In mid-May, the United States hosted eight of the ten Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states (leaders did not invite Myanmar while outgoing Filipino president, Rodrigo Duterte, sent a delegation in his stead) for a special summit in the United States at the White House for the first time. Although special given its historical occurrence, substantively, the event was disappointing. Susannah Patton from the remarked, “In the end, the summit went well. But context matters, and overall, the US continues to lose influence.” In other words, the summit produced some progress but left a lot on the table. Nevertheless, the clearest signal out of the summit was reaffirming the trend of positive bilateral relations between Vietnam and the United States and setting a base for future cooperation.
Despite fighting a brutal, bloodied war just fifty years ago, the United States and Vietnam have developed a robust bilateral relationship trending towards closer relations. Officially the United States and Vietnam ended their war in 1975, and it took twenty years until the two former adversaries normalized relations in 1995. In 2013, the two declared their partnership would be upgraded to a comprehensive partnership—illustrating how far their relationship has developed while establishing a framework for guiding their relations.
Most noticeable, the two countries’ economic relationship has grown considerably. This development began after they signed a bilateral trade agreement in 2001 and continued when the United States assisted Vietnam in its successful bid to join the World Trade Organization in 2007. As a result of these bilateral deals, trade between the two countries increased from $451 million in 1994 to $90 billion in 2020.
Although it took a longer to get started, the two countries have deepened their security association at an expedited rate. In 2016, President Barack Obama announced the ending of the embargo on the sale of military weapons to Vietnam. This historic decision proved to mark a shift in Vietnamese and United States security relations. Since Obama implemented that decision, the Vietnamese have invited the United States Navy to anchor multiple aircraft carriers at Vietnamese ports while participating in the United States-run Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval exercises in Hawaii in 2018 and 2020 (the U.S holds that event biennial). They have also hosted the U.S. Secretary of Defense every year since 2018, and between 2017 and 2020, the U.S. State Department provided Vietnam with $60 million in security assistance.
This improvement in bilateral relations is partly a result of both sides actively working on the relationship through engagement on uncomfortable issues such as Agent Orange clean-up and locating missing American POWs or increasing economic and security engagement, as former American Ambassador to Vietnam, Ted Osius details in his book, Nothing Is Impossible. It is also partly a result of Chinese imperialism in the region—especially enforcing its claims that overlap with Vietnam’s in the South China Sea.
Both sides are interested in strengthening relations due to a shared vision of a rules-based international order and anxieties about China’s revisionist intentions. The United States sees Vietnam as the anchor of its Indo-Pacific policy in Southeast Asia, while Vietnam views the United States as a powerful hedge against Chinese expansionism. More than that, United States investment is critical to Vietnam achieving a developed and high-income status, transitioning to a green economy, sustainable development in the 21st century, and further integrating itself into global supply chains.
With this context, both leaders entered the summit, where they took the opportunity to signal the value they place in each other as partners while laying a foundation to further cooperation in the future. It is worth noting that of all attending nations, President Biden only personally greeted Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh.They also held a one-on-one meeting on May 12, where they reportedly focused on “disease prevention and control, digital transformation, diversification of supply chains, climate change response, and human resources training…” and Prime Minister Chinh extended an invitation to President Biden to visit Vietnam. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen all took the opportunity to have one-on-one meetings with Prime Minister Chinh to discuss deepening economic and security ties, strengthening the Mekong-U.S. Partnership, people-to-people exchanges, and climate change operations. He even met with Senator Patrick Leahy, proposing establishing a bipartisan caucus that promotes U.S.-Vietnam ties.
Similarly, Chinh spent six days in the United States (May 11 to May 17) despite the summit being two days long and marking the longest trip he has spent in a foreign country since becoming prime minister. He took the opportunity to engage with crucial non-governmental United States power brokers such as the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He also met with key United States investors and business leaders from Intel, Apple, Google, Blackstone, Bank of America, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. All of which were meant to build relationships and knowledge while building a basis for future cooperation, especially in areas that will further economic development in Vietnam.
The Special Summit did not result in groundbreaking announcements and policy shifts, such as a joint statement repudiating Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or ringing endorsements for the United States Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity document—due to its lack of tariff reduction and increase in market access (despite twelve countries signing on shortly after the summit). Nevertheless, this summit is vital because, at the very least, it facilitated dialogue, strengthened relationships, and dispatched critical signals of unity and partnership.
Vietnam and the United States displayed this significance by illustrating how far the relationship has developed and the importance each nation places in the other. What is reminiscent of Deng Xiaoping’s symbolic 1979 United States visit, Prime Minister Chinh took his tour across the United States, meeting with critical U.S. influencers to signal unity and lay a foundation for cooperation in trade, development, and cultural exchange. Although there is still room to grow the relationship (namely, elevating the connection from a comprehensive partnership to a strategic partnership), the trend looks more optimistic than ever because, as Prime Minister Chinh remarked and proved during the summit, the relationship is “special.”