President Joe Biden will arrive on the doorstep of Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Sunday with a deal in hand to draw one of China’s neighbors closer to the United States.
Just in the past five months, Biden hosted the president of the Philippines at the White House for the first time in more than a decade; he felicitated the prime minister of India with a lavish state dinner; and he hosted his Japanese and South Korean counterparts for a summit ripe with the symbolism of the storied Camp David presidential retreat.
At every turn, Biden’s courtship and his team’s steady diplomacy have secured stronger diplomatic, military and economic ties to a network of allies and partners who have joined if not in a direct sense of alarm at China’s increasingly aggressive military and economic posture, then at least through a growing sense of caution and concern.
The latest page in the US Indo-Pacific playbook comes through the establishment of a “comprehensive strategic partnership” that will put the US on par with the highest levels of partners in Vietnam, including China, according to officials in US familiar with the matter.
“This marks a new phase of fundamental reorientation between the United States and Vietnam,” a senior administration official said before Biden’s arrival in Hanoi, saying it would expand a various issues between the two countries.
“It will not be easy for Vietnam, because they are under intense pressure from China,” the official continued. “We know the stakes and the President will be very careful how he interacts with friends in Vietnam.”
The increasingly tight US partnership in the region is only one part of the US diplomatic strategy vis-à-vis China. On a separate track, the Biden administration has also maintained stronger ties and improved communications with Beijing over the past year, with a series of top Cabinet secretaries traveling to the Chinese capital in recent years. month.
The latter part of that playbook has yielded fewer results so far than Biden’s appeals to China’s wary neighbors, a dichotomy on display as Biden attends the G20 in New Delhi, while China’s leader that Xi Jinping did not.
The president did not show too much concern when asked on Saturday about his Chinese counterpart’s absence from the summit.
“It’s good to have him here,” Biden said, with Modi and several other world leaders at his side. “But, no, the summit went well.”
As Biden and Xi jockey for influence in Asia and beyond, the mere appearance is seen as a power play and Biden seeks to capitalize on Xi’s absence, seizing the opening to raise the United States’ continued commitment to region and developing countries around the world.
In Vietnam, China is not the only one whose influence competes with Biden. Upon his arrival, reports suggested that Hanoi was preparing a secret purchase of weapons from Russia, its long-time arms supplier.
On Monday, Biden plans to announce steps to help Vietnam break away from its overdependence on Russian arms, a senior administration official said.
As China’s economy slows and its leader mounts military aggression, Biden hopes to make the United States a more attractive and reliable partner. In New Delhi, he did so by using proposals to boost global infrastructure and development programs as a counter to China.
Beijing and Moscow have both condemned a so-called “Cold War mentality” that divides the world into blocs. The White House insists it is only looking for competition, not conflict.
However, the desire to draw nations into the fold is evident.
On Saturday, Biden held a photo op with the leaders of India, Brazil and South Africa – three members of the BRICS group that Xi seeks to elevate as a rival to US-dominated summits such as the G20.
There is a danger in that approach, leaving countries feeling pressured by rival giants. For Biden, however, there is a need to at least offer poor countries an alternative to China when it comes to investment and development.
But increasingly, China’s neighbors – such as Vietnam – are looking for a counter to Beijing’s muscular and often unforgiving presence in the region, even if they are not ready to completely abandon China’s sphere of influence in favor of the US.
“We are not asking or expecting the Vietnamese to make a choice,” said the senior administration official. “We understand and know clearly that they need and want a strategic partnership with China. That’s just the nature of the beast.”
Days before Biden’s visit and the expected strategic partnership announcement, China sent a senior Communist Party official to Vietnam to promote “political mutual trust” between the two neighbors. which is communist, China’s official news agency Xinhua reported.
Asked about Biden’s upcoming visit to Vietnam, China’s Foreign Ministry on Monday warned the US against using its relations with individual Asian countries to target a “third party.”
“The United States must abandon the Cold War zero-sum game mentality, adhere to the basic norms of international relations, not target third parties, and not undermine regional peace, stability, development and prosperity,” said ministry spokesman Mao Ning in a daily briefing. .
Vietnam also seeks to maintain good relations with China. Its Communist Party chief is the first foreign leader to call on Xi in Beijing after the Chinese leader secured an unprecedented third term in October. In June, the Vietnamese prime minister met Xi during a state visit to China.
But even as it seeks to avoid China’s wrath, Vietnam is increasingly drawn toward the US out of its own economic interests – its trade with the US has grown in recent years and it is eager to benefit from the efforts of America to diversify supply chains outside of China. – as well as concern over China’s military buildup in the South China Sea.
Experts say the tightened partnership is a credit to the Biden administration’s comprehensive China strategy because it is a result of the way China is increasingly aggressively using its military and economic power in the region.
“China has long complained about the US alliance network behind it. It is said that these are the signs of the Cold War, that the US should stop circling China, but this is China’s own behavior and choices it brings these countries together,” said Patricia Kim, a China expert at the Brookings Institution.
“So in many ways, China’s foreign policy has backfired.”
Upgrading US-Vietnam relations is of great importance because of Washington’s complicated history with Hanoi.
The two countries went from mortal enemies fighting a devastating war to close partners, even with Vietnam still run by the same Communist forces who eventually won and were sent packing. in the US military.
While upgrading that relationship has been a decade in the making, U.S. officials say a joint drive to take the relationship to new heights is bringing those years of momentum to line.
A late June visit to Washington by Vietnam’s top diplomat, Chairman Le Hoai Trung, crystallized that possibility. During a meeting with national security adviser Jake Sullivan, the two first discussed the possibility of upgrading the relationship, according to a Biden administration official.
As he walked back to his office, Sullivan wondered if the US could be more ambitious than a one-step upgrade to the relationship – to “strategic partner” – and ordered his team to travel to the region and deliver the a letter to Trung proposing a two-step upgrade that would bring relations to their highest possible level, placing the US on par with Vietnam’s other “comprehensive strategic partners” : China, Russia, India and South Korea.
Sullivan will speak with Trung again on July 13 while traveling with Biden to a NATO summit in Helsinki.
The conversation pushed the possibility of a two-step upgrade in a positive direction, but not until the mid-August visit to the White House by the ambassador of Vietnam in Washington with an agreement. Inside Sullivan’s West Wing office, the two finalized plans to take US-Vietnam relations to new heights and for Biden and Vietnam’s leader, General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, to shake hands. in Hanoi.
The trip was wrapped up when Biden revealed in an off-camera fundraiser that he planned to visit. The comment sent the planning into overdrive.
However, US officials are careful not to describe the agreement with Vietnam – or with the Philippines, India, Japan and Korea, or the enhanced security partnership with Australia and the United Kingdom – as part of a comprehensive which is a strategy to counter China’s military and economy. in the Indo-Pacific.
“I think that’s a deliberate ploy by the Biden administration,” said Yun Sun, the Stimson Center’s China program director. “You don’t want countries in the region or countries in Africa to feel that the US cares about them just because of China because that shows a lack of commitment. That shows that, ‘Well, we care about you because we don’t want to you go to Chinese.’”