Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State visited Vietnam in late October 29-30, 2020 to discuss issues related to comprehensive partnership, and look for areas to further develop the relationship. The visit was short but very much focussed. In a number of documents which have been released by the US State Department, Vietnam holds an important place. The signing of the US Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership in 2013 was a manifestation of how the US wants to direct this relationship into more defence, strategic and economic domains. Subsequently, the visit of Vietnamese Prime Minister Phuc in May 2017, and also interactions during President Obama visit to Vietnam in 2016 followed with President Trump visit to Vietnam in November 2017 (for meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un) buttresses the fact that the two sides want to work on improving the relationship.
Vietnam has increasingly been seen as a middle power, and a possible alternative to the Chinese production in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Vietnam’s better recovery in the post COVID-19 phase clearly outlines the fact that the economy is going to do better in 2021 and would seek foreign direct investment to bring its economy back on track. President Trump has high hopes on the possibility of better cooperation with Vietnam, particularly in the areas such as political and diplomatic relations, science and technology, and issues related to environment and climate change.
Vietnam is also the non-permanent member of the Security Council for the year 2020-2021, and therefore it is increasingly seen that better coordination between United States and Vietnam would help in reining in the aggressive power in Asia. One of the major spin- offs of this burgeoning relationship is in the field of defence and security, and this has been highlighted by the visit of the two the US aircraft carriers in the past including USS Carl Vinson in 2018, and USS Roosevelt in 2020.
The US has also invited Vietnamese military personal for training in few of its higher military academies and command courses. Along with that the US is also looking for exporting arms and equipment to Vietnam as Vietnam’s defence expenditure has been steadily increasing in Southeast Asia, and it is looking for naval and air force modernisation. Vietnam also acknowledges the fact that in order to grow and reach the economic growth target of double digits it would require US markets for its products. The Vietnam-EU trade agreement has already opened European market to Vietnam, and in the wake of its better recovery, it can exploit those markets in a better way because of tariff concessions and easy trade facilitation measures. The signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) has also opened possibilities between the 15 signatory countries. Vietnam is also member of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership(CPTPP)and also is a participant in the APEC process. Enlisting of Vietnam as one of the Quad plus countries in the Quad architecture shows the relevance that the country has in the strategic matrix.
The US has also intensified its interactions with ASEAN in the year 20202 and one of the reasons has been the Vietnam chairmanship of ASEAN in 2020. During the 33rd US- ASEAN Dialogue which was held on August 4th at Washington DC, it was expressed that the US-ASEAN strategic partnership was important for a free and open Indo-Pacific region. The US has been very forthcoming with regard to the issues related to South China Sea, and formalising the draft code of conduct so that the standard operating protocols could be adopted and peace can be sustained in the South China Sea for a longer run.
During the meeting the United States has buttressed the need for clear and transparent rules based on the UNCLOS, and commitment to the 2016 arbitration tribunal ruling. Under the chairmanship of Vietnam, the ASEAN has been able to address the Corona virus pandemic and the US has expressed faith in ASEAN resilience against unsustainable debt. The US also had declared more than US $ 87 million for providing emergency health, medicines and assistance to combat the coronavirus in the ASEAN region. One of the fundamental areas where Vietnam has bolstered the need for the US participation has been in the field of education and training of public health practitioners. This has been an achievement on the part of the Vietnam to get quality training from the US and develop synergies in the field of medicine and scientific research.
In the year 2020, the US and ASEAN celebrated the 5th anniversary of their strategic partnership. During deliberations throughout the year between the US and ASEAN it was expressed that USIndo-Pacific strategy and ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific (AOIP)converge in terms of respect for sovereignty and rule of law as well as stress on rules-based frameworks, and developing transparency in the region so as to promote peace and security in those contested waters. During the ASEAN meetings the US has made commitment with regard to promoting public health emergency coordination system in Southeast Asia as well as endorsing data transparency and legal measures to support the Southeast Asian countries under the ASEAN ambit. The US State Department also created the health futures alumni network which promoted exchange programs from ASEAN member states and the US as well as coordination between the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
The US has also proposed to put up a private-public medical education alliance and has expressed interest in investing in Vietnam to build its health sector capacities. Furthermore, within ASEAN the human capital is critical for promoting skills and developing resources so as to facilitate conditions for self-reliance. As the US proposed to provide financial assistance for developing and training midlevel executives under a separate program at Fulbright University in Vietnam at Ho Chi Minh city. The stress on technology and innovation as well as entrepreneurship shows that the US is interested in making Vietnam as one of the pioneering countries where innovation and research can be conducted.
One of the achievements in the year 2020 has been the US-ASEAN smart cities partnership which would promote better understanding on transportation, connectivity and water management in select cities in Southeast Asia. The IT alliance program between USAID and 11 Vietnamese universities would help modernise Vietnamese technology and engineering institutes. This would promote Vietnam as an emerging technological hub in Southeast Asia.
As it has been seen in the year 2020,US supported ASEAN single window system so as to facilitate growing trade between ASEAN and United States and increasingly stressed on digital clearance system in customs. The US has also been working to strengthen women entrepreneurship and economic empowerment across Asia. Within Vietnam, a sizable percentage of small and medium enterprises has been managed by the women which shows the potential of Vietnamese society in galloping as the fastest growing economy in the region. One area which has been primarily focused is in terms of addressing the energy demand and also fulfilling electricity requirements in Southeast Asia. The US and Vietnam has been stressing on study of trafficking and forced Labour in the region. Under Vietnam chairmanship ASEAN has also proposed to study and improve maritime domain awareness with the US.
Invariably, it seems that the year 2020 has been a milestone year for developing better relationships between the US and Vietnam and also involving US in ASEAN activities. The number of projects as well as assistance programmes that the US has announced in the year 2020 clearly outlines the fact that the global power would look into this region with more focus, particularly in the emerging geopolitical challenges and the tensions in South China Sea. Vietnam, on its part, has been able to galvanise the support of the ASEAN countries in raising the issue of South China Sea, and the Extended Continental Shelf which has garnered support of the European countries and the US in the UN. The ASEAN leadership has brought about a new phase in developing partnership between the US and Vietnam. It is now increasingly speculated that the increasingly political interactions between the two sides might culminate in a US-Vietnam strategic partnership in future. However, much depends on how the Joe Biden’s government will steer this relationship to the next level or would there be a case of lost momentum in ties.