U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken visits Vietnam this week hoping for progress towards upgrading relations with a key trade partner that shares U.S. worries about China’s growing might.
For Hanoi, it will be a delicate test: how to show openness to the United States without angering China, a giant neighbor that supplies key inputs for Vietnam’s vital export trade, or Russia, another traditional partner.
It is a balancing act Vietnam has excelled at but one that is turning more complex in a world appearing to divide into opposing blocs, with the U.S. and its allies on one side and China and Russia on the other.
Blinken arrives in Hanoi on Friday and will meet Vietnamese leaders on Saturday before heading to Tokyo for a meeting of the Group of Seven rich nations.
It will be the first Hanoi visit by the secretary of state of the Biden administration, which took office in 2021, although Vice President Kamala Harris visited in August of that year.
Washington will be hoping for progress towards boosting relations to a “strategic” partnership from one that for the past decade has been called “comprehensive.”
Officials have not said what this closer relationship might entail. But Southeast Asia expert Murray Hiebert, who visited Vietnam in February and spoke with senior government officials, said it could include increased military cooperation and U.S. weapons supplies.
He noted, however, there were limits given Vietnam’s policy of not allowing foreign bases, foreign troops or alliances against other countries. Hanoi has also been put off by the relatively high price of U.S. arms and concerns that supplies could be blocked by U.S. lawmakers on human rights grounds.
Blinken will also formally break ground on a new U.S. embassy compound in Hanoi, in what the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, Daniel Kritenbrink, called “a stunning new symbol” of the U.S. commitment to an “enduring partnership and friendship.”
With the Vietnam War era an increasingly distant memory, Washington now considers Hanoi, in Kritenbrink’s words, “one of America’s most important partners in the region”.
Experts say the U.S. broached formally elevating ties during the Trump administration, but Hanoi was resistant and has wavered amid escalating tensions between Washington and Beijing, which could react badly to the move.
Vietnam, while alarmed by China’s growing military and opposed to its rival claims in the South China Sea, has its vital economic ties with Beijing to consider.
Even so, Hanoi now appears amenable to upgraded ties with the U.S., Hiebert and other analysts say, although no announcement is expected during Blinken’s trip and will likely be saved for a higher-level exchange.
Last month saw a call between U.S. President Joe Biden and the head of Vietnam’s ruling Communist party Nguyen Phu Trong, which together with Blinken’s visit could lead to a meeting between the two in July, the 10th anniversary of the existing formal bilateral partnership, analysts say.
“The chance of the United States and Vietnam upgrading their comprehensive partnership to a strategic level is higher with Blinken’s visit because it will pave the way for a higher level meeting,” said Bich Tran, an adjunct fellow at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Kritenbrink said Washington was working to persuade Vietnam to diversify defense purchases away from Russia, something that “obviously would be in Vietnam’s interests and also would conform to U.S. law.”
Human rights is another sensitive area, and hours ahead of Blinken’s arrival a State Department spokesperson condemned Vietnam’s jailing of a prominent political activist and said the bilateral partnership could only reach its full potential if the country improved its human rights record.
On Thursday, Human Rights Watch called on Blinken to “publicly and privately urge Vietnam’s leadership to end its systemic abuse of freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.”
Kritenbrink said he was “confident” Blinken would raise rights concerns in Hanoi.