What Is Washington’s Plan for Series of Vietnam Visits?

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris plans to visit Singapore and Vietnam in August, which comes immediately after a visit to the two countries by U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. In addition, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will participate in five video meetings with ASEAN ministerial officials from Aug. 2-6. The Biden administration has a busy itinerary in Southeast Asia, but its interest in Vietnam is especially attention-worthy.

There are two major strategic goals behind these visits. The first is to rope Vietnam into becoming an additional Quadrilateral Security Dialogue+* member by any effort necessary. During the early days of the global pandemic last year, Vietnam did join an online Quad+ subministerial level video conference, but that was purely to exchange experience and dialogue on pandemic response measures and economic recovery. Now, the Biden administration wants to wedge in ulterior proposals, forcing a discussion of regional security, in the hope of pulling Vietnam into its network of quasi-allies for its own use. The second is to take advantage of current maritime territorial disputes between China and Vietnam to drive a wedge between these two friendly socialist countries.

Since the beginning of this year, after the 13th National Congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party, the relationship between China and Vietnam has clearly warmed up. During the last half year, the two countries’ higher-ups have exchanged multiple phone calls and congratulatory messages. General Wei Fenghe, the Chinese Minister of Defense, made a successful visit to Vietnam in April, and in the first half of the year, China and Vietnam completed a joint cruise in the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. During the pandemic, economic and trade cooperation between the countries has similarly continued to increase, against trends. The close cooperation and friendliness between these two socialist neighbors has made the Biden administration ill at ease, so it has hastily sent a succession of high officials to Vietnam to stir up trouble. Blinken is also set to lobby and incite ASEAN countries, including Vietnam, via video, making it a true three-pronged attack.

What’s worth noting is that Washington has kept Harris’ visit to Vietnam very high profile. White House Senior Adviser and Chief Spokesperson Symone Sanders emphasized the deep significance of this visit, which will be the first visit by a U.S. vice president to Vietnam since the unification of North and South Vietnam in July 1975. Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon visited the then-capital of South Vietnam, Saigon, as vice president in 1962 and 1956, respectively. Undoubtedly, the Biden administration has placed high hopes on the two officials’ visits to Vietnam. During Austin’s visit, the U.S. government even gave 3 million doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine as a gift. This is a clear hint of the administration’s intentions.

However, Vietnam has consistently followed a diplomatic policy of remaining impartial to global superpowers. What’s more, in this case, the United States can’t use its often-repeated motto: “our shared values.” Also, Vietnam has remained highly vigilant regarding U.S. officials’ series of spontaneous goodwill visits, because the U.S. has a bad history of spurring “color revolutions”** to topple foreign regimes. As a socialist country with a very different political ideology from the West, Vietnam is being all the more cautious. In fact, the U.S. and Vietnam have consistently had disagreements around sensitive topics like human rights and democracy.

A few days ago, I joined a video conference of scholars from China and Southeast Asia. A Vietnamese scholar clearly indicated that, from the beginning, Vietnam has remained rational and alert against the United States’ vigorous attempts to rope it in. Vietnam will not pick sides lightly because it has always had a “three no’s” diplomatic policy: no alliances with foreign countries, no participation in any military organizations, and no stationing of foreign military within Vietnam. This scholar also reiterated that this is Vietnam’s national bottom line, and it won’t budge under any circumstances. This view is highly representative of Vietnam more broadly. It seems that the Biden administration officials’ consecutive historic visits to Vietnam will not have their desired effect. Unfortunately, their scheme is as futile as drawing water with a bamboo basket.

The author is the chair of the Vietnam Research Center of the Zhejiang University of Technology, as well as senior researcher and professor of the South China Sea Research Center of Nanjing University.

*Editor’s Note: The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue group is an informal strategic forum consisting of the U.S., Japan, India and Australia.

**Editor’s Note: “Color revolutions” refers to a technique for promoting regime change in targeted (usually communist) nations.

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