May 19, 2024

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Hanoi, Vietnam – When Vietnam’s Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and United States President Joe Biden upgraded diplomatic relations to their highest level last weekend, Chinese officials responded by raising the spectre of a new Cold War playing out in Southeast Asia.

China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning advised Washington to discard its “hegemonic and Cold War mentality” when asked about Trong and Biden signing up to a comprehensive strategic partnership equal to Beijing’s own relations with Vietnam.

Mao said that Washington should “abide by basic norms governing international relations” when dealing with Asian nations.

“We ask the US to respect regional countries’ shared aspiration for stability, cooperation and development,” she said, pointing out that Vietnam had “stressed on multiple occasions” that its relationship with Beijing was a “top priority in the country’s foreign affairs”.

US officials swiftly rejected claims that cosying up to Vietnam’s rulers – whom the US once fought a war against – was a chess board move in a new confrontation with China in the Indo-Pacific region.

Far from “any kind of Cold War move”, the partnership with Vietnam “epitomises what modern partnership looks like from the United States perspective”, Mira Rapp-Hooper, special assistant to the president and senior director for East Asia and Oceania at the National Security Council, told journalists on Wednesday.

Partnering with the US did not lock Vietnam into choosing between Washington or Beijing, Rapp-Hooper said.

“It’s not about [Vietnam] choosing the United States over anyone or anything; it’s about what we all stand for together,” she added.

US ambassador to Vietnam Marc E Knapper said the new relationship with Vietnam “isn’t about anyone else”. Though the references the ambassador gave for the value of the US-Vietnam partnership invoked hot-button topics involving China and its growing assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region.

“It’s about our two countries and the intrinsic value this relationship has in terms of our shared prosperity, our shared security, our shared interests in a free and open Indo-Pacific and a free and open South China Sea,” Knapper told reporters.

China claims almost all of the South China Sea and its growing assertiveness to ownership of the vast maritime area has led to confrontations between the Chinese coast guard and vessels from countries in Southeast Asia who also claim territory in the disputed waters, particularly the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia.

On the eve of Biden’s visit, Al Jazeera spoke to several Vietnamese people about their government’s growing warmth towards the US, and what it might mean for relations with China.

‘Vietnam can remain in a neutral position’

Biden left a faint impression as president compared with his predecessor Donald Trump, said My Linh, a 22-year-old law student based in Ho Chi Minh City and currently taking a gap year from her studies.

Nevertheless, Biden was the third US president in a row to visit Vietnam, after Trump and Barack Obama, and Vietnamese people were happy with the attention from Washington and the “US relationship is quite good”.

“Joe Biden’s arrival goes further to show that Vietnam can maintain good diplomatic relations with the US – regardless of who the incumbent president is, or which political party they come from,” Linh said.

That the US would sign up to such a partnership even though Vietnam remains “a socialist country” showed a certain shrewdness in Vietnam’s diplomacy, Linh told Al Jazeera, adding that she hoped increased economic and educational opportunities would flow from big US firms investing in the country.

While China might accuse the US of pulling Vietnam towards its sphere of influence, Linh said Vietnam was being pulled by both superpowers in their respective directions. Vietnam, however, would remain neutral.

“I think any world power would want to pull other countries close to them, especially the US and China, who both strive to achieve global hegemony,” she said.

“I have confidence and take pride in Vietnam’s diplomatic policies. We can be stern when it’s called for but still remain diplomatic. We don’t shy away from historical facts … Whether we welcome an American or Chinese delegation, Vietnam can remain in a neutral position.”

Critical of Biden for escalating the war in Ukraine, which Nguyen Hien described as a conflict really between NATO and Russia, the small rubber parts manufacturer from Hanoi said the majority of Vietnamese people want good relations with the US.

Closer ties with Washington means Vietnam has an opportunity to “advance our economic and social conditions”, Hien said. But he also warned that Vietnam must not lose “agency” in such a relationship and must not be drawn entirely to any particular side amid current geopolitical tensions.

“With the US, China and even Russia, Vietnam is standing in the middle of conflicting tides. The US wants to pull us towards them as Vietnam has an important position in the Southeast Asia region,” Hien said.

“Vietnam should not lean towards anyone extremely. But Russia and Vietnam have been fond of each other since the past. They [Russians] have made many sacrifices for us. So I personally lean towards them,” he said.

‘We will rely on ourselves’

Wondering why it had taken so long for the US and Vietnam to elevate their relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership given that they became comprehensive partners a decade ago, Le Nam, a financial specialist based in Da Nang, told Al Jazeera he expected that closer relations with the US will give a jolt to Vietnam’s lagging economy.

While Vietnam’s position as China’s neighbour makes it difficult for the country to be seen visibly leaning towards the US, the new partnership would be “an opportunity for America to show its impact on Vietnam more visibly” in the coming years.

Nam said he was pinning his hopes on the two countries expanding their economic relations, which would have a favourable impact on Vietnam’s banking sector at a time of economic stagnation domestically and slowing trade globally.

Access to educational opportunities in terms of student exchange programmes and joint research with US institutions was on the mind of Cao Thanh Hien, 28, who is employed at a university in Hanoi.

Not a fan of Biden either, Thanh Hien said the current US president was, at least, an improvement on the chaos of the Trump presidency.

Biden might be “old”, Thanh Hien said, but he “does not cause a scene in the media like Trump and his policies”.

Thanh Hien also said she expected the comprehensive strategic partnership to bring benefits for Vietnam in terms of the South China Sea dispute.

“I think the US does want [Vietnam closer],” she said.

“In the South China Sea, the US is also wrangling for influence against China … On this matter, they [the US] will try to pull Vietnam closer, but Vietnam’s stance is always neutral – we will rely on ourselves.”

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