Vietnam-U.S: From comprehensive to Strategic partnership: Implications for Southeast Asia

US -Vietnam ties have gone through tectonic change – from mid-1970s to the early 2021. The two countries have acknowledged the need for cooperation in areas such as regional security, maritime issues, trade and commerce, defence, and technology cooperation. The visit of Vice President Ms Kamala Harris is coming at a time when UN has discussed issues related to maritime security and maintaining international order at sea. Vice President Kamala Harris visit to Singapore followed with the visit to Hanoi to promote US interest in the two countries which are seen as pivot to US strategic interests in the Southeast Asian region.

During her visit to Singapore, it is expected that she will bolster its engagement with the island nation and develop its capacities in terms of base facility and promoting the economic ties and health cooperation with Singapore. Singapore itself is facing lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic and it is expected that these two economies would be suffering slow down because of impending recession. US during the US-ASEAN   summit has promised medical assistance and developing medical capacities in select Southeast Asian countries. While Obama and Trump have visited Vietnam although for different objectives, but it has been seen through the US Quadrennial Defence Reviews that Vietnam is seen as a critical destination and a likely partner for promoting US strategic interests.

US has been keen on developing military ties with Vietnam and would be interested in undertaking bilateral exercises with the littoral nation in the South China Sea. Also, it is seen that with the degraded trade relations between China and US, the country would be interested in exploring possibilities for setting up factories and industries in South Vietnam.  US will be exploring possibilities to export COVID-19 vaccines to Vietnam including those which can be administered to children above 12 years of age.

For the purposes of research, US will be collecting variant samples from Asian countries about Delta variant to develop more potent vaccines in future. Vice president Harris is likely to announce you support with regards to Agent Orange, seeking Vietnam support for finding remains of Missing in Action (MIA) American pilots and soldiers who fought during Vietnam war as well as possibly exploring export of US defence equipment to Vietnam.

US is also seeking possibility of drone operations to conduct surveillance sorties in South China Sea and given the wide spread of Vietnamese control islands, US will be looking for certain rights to operate drones from Vietnamese islands. United States is also looking for logistics sharing agreement, more identical with what it has signed with India, and looking for defence trade and technology cooperation agreement.

With regards to white shipping information and training, cooperation between US coast guards and Vietnamese sea police for maritime border patrols might be also in the agenda. Vice President Kamala Harris is interested in developing encrypted military communications set up with Vietnam to know more about Chinese adventures and manoeuvres not only in South China Sea but in and around the Gulf of Thailand. US might like to engage Vietnam to know more about Chinese activities in Ream Base in Cambodia. It has been also found that with Taiwan increasingly getting stressed out because of semiconductor industry, the United States is looking for other destinations to set up chip fabrication unit and Ho Chi Minh city might be the preferred destination.

In the past, it has been seen that with the withdrawal of US from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement there has been certain problems in running this Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP)which is among the rest eleven members of the grouping. The US is also going to make a proposal regarding stringent rules of origin and agreements on intellectual property rights to counter China’s dumping of goods in US market through redirecting its exports through other countries.

The Democrats in the United States has already raised the issue of religious freedom, right to political dissent and the prosecution of few of the dissident leaders in Vietnam. Even though this might not be acceptable to Vietnam, but Vice President Harris is going to make a point that Vietnam should not be worried about US position on these issues and that the country is very keen to engage Vietnam in a more constructive way.

Already there has been talks with regards to Vietnam getting included in the Quad plus arrangement along with Korea and New Zealand as well as the US is making a strong proposition regarding its proposed Blue Dot network and would urge Vietnam to join the build back a better world (B3W) which is an initiative undertaken by the G7 countries.

The United States is very serious regarding freedom of navigation and operations (FONOPS) in South China Sea and would urge Vietnam to undertake group sails along with Japan and US to thwart any Chinese adventure in this region. The joint statement between Vietnam and the US Vice President would be seen as an important precursor for greater engagement between the two countries. Vice President Kamala Harris has been insistent on upgrading the relationship from comprehensive partners to strategic partnership and would seek Vietnam’s indulgence in upgrading the embassy strength and increasing staff strength in each other countries to promote official ties and visits, and regular interaction between the two defence ministers.

It has been also seen that Vietnam is looking for greater support and market access to its packaged marine exports including catfish and textile exports to the US. The US vice president is going to make a concerted appeal for Vietnam to undertake negotiations regarding US-Vietnam trade deal which should be like the Vietnam and EU trade deal which came into being from August of this year. Given the fact that the United States is keen on developing ties with Vietnam and undertake confidence building measures which would include regular port calls by the US ships to Vietnam and deployment of each other’s armed forces personal in higher defence courses in each other countries.

Vice President Kamala Harris is going to make pronouncements with regards to reinforcing ASEAN centrality and making a strong pitch for support to Vietnam with regards to maritime security and maintaining rules-based order in South China Sea. This comes in the wake of diplomatic show-off of between the two countries in the UNSC meeting on maritime security. US is going to buttress the fact that Vietnam is one of the important stakeholders in Southeast Asia and therefore it needs cooperation and support with regards to fighting the pandemic and undertaking serious technological upgradation in the field of cyber security, digital trade and integrating Vietnam into the larger supply chain initiatives.

One of the purposes of Vice President’s visit to be a term is to promote education and knowledge ties between the two countries. This will help US Universities to set up branches across Vietnam and help in developing business links. Under the US under Biden administration an Interim Strategy Guidance which was released in March 2021, it was stated that Vietnam and Singapore are critical partners in regional security and capacity building, particularly in the context of maritime security and law enforcement in the marine zones.

Given the fact that both Japan and US are interested in developing high tech electronics industry in Vietnam therefore a likely trilateral arrangement between the three countries is on the cards. During the ASEAN meetings held in 2020, Vietnam has proposed to set up medical emergency units and coordination centres along with creating a network of research institutions and the US is keen to know Vietnamese proposals in this regard. Even though this visit will be a short one but is going to resonate in terms of supporting Vietnam through establishment of US sponsored Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, and Hanoi might be one of the beneficiaries of starting the public health initiative with the support from the US government. Kamala Harris is going to make a strong pitch to developing trade and investment linkages between USA and Vietnam and is also going to propose that US and Vietnam should enter into defence trade and technology agreement.

Prof. Pankaj Jha
Prof. Pankaj Jha
Pankaj Jha is faculty with Jindal School of International Affairs, O P Jindal Global University, Sonepat. He can be reached at pankajstrategic[at]