Lê Thu Hương, August 4, 2021 CSIS
As the first trip by a Biden administration cabinet official, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s visit to Southeast Asia last week held considerable symbolic significance. His speech in Singapore marked a clear distinction between the administration’s approach to the region and that of the Trump team. Austin delivered a message consistent with the U.S. intention to compete with China while tailoring the tone to reflect the concerns of Southeast Asians. In his remarks, Austin clarified that the United States will not force countries to “choose” between Washington and Beijing—addressing a strongly held, and unpopular, perception in the region based on the Trump administration’s sharp rhetoric.
The Singapore leg of the trip had a regional focus meant to set a narrative for this administration, while the Vietnam and Philippines legs addressed more tangible bilateral security agendas. In Manila, Austin reassured the U.S. ally and worked out the survival of the Visiting Forces Agreement, which President Rodrigo Duterte had threatened to abrogate.
The visit to Vietnam received less international coverage but was no less important. U.S.-Vietnam relations had a good run under Trump, unlike those with many other partners and allies in Southeast Asia. The two countries share similar security concerns about China. The main point of contention has been bilateral trade disputes due to growing trade deficit that the United States has with Vietnam (at $69.7 billion in 2020). But this was recently resolved, at least in part, when the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) released a determination of satisfactory resolution in its investigation of Vietnam’s alleged currency manipulation.
Under President Biden, other potential hurdles have emerged. The administration’s democracy agenda and emphasis on human rights contrasts with the more transactional approach of the Trump White House and could flag more obstacles to deepening the bilateral relationship. Vietnam recently experienced its own political shifts as the 13th National Party Congress re-elected Nguyen Phu Trong—considered a conservative ideologue who is focused on the anti-corruption campaign within the Communist Party of Vietnam—for an exceptional third term as party secretary-general.
Moreover, in the first six months of his term, Biden showed limited interest in Southeast Asia, focusing instead on transatlantic ties and the global climate change agenda. This caused many in the region to worry about relative neglect from the White House.
Austin’s visit was key to sustaining the upward momentum of the U.S.-Vietnam bilateral relationship generated under the Trump administration, particularly on defense cooperation. It was also very timely given recent signals of goodwill. His speech in Singapore reaffirmed the new administration’s attention to the South China Sea and its support for partner nations’ sovereignty and rights to natural resources. That particularly resonated with Vietnam. Days before the visit, the United States donated the decommissioned U.S. Coast Guard cutter John Midgett, which has now been rechristened Vietnamese coast guard vessel CSB 8021. This is an important contribution to Vietnam’s law enforcement and maritime domain awareness capacities—a shared point of interest for both Vietnam and the United States, given recent aggressive activities by China in the South China Sea. In a meeting between Secretary Austin and Vietnam’s newly appointed defense minister, General Pham Van Giang, the two discussed further cooperation in this area and a potential future transfer of vessels.
The defense cooperation agenda is now a key pillar for U.S.-Vietnam relations, but one that has been slow to evolve due to the aftereffects of the long and bloody war the two countries fought. The greatest significance of Austin’s trip was addressing these war legacies and moving further ahead with reconciliation. Since the normalization of diplomatic relations in 1995, Vietnam and the United States have cooperated in identifying and repatriating Americans missing in action (MIAs). Austin’s trip heralded a new phase of addressing war legacies with the signing of an agreement for the United States to help Vietnam find its own MIAs. Harvard University and Texas Tech University will provide technologies, including advanced DNA analysis capabilities, and the United States will grant Vietnam access to millions of war documents in its archives to identify and locate unaccounted for Vietnamese soldiers.
Importantly, the United States also discussed clearing remaining landmines and other unexploded ordinance and addressing the consequences of dioxin, or Agent Orange, around 80 million liters of which were sprayed in South Vietnam between 1962 and 1971. The United States had compensated its soldiers involved in the spraying operations, but not some 5 million Vietnamese people who had suffered serious health and livelihood complications. Between 2007 and 2021, Congress appropriated $390 million to clean up the land contaminated by Agent Orange and other herbicides, including the hotspot of Bien Hoa Air Base and Da Nang Airport. Much more remains to be done, and Hanoi also voiced a request during Austin’s visit for the United States to enhance humanitarian support for Vietnamese citizens affected by Agent Orange.
Addressing the remaining war legacies and committing to the long-term efforts at reconciliation are imperative for deepening bilateral security cooperation and building a durable foundation for partnership. U.S.-Vietnam rapprochement should not rely only on the convergence of strategic views on China and the evolving regional order. It must first and foremost be rooted in bilateral trust. Addressing the past is essential for the future. With this important step, augmented by Washington’s timely delivery of Covid-19 vaccines to Vietnam as it struggles to contain the Delta variant (the United States is currently the single largest donor of vaccines to Vietnam, having given 5 million doses of Moderna), the U.S. role as a partner and a friend is consolidating. Austin’s trip was a good debut in the region, and for Vietnam, it was an essential contribution toward elevating the bilateral relationship to a strategic partnership. That elevation seems imminent given the maturation of the relationship and should be a goal for the next presidential exchange between the two nations.
Interestingly, before Austin concluded his trip, the United States confirmed that Vice President Kamala Harris will make a trip to Singapore and Vietnam later this month. It will be her second international tour since taking office. She will be the first U.S. vice president to ever visit Vietnam, so the trip will carry added symbolic meaning. This further evidences Vietnam’s elevation among the United States’ priority partners and demonstrates that Hanoi, along with Singapore, is becoming one of Washington’s anchors for engagement with the region.
Huong Le Thu is a non-resident adjunct fellow with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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