China factor: US President Biden to visit Vietnam next month

The US’s move to counter China’s military designs in the Indo-Pacific region will receive a fillip after President Joe Biden lands in Vietnam on September 10 and gives bilateral engagement between Washington DC and Hanoi a new dimension—diplomatically, economically, and strategically.

This would be the sixth US presidential visit to Vietnam since 2000 when Bill Clinton became the first American President to make an official trip to Hanoi five years after the two countries established diplomatic ties in 1995, ending two decades of frosty relations following the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.

During his one-day visit to Hanoi, President Biden will meet Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and other top Vietnamese leaders and they will discuss deepening of ties between the two countries, the White House said. In all likelihood, the US and Vietnam will sign a strategic partnership agreement during the forthcoming state visit of President Biden to the Southeast Asian nation, said, Politico, a US-based news outlet.

Indications are clear that the US is keen to invest in its relations with Vietnam as China is becoming more assertive in its claim over the South China Sea and is gearing for forcible unification of Taiwan.

In fact, in the South China Sea, Vietnam, like its ASEAN partner such as the Philippines, faces challenges from China in securing its territorial rights even in its exclusive economic zone. In July, the Southeast Asian nation banned the Barbie movies due to a scene that depicts Beijing making a reference to the nine-dash line to stake claim over the entire part of the South China Sea. Satellite imagery released earlier in August showed China building an airfield in an island that Hanoi says belongs to Vietnam.

Vietnamese oil and gas operations in this marginal sea of the Western Pacific Ocean have often faced harassment at the hands of the Chinese military. On June 10, China’s patrol ship Zhong Goo Yu Zheng 310 and a luxury passenger vessel, San Sha 2 Hao, sailed through Vietnam EEZ near oil and gas fields.

Though there is no detail on   Chinese vessels’ activity in   the Vietnamese EEZ, but VOA said they spent about 30 hours in and around Vietnamese oil and gas operations in the South China Sea. It was not a lone incident of deliberate harassment by the Chinese military, rather it was the third since May 2023. On June 8 too, China sent its largest coast guard ship to the Vietnamese EEZ of the South China Sea.

For nearly a month from May 7 to June 4, the Chinese research vessel Xiang Yang Hong 10, flanked by as many as 12 ships, operated in Vietnam’s EEZ when Russian and Vietnamese oil and gas firms were undertaking their operations.

In 2020, Hanoi suffered a huge economic setback after it had to pay $1billion as compensation to Spain’s oil firm, Repsol and UAE’s oil company, Mubadala after they

suspended their oil drilling operations off Vietnamese water in the South China Sea under China’s pressure, said The Diplomat.

Interestingly, both Vietnam and China follow the same Communist ideology and also, similar systems of governance, yet these commonalities between the two countries have been often undercut by maritime territorial disputes, security concerns and geopolitical competition. In 1979, the two countries fought a bloody border war which left more than 50,000 dead.

This conflict left an indelible mark on the Vietnamese nationals’ psychology and in 2014, when China stationed an oil rig in an area of the South China Sea claimed by Hanoi, widespread anti-China riots broke out in the Southeast Asian nation. According to Reuters, at least 21 people, including 16 Chinese nationals working in factories in Vietnam were killed and 100 others were injured during the riot–deadliest since 1979.

Despite this, China has leveraged its economic, political, and military influence on Vietnam. As per data from the Vietnam Foreign Investment Agency, China invested more than $2.5 billion in 2022 in comparison to $2.92 billion in 2021. In the first half of 2023, Chinese enterprises invested a total of $1.95 billion in the Southeast Asian nation, showed data from the Vietnam Foreign Investment Agency. China ranks third among all foreign investors in the country. The two countries also enjoy comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership.

Through these moves, as per the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based non-profit think tank, China tried to fulfil two goals; first, undermine Vietnam’s security cooperation with the US and second, keep Hanoi in check from going away from its area of influence.

But Vietnam knows it well that it will have to rely on big powers like the US to counter the expansionist agenda of its immediate neighbour, China. This year in June, Hanoi welcomed the US aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan when it made a port of call in Danang, Vietnam.

Since 2018, this was the third time when a US aircraft carrier visited Vietnam. The USS Ronald Regan had arrived with two escort ships, the guided-missile cruisers–USS Antietam and USS Robert Smalls, said the US Embassy in Vietnam. The US Embassy further added that the last visit from a US aircraft carrier to Vietnam was the USS Theodore Roosevelt in 2020. These developments symbolized increasing improvement in US-Vietnam relations. On the economic front, the US is currently Vietnam’s largest trading partner. Analysts feel that the two-way economic engagement will receive a boost when President Biden visits Hanoi next month.