Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong toasts before a luncheon with US Vice President Joe Biden at the US State Department on July 7, 2015 in Washington, DC. Photo: AFP

On the face of it, America’s relations with Vietnam have been unusually colorless since Joe Biden entered the White House almost a year ago. 

The US president hasn’t yet personally spoken to Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Vietnam’s state president, nor to its prime minister, Pham Minh Chinh. There are currently no plans for a Vietnamese leader to visit Washington. 

Of the five trips to Southeast Asia by senior US officials last year, Vietnam received two visits, which might have been perceived as a snub: If Hanoi is keeping score, Singapore and Indonesia were each visited three times. US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin traveled to Hanoi in late July and Vice President Kamala Harris visited the following month. 

The optics are perhaps skewed in sight of how past US administrations indulged Vietnamese leaders with grand state visits and plenteous praise. 

Two years after bilateral relations were upgraded to a “comprehensive partnership”, in 2015 Nguyen Phu Trong became the first General-Secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party to visit Washington. That was an oddity for the White House, which rarely grants formal visits to the leader of a political party rather than head of state or government. The following year, Barack Obama became the first US president to set foot in Hanoi.

Under Donald Trump, bilateral diplomacy was ratcheted up another notch. Phuc, Vietnam’s prime minister at the time, became one of the first world leaders to speak to Trump after his presidential victory during a call in December 2016. Phuc traveled to Washington for a White House visit five months later, representing the first Southeast Asian leader to do so. 

Trump, in turn, visited Vietnam the following year and handpicked Hanoi to host his peace talks with North Korea in February 2019, where the US president heaped praise on the “thriving” communist nation. 

By comparison, Biden’s engagement with Vietnam has gotten off to a rather slow start. Yet US-Vietnam relations are now on a more even keel, even dully formal, analysts say. 

The Biden administration was quick to sort out some of the problems it inherited as US-Vietnam relations “soured at the end of Trump’s term in office,” said Carl Thayer, an emeritus professor from the University of New South Wales in Australia. 

Then-US president Donald Trump holds a Vietnamese flag as Vietnam’s then-prime minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (L) waves a US flag upon their arrival for a meeting at the Government Office in Hanoi on February 27, 2019. Photo: Saul Loeb / AFP

Four months after eulogizing Vietnam during his Hanoi sojourn in early 2019, Trump about-faced and told Fox News that “Vietnam takes advantage of us even worse than China… It’s almost the single worst abuser of everybody.” His administration then accused Vietnam of currency manipulation and opened an investigation into its high trade surplus with the US, which could have resulted in sanctions on Vietnam. 

The Biden administration quickly took these issues off the undiplomatic table. Last April, it removed Vietnam from a list of alleged currency manipulators. Three months later the US Treasury reached an agreement with the State Bank of Vietnam, its central bank, on the matter. Vietnam’s trade surplus with the US, one of the largest in the world, has been sidelined as a problem. 

In November, US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said that the new administration is unlikely to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), the successor free-trade pact to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that Trump pulled the US out of on his first day in office in 2017.

Vietnam, which is now a party to the CPTPP, would have been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the original US-designed trade agreement. Raimondo, however, has said the US is looking at an alternative trade pact for Asian countries, which has reportedly piqued Hanoi’s interest. 

“While there have been no top-level bilateral visits, this is something understandable given the Biden administration’s busy agenda in its first year,” said Le Hong Hiep, a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.  

Hanoi was busy in early 2021 with its own domestic affairs. The ruling Communist Party held its quinquennial National Congress in January, where the leadership underwent one of its customary reshuffles. The only senior figure to remain in place was Trong, who stayed as party chief for a near-unprecedented third term.

Although party grandees had made the decision ahead of time, the country’s new prime minister, Chinh, and new State President, Phuc, weren’t formally appointed until the National Assembly reconvened in early April. Pham Binh Minh, the foreign minister since 2011 and who had close contacts in Washington, was also formally replaced last April.   

Regional and global events have also put relations on a backburner. The Myanmar crisis, following the military coup last February in Naypyidaw, has occupied the US agenda in Southeast Asia. Because Hanoi takes almost no interest in the issue, Washington has spent more time with more engaged states, such as Indonesia and Singapore.  

Nor has the Covid-19 pandemic helped. Some officials in Hanoi are still reeling from the sense that their chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc in 2020 was overtaken by the pandemic, as there were high hopes Vietnam could have used its position that year to build its brand as a key player in international affairs. 

Yet there may also be a more fundamental change in tone from Washington. Past US administrations believed there was some truth in the aphorism that just showing up to Southeast Asia was 80% of the task. Diplomacy, it seemed, was best done when US presidents could physically shake hands with Southeast Asian leaders, a sentiment Trump embodied.  

Nowadays, the region’s governments aren’t all that impressed by a Washington bigwig jetting in for a day or two. Rather, they now expect serious exchanges on policy and commitments from US officials.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, for instance, received some flak after his visit to Jakarta last month for being “frustratingly vague” on the Biden administration’s strategy for the Indo-Pacific, as one commentator put it. 

Huong Le Thu, a non-resident fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Southeast Asia Program, points out that there were some deliverables to US-Vietnam relations last year.

