In July, US political leaders made a beeline to Asia in quick succession. First, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited China and conveyed to State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, her Counterpart, that the US does not “seek conflict” with China, but would continue to compete. At about the same time, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in India and discussed issues concerning India-US Strategic Partnership, the evolving situation in Afghanistan, and held meeting with a representative of the Tibetan government in exile. The next US political leader to follow was Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III who visited Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is participating in five virtual ministerial meetings this week i.e. the U.S.-ASEAN, East Asia Summit (EAS), ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), Mekong-U.S. Partnership, and Friends of the Mekong ministerial meetings. According to media reports, Vice President Kamala Harris is programmed to be in the region this month and visit Singapore and Vietnam.
By all accounts, Austin’s visit to Southeast Asia was successful and the general consensus among the regional diplomatic community is that he emphatically conveyed Biden-Harris Administration commitments to the ‘centrality’ of the ASEAN in the Indo-Pacific region. Further, US alliance members and partners have been provided the much needed assurances of its “enduring commitment to the region” and its “interest in upholding the rules-based international order in the region” as enunciated in the US Indo-Pacific strategy. The latter has been an issue of debate and discussions among the ASEAN strategic community particularly with regard to the growing primacy of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or the QUAD (Australia, India, Japan and the US) in US’ security policy that aims for a favorable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region. The leaders of the QUAD would be meeting in September for the second time during this year after the general debate of the UN General Assembly when world leaders come together and deliver speeches at the UN headquarters.
Be that as it may, Austin’s remarks during various meeting and events in Southeast Asia were marked by a “positive agenda” and “addressed competition with China only secondarily”. This was best demonstrated in Vietnam and issues such as the Covid-19 and vaccine, and Vietnam War related matters were high on the agenda during his meetings with President Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh and National Defense Minister Phan Van Giang.
The US has donated 5 million doses of Moderna vaccines, laboratory and testing equipment and cold storage freezers to Vietnam, and Austin discussed ways to further support Vietnam’s response to the pandemic. On matters concerning the Vietnam War legacy issues both sides have agreed to support the Vietnam Wartime Accounting Initiative and under a Memorandum of Understanding the two countries are engaged in personnel accounting program, dioxin clean-up efforts, unexploded munitions and support for disabled veterans of war.
In his meeting with Defense Minister Phan Van Giang, Austin observed that his country was committed to “respecting Vietnam’s political system and your independent and balanced foreign policy” and assured his host that “one of our central goals is ensuring that our allies and partners have the freedom and space to chart their own futures.” This should be seen as an assurance to Vietnam that they would not be pushed in a situation of choosing between the two major powers in the region i.e. China and the US. As a corollary, the US would not presurmise Vietnam to commit itself to US’ Indo-Pacific strategy which targets China.
Austin’s’ visit to Southeast Asia was closely followed in Beijing. A Chinese experts has noted that Austin's “destinations were carefully picked” to “leverage” Vietnam and the Philippines and entice them to “serve the US’ geopolitical goals” since both have territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea. Further, the US hopes to expand military cooperation with Vietnam on information sharing and joint military drills and help modernize patrol boats and vessels. In same vein, US would assure the Philippines of its commitment to the the1951 Mutual Defense Treaty and “reiterate that an armed attack on a Philippine vessel in the South China Sea would prompt a response from Washington” and discuss details of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). It may be mentioned that US and the Philippines have agreed to restore the VFA and Austin stated that “a strong, resilient, U.S.-Philippines alliance will remain vital to the security, stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific”.
The Biden Administration has been making several positive moves towards Vietnam and in this context, the US Department of the Treasury and the State Bank of Vietnam have reached an agreement regarding Vietnam’s currency practices. The US Trade Representative has “determined that no action under the Section 301 investigation is warranted at this time because Vietnam’s agreement with Treasury provides a satisfactory resolution of the matter subject to this investigation”. It paves the way for Vietnam to be taken off the list of US’ trading partners accused of currency manipulations. More broadly, the US-Vietnam relations can be expected to grow while keeping each other’s political and security sensitiveness in mind.
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Consultant Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.