Vietnam, US in Cautious Dance during Harris Visit

Hanoi's pre-emptive strike against a non-existent threat

By: David Brown

Considering pre-visit speculation in some American media and subsequent reports in Vietnamese media, a reader might conclude that Kamala Harris came to Vietnam bearing a conditional proposal that bilateral ties be raised to a 'strategic partnership' – the better to deal with China's presumption of sovereignty over the South China Sea – and that the second and third most consequential leaders of the party-state replied "no indeed, Ms Harris, we think that our current 'comprehensive partnership' with the US is just dandy."

And, in case the US side failed to register Vietnam's meaning in full, President Nguyen Xuan Phuc elaborated: Vietnam considers the US, he told Harris, "to be an important partner of the first rank."

Before the US vice president left Washington on this, her first high-profile foreign policy mission, there had been a definite buzz to the effect that to qualify for strategic partnership, Hanoi would have to pledge to stop mistreating political dissidents. It was most audible when Ambassador-designate Marc Knapper was questioned by senators during his confirmation hearings in July.

However, it seems that Harris didn't touch human rights issues at all, except for a meeting with a handful of political dissidents. Nor, notwithstanding imaginative reporting by some US media, did Harris press Vietnam to join a united front against Chinese pretensions to ownership of the South China Sea. Background briefings before the vice president left for Singapore and Vietnam stressed that she wasn't visiting either country to talk about China, but rather to signal greater American engagement in Southeast Asia on a growing list of cooperative, bilateral activities. Her mission, reporters were told, was to signal that the unreliable, ego-driven Asia engagement of the Trump administration ended with Joe Biden's election.

Harris would reinforce a similar message delivered by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin during a brief stop in Hanoi last month. And, though upstaged by the debacle in Afghanistan, that seems to be exactly what she did.

Though the vice president's two-day Vietnam visit was hardly noticed by American media, the vernacular journals that most Vietnamese rely on for news typically featured half a dozen sidebar stories in addition to their dutiful replay of the government wire service's account of Harris' meetings with President Phuc and the Prime Minister, Pham Minh Chinh.

Vietnam Express, for example, began with a preview story and a biographical sketch of Harris on the eve of her arrival. It followed with click-thru videos of Air Force Two's arrival at Hanoi's airport and of the cavalcade of black Chevy vans shuttling her to meetings. Other stories reported the signing of a 99-year lease on land for a US$1.2 billion embassy building, the US Center for Disease Control's plan to establish an office in Hanoi, and US donation of another million doses of the Pfizer anti-Covid vaccine.

Vietnam Express's most-read story for 25 April, however, was a photo op of Harris laying a wreath at a memorial by Truc Bach Lake in central Hanoi. It commemorates John McCain, who in 1967, as a grievously wounded fighter pilot parachuted into the lake and was captured by militia. Notwithstanding a hellish six-year imprisonment, in later years McCain, now a US senator, campaigned tirelessly for American reconciliation with Vietnam.

Tellingly, perhaps, the party-state's official organs ignored the photo-op.

Photo from AFP

For the sake of argument, and because Global Times and other Chinese organs keep saying so, what's the evidence that Harris' trip was aimed at recruiting Vietnam and Singapore into alignment with the "Quad" – the loose affiliation of Australia, Japan, India and the US that's shaping up as a counterweight to Xi Jinping's "rising China"?

The evidence is slim. In Singapore, Harris warned of efforts by Beijing to "coerce and intimidate" and vowed that the US would "stand with allies and partners in the face of these threats.". Some Western media outlets have quoted her as assuring President Phuc that the US would "work closely with Vietnam to uphold the rules-based international order, including freedom of navigation, an issue that we take seriously, and including as it relates to the South China Sea."

Harris also is reported by some Western media as telling Phuc that "we need to find ways to pressure and raise the pressure, frankly, on Beijing to abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and to challenge its bullying and excessive maritime claims."

Quid pro quo attached or no, official Vietnamese accounts do not refer to any proposal by Harris that the US-Vietnam relationship be rechristened a "strategic partnership." Nhân Dân, the party-state's newspaper of record, however, reported that the prime minister, Chinh, told Harris that Vietnam considers its relations with the US to be "important”, and that Vietnam "wished to continue to develop a relationship of increasingly close and comprehensive cooperation."

Prime Minister Chinh then addressed a long list of cooperative activities – none of them military in nature – with Harris. Nhân Dân's account of the US vice president's conversation with President Phuc also highlights his assurance that Hanoi "always regards the US as among its first-rank partners," and, a bit later, quotes Harris as promising that the US "will do its part to accelerate the comprehensive relationship between Vietnam and the United States."

The most plausible explanation is that Hanoi was alarmed by the proposals circulating in Washington that the US reward Vietnam with 'strategic partner' status provided it agrees to stop mistreating political dissidents, and so wrote these oddly pre-emptive statements into Chinh and Phuc's talking points for their meeting with Ms Harris.

They were missing from a shorter summary of the meetings published in Nhân Dân's English language edition the next day. So much for signaling.

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