US Vice President Kamala Harris meets with civil society change-makers who work on LGBT, transgender, disability rights and climate change, at the US Chief of Mission’s residence in Hanoi, Vietnam, August 26, 2021. Photo: AFP / Evelyn Hockstein / Pool

On her visit, Vice President Harris opened the new US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Southeast Asia Regional Office, which Hanoi was selected to host. Vietnam has also been one of the main recipients of Covid-19 vaccine donations from America, Le Thu added. 

Although not as headline-worthy as state visits, routine diplomacy is progressing. The newly-minted US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, Daniel Kritenbrink, is a former ambassador to Hanoi, which ought to keep Vietnam near the top of the US agenda in the region.

In December the US Senate finally approved a new ambassador, Marc Knapper, who is expected to soon present his credentials in Hanoi. 

Vietnam can count itself fortunate; Washington still hasn’t confirmed ambassadors to several other key partners in Southeast Asia, including the Philippines and Thailand, two treaty allies, as well as to the ASEAN bloc. Knapper’s arrival in Hanoi should give new impetus to bilateral relations, said Thayer, a leading Vietnam analyst. 

“So all in all, there have been quite significant positive outcomes despite the pandemic complications,” noted Le Thu.

At the same time, many of the same difficulties that have long-vexed bilateral relations persist. Biden, who vowed to make “democracy-building” central in his foreign policy agenda, appears unsure what this means in practice.

The Trump administration effectively took human rights and democracy off the table, making relations with one-party, communist Vietnam far more straightforward. (Although the former US president added complexity with his fixation on trade imbalances.)   

Hanoi almost certainly didn’t expect to attend Biden’s Summit for Democracy last month, although the Democratic Republic of Congo, which was invited, is just one point ahead of Vietnam on Freedom House’s Global Freedom index. But that format has left many US partners, including Vietnam, unsure of how Biden will balance alliances and values.

How Southeast Asian states are aligned with or against China will factor into that balance. On some occasions, Biden has sounded more hawkish than Trump on China.

In July, Secretary of State Blinken reaffirmed US policy to recognize maritime exclusive economic zones (EEZs) claimed by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. The US donated a decommissioned Coast Guard cutter to the Vietnamese coast guard days before Defense Secretary Austin’s visit to Hanoi that month. 

A Vietnamese soldier keeps watch in front of US aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson after its arrival at a port in Danang, Vietnam March 5, 2018. Photo: Agencies

Yet during their trips to Southeast Asia capitals Biden’s senior staff have asserted they have no intention of demanding they choose between the US and China, encouraging words for the region’s governments but only if America actually means it. 

Like others in the region, Hanoi wants to hedge between the US and China, the latter a key trading partner but one with which it is engaged in heated maritime disputes over territory in the South China Sea.

In late 2019, officials in Washington were optimistic that relations with Vietnam could be raised to a “strategic partnership”, a semantic upgrade, and the press reported the Trump White House was preparing to receive a visit from Trong, who at that time was filling in as Vietnam’s head of state. 

But that visit never came to fruition, perhaps because of a suspected stroke Trong suffered months earlier. Harris and Austin again raised the subject during their visits to Hanoi last year. 

“Vietnam’s leaders sidestepped this issue as premature because they do not have sufficient confidence and trust in the domestically shaky Biden Administration,” said Thayer. 

For years, analysts have regarded Hanoi as unsure of American security promises in the event that Vietnam’s tensions with China tilt towards conflict. Past US inactivity, such as during the Scarborough Shoal standoff in 2012, compounded the anxiety.

Hanoi also likely warily watched last year at Biden’s disorderly retreat from Afghanistan, and now as he seemingly dithers over Russia’s threat to invade Ukraine. The US president said this week that Moscow will pay a “dear price” if it invades, but the White House has already intimated it won’t use military force to deter Russia. 

“Vietnam’s hesitation in upgrading its ties with the US to the strategic partnership level is something notable, given the two countries’ growing ties in recent years, especially in the security and defense domains,” said Hiep, of ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. 

On the one hand, he said, Vietnam seems keen to maintain a “balance” between the US and China, not wanting to provoke its northern neighbor. “Vietnam may have reckoned that quietly adding substance to bilateral ties will work better than openly or unnecessarily provoking China,” he added.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (C) and Vietnam’s Communist Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong (R) wave during a welcoming ceremony at the presidential palace in Hanoi on November 12, 2017. Photo: AFP / Hoang Dinh Nam

Another possibility, Hiep said, is that Vietnam reckons upgrading its relationship with the US is desirable but the timing isn’t quite right. Hanoi may prefer next year when the two countries commemorate the 10th anniversary of their comprehensive partnership, he speculated. 

However, the waiting game might also be because Hanoi doesn’t yet fully trust the Biden administration’s authority at home.

His big test comes in November when America holds its mid-term elections. With his Democratic Party holding a slim majority in the House of Representatives and near equal split in the Senate, even a small Republican victory could leave Biden’s administration hapless for the following two years and render Biden a lame-duck. 

“If the Democratic Party loses control of Congress, Hanoi will view the United States as an unreliable partner,” Thayer speculated.