aspects and promised to enhance their comprehensive partnership in a joint statement issued in 2017. Vietnam is now the 10th trading partner of the United States.
Biden makes it clear that “the United States does need to get tough with China… The most effective way to meet that challenge is to build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors”. He promises to deepen partnerships to advance shared values in a region and uphold diplomacy as U.S. primary tool of foreign policy. For him, the answer to the China threat is “more friendships, more cooperation, more alliances”. Therefore, Biden will continue to strengthen U.S. partnership with Vietnam.
During the Vanguard Bank incident in early July 2019, in which the Chinese survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 and its armed escorts entered Vietnam’s claimed Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), the Trump administration issued a series of strong statements criticizing China for its coercion and interference with Vietnam’s long-standing oil and gas activities .
In July 2020, U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo issued a statement on U.S. position on maritime claims in the South China Sea. The statement makes it clear that “Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them”. It also aligns the U.S. position on China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea with the 2016 Tribunal’s decision. The statement further confirms “America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources, consistent with their rights and obligations under international law”.
As China’s assertive pursuit of its claims in the South China Sea threatens the freedom of the seas that is essential to U.S. national interests, Biden will continue a tough stance on China and support other claimants in the South China Sea, including Vietnam.
Under the Trump administration, U.S.-Vietnam defense ties have grown dramatically. The United States has helped Vietnam improve its law enforcement capability and maritime security. The U.S. Coast Guard transferred a Hamilton-class cutter to the Vietnam Coast Guard in May 2017 and promised to deliver a second one sometime in 2020. Washington also provided 18 “Metal Shark” patrol boats to Hanoi between 2017 and 2019. Then-U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis visited Vietnam twice in 2018. The U.S. Navy has sent two aircraft carriers to Vietnam’s port—the USS Carl Vinson in March 2018 and the USS Theodore Roosevelt in March 2020. Vietnam joined the Rim of the Pacific exercise in 2018 and was invited to participate again in 2020 (but did not participate because of the COVID-19 pandemic). As concerns about China remain, it is expected that the United States under Biden will continue to strengthen defense ties with Vietnam.
The two countries are heading toward the direction for a strategic partnership. However, the pace to get there depends on how Hanoi will improve its human rights record and how the Biden administration will handle the U.S. trade deficit with Vietnam.