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As US Woos Vietnam, Hanoi Remains Tied to China, Experts Say

FILE - Secretary of State Antony Blinken, center left, meets with Vietnam's Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, center right, in Hanoi, Apr. 15, 2023. Blinken has expressed hope that US-Vietnam ties could be strengthened. (Andrew Harnik/Pool via Reuters)
FILE - Secretary of State Antony Blinken, center left, meets with Vietnam's Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, center right, in Hanoi, Apr. 15, 2023. Blinken has expressed hope that US-Vietnam ties could be strengthened. (Andrew Harnik/Pool via Reuters)

Efforts by Washington to enlist Vietnam as an ally in its strategic rivalry with China are unlikely to succeed because Hanoi dares not risk angering its larger neighbor, say experts inside and outside of Vietnam.

The outreach by the United States, which this year marks the 10th anniversary of the signing of a comprehensive partnership with Vietnam, has included a phone call by President Joe Biden to Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) Chief Nguyen Phu Trong in late March, followed by Antony Blinken's first visit to Hanoi as Secretary of State in mid-April.

Biden discussed with Trong the importance of strengthening and extending bilateral ties, according to the White House. Blinken hailed the ties with Vietnam as "one of the most important relationships we've had" and expressed hope it could be strengthened in the future.

'Beijing more confident'

But this year also marks the 15th anniversary of a comprehensive strategic partnership — which carried more diplomatic weight than a comprehensive partnership — between Vietnam and China, the experts pointed out to VOA Vietnamese.

Less than two weeks after Blinken landed in Hanoi, Truong Thi Mai, the secretariat permanent member who is often seen as the de facto deputy VCP chief, led a high-level party delegation to Beijing where she was received by President Xi Jinping.

Xi told Mai he "attached importance to party-to-party and state-to-state relationships between the two countries," while Mai reassured Xi that Hanoi prioritizes development of its relationship with Beijing, according to VietnamPlus, a government-affiliated news site.

"China is much more important to Vietnam than the United States," said Zachary Abuza, a professor at the Washington-based National War College who focuses on Southeast Asian politics and security issues. In an email to VOA Vietnamese, Abuza said the Asian neighbors "will always have fraternal Socialist ties" and Hanoi's worldview is "far more aligned with Beijing's than that of Washington."

Abuza contrasted Trong's three-day visit to Beijing last October, in which he met with a handful of members of China's Politiboro, with the Trong-Biden phone call that "took months and months to organize." Trong was the first foreign leader to meet Xi after the latter secured a third term as secretary-general of the Chinese Communist Party in March.

VOA contacted the Foreign Ministry in Hanoi and the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington for comments on their country's relations with the U.S. and China but received no response.

Trong and Xi have met several times, first in Beijing in 2011 when Xi was still vice president, and five times since. Trong has met Biden just once when he was invited by then-President Barack Obama to the White House in 2015. At the time, then-Vice President Biden hosted Trong for a luncheon at the U.S. Department of State.

During the March call, Biden extended an invitation to Trong for a second visit to the White House, which Trong reportedly accepted, according to Vietnamese press accounts.

"Beijing is more confident that Vietnam is an independent actor and steadfast in its refusal to undertake any action that Beijing would view as hostile to Chinese interests," Abuza said, suggesting that the U.S. "has to be aware of Hanoi's sensitivities" and "cannot make any improvement in relations explicitly be about China."

Bill Hayton, an associate fellow with the Asia-Pacific Program at London-based Chatham House, shared that observation. He noted that the Vietnamese leadership are Leninists who regard American-sponsored democracy as "the single biggest threat that they face."

"Compared to that, they think their problems with China are tiny," he told VOA Vietnamese.

As a result, Hayton thinks that Vietnam is not motivated to upgrade ties with the U.S. and that Beijing is aware of this.

"But Washington doesn't want to know this," he said. "It's in thrall to the idea that Vietnam can be part of an anti-China group. That idea is nonsense."

According to Hayton, the current Vietnamese leadership "don't care much" about the nation's long-running maritime friction with Beijing over South China Sea and they "only use the South China Sea issue to persuade the Americans to maintain close relations."

"It's more important for them to keep close to Beijing for political protection," he added, noting that Vietnam in 2020 paid about $1 billion to foreign oil companies to halt oil drilling projects in the South China Sea "in order to avoid upsetting China."

The case for upgrade

Vietnam has comprehensive strategic partnerships — the highest level of diplomatic ties in its classification — with only 4 countries: China, Russia, India and South Korea. The next level is strategic partnership, which Hanoi enjoys with some large European countries and South-East Asian neighbors. The comprehensive partnership Hanoi uses to characterize ties with the U.S. is one more level down, despite bilateral trade volume between Hanoi and Washington being by far much larger.

The United States is Vietnam's second-largest trading partner after China. Bilateral trade in 2022 amounted to $138 billion according to the U.S. State Department, with exports to the U.S. accounting for most of that total.

"Beijing cannot be ignorant of the close economic ties between Vietnam and the United States," said Abuza.

He singled out one area that could get Vietnam in a bit of trouble with Beijing: That is if Hanoi gets significant investments for semiconductor production as the U.S. seeks to isolate China.

But, he said, "China has so many different ways to pressure Vietnam," including naval activity in the South China Sea, conducting seismic research on Vietnam's continental shelf, shutting down the border to imports from Vietnam, increasing leverage in Laos and Cambodia, and damming the Mekong and the Red Rivers.

Pham Viet Dao, a writer in Hanoi who has published books on the 1979 Sino-Vietnam border war, said that any such Chinese pressure has the potential to backfire because it "just serves to fire up the anti-China sentiment among the Vietnamese public."

In his opinion, it's crucial for Vietnam to strengthen ties with the U.S. for "existential reasons," he said. "Vietnam cannot be left on its own faced with China's growing big power ambitions."

Hayton said he believes Vietnam is comfortable with the status quo, but he doesn't rule out "a surprise."

"The current Vietnamese leadership is superbly skilled in telling Americans what they want to hear while protecting themselves from American pressure," he said.