Joe Biden is set to take over the White House as the new US president on January 20. As the South China Sea issue has become a hotspot of both China-US ties and international affairs, the international community is wondering what kind of policy Biden will take to deal with the issue.
Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the US-based RAND Corporation, on Monday published an article in The Diplomat magazine. Grossman argued that as the Biden administration formulates its South China Sea strategy, “one regional partner that looms large is Vietnam.” He mentioned the Biden administration might want to consider, “reengaging with Vietnam on upgrading the US-Vietnam ‘comprehensive partnership’ to a ‘strategic partnership’.”
The strategy of the incumbent US government toward Vietnam is subtle. On the one hand, Washington seems to rope in Hanoi by showing its goodwill and great significance attached to Vietnam. For example, Washington sent top diplomats to visit Hanoi in both October and November. In November, a senior US diplomat vowed support to Vietnam over maritime rows with China. On the other hand, Washington in December labeled Hanoi as a currency manipulator.
This demonstrates the current US administration’s self-serving “America first” foreign policy. Washington attempts to woo Hanoi to contain Beijing by ending its neutral stance in the South China Sea maritime disputes. Meanwhile, as the US trade deficit with Vietnam is set to hit record highs, Trump’s team accused Hanoi of improperly intervening in foreign exchange markets. Even toward its allies, the current US administration has at times imposed sanctions. Thus, it is not surprising to see Washington make such mixed moves toward Hanoi.
Asia is likely to be among the Biden administration’s top diplomatic priorities. Vietnam is an emerging Asian power, and member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. It also has disputes with China in the South China Sea. As such, it has been exploited as an instrument of the US to counter China. Therefore, Vietnam will be a priority for the Biden administration’s Asian policies.
To Biden, Vietnam can be used to check China in the South China Sea. It is anticipated that the Biden administration will adopt a more consistent Vietnam policy, and it will become more tolerant toward Hanoi in terms of trade.
It is projected that Biden will deepen US’ bilateral ties with Vietnam. Although Washington has repeatedly meddled with the South China Sea for years, as an outside force, the effect of its interference is limited. Against this backdrop, wooing in related claimants and driving a wedge between them and China is a good option for the US.
Negotiations on a South China Sea Code of Conduct (COC) are entering a critical time. The promulgation of the new COC is absolutely what Washington is unwilling to see. Washington now may use relevant South China Sea claimants to delay or sabotage the negotiations. The Philippines and Vietnam are two major claimants. The former, although being a US ally, is now maintaining a friendly relationship with China under the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte, while the latter is going to hold the 13th National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam in late January. In this context, the Biden administration will pay more attention to seduce Vietnam.
From the perspective of Hanoi, Washington may be of help to those who take a tough stance on the South China Sea issue. Some might think they can take advantage of the US military presence in the South China Sea to contain China’s claims and growing power in the region. But China-Vietnam relations are not solely about the South China Sea issue. More people tend to view China-Vietnam relations from a bigger picture. They are even wary of the US attempts to instigate peaceful revolutions in Vietnam and worry that excessive US’ intervention in the South China Sea issue may enrage China and eventually impair Vietnam’s own interests. Therefore, they maintain a cautious attitude toward the US’ involvement in the South China Sea issue.
But in general, Vietnam is in tacit support of the US Indo-Pacific Strategy. Under a Biden presidency, the US will increase its efforts to cater to Vietnam. In this case, if Hanoi undergoes major changes in its leadership, it’s likely the two countries will move closer to each other.
A US senior official said in August that the US wants to see Vietnam join an expanded Quad; which is an informal security grouping of the US, Japan, Australia and India. It is clearly a bloc directed at containing China and is a sensitive subject for some countries. Biden may hope to expand the group. But Vietnam, which is close to China in geopolitics, trade and ideology, will be wary of joining the mechanism. Vietnam could expand its political and security cooperation with the Biden administration in a flexible manner—but it will not want to be bound entirely to this mechanism.
(The author is research fellow and deputy director at the Institute of International Relations of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.)