President Joe Biden opened his first visit to Vietnam on Sunday saying the two nations have a chance to shape the Indo-Pacific for decades to come — evidence of how far the relationship has evolved from what Biden referred to as the "bitter past" of the Vietnam War that ended almost a half-century ago.
Vietnam is elevating relations with the U.S. to the level of a comprehensive strategic partner, Vietnam's highest tier of international partnership.
Biden, meeting with the country's leaders, welcomed the move and said he hoped progress could be made on climate, the economy and other issues during his 24-hour visit to Hanoi.
"We can trace a 50-year arc of progress between our nations from conflict to normalization to this new elevated status," Biden said as he and Nguyễn Phú Trọng, general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, announced the new relationship status at party headquarters.
The U.S. president, who has described himself as being part of the "Vietnam generation" although he did not serve in a war, called Vietnam "a friend, a reliable partner and a responsible member of the international community." He noted that Vietnam War veterans such as John Kerry, Biden's climate czar, and John McCain, the former Republican senator from Arizona, found ways to build a relationship with Vietnam after the war.
"Both men saw so clearly, as I and so many others did, how much we had to gain by working together to overcome a bitter past," he said.
Trong pledged that his country will work hard to implement the agreement. "Only then can we say it is a success," he pledged.
Biden earlier Sunday during a separate appearance with Trong had described the U.S. and Vietnam as "critical partners at what I would argue is a very critical time." Neither leader specifically discussed how China's economic and geopolitical rise had contributed to their counties' newfound partnership, yet it was hard to explain the mutual embrace without China's regional influence.
Vietnam has been looking for a counterbalance to its relationships with other countries. It previously bestowed the same level of relations on China and Russia. Elevating the U.S. to the same status suggests that Vietnam wants to hedge its friendships as U.S. and European companies look for alternatives to Chinese factories.
With China's economic slowdown and President Xi Jinping's consolidation of political power, Biden sees an opportunity to bring more nations — including Vietnam and Cambodia — into America's orbit.
Biden arrived in Vietnam on Sunday and was welcomed with a pomp-filled ceremony outside the mustard-colored Presidential Palace. Scores of schoolchildren lined the steps waving small U.S. and Vietnam flags and Biden watched from an elevated review stand as high-stepping members of the military marched past. He and Trong met afterward Communist Party headquarters.
Both expressed happiness over seeing each other again after last meeting some eight years ago in Washington, said Biden, who then was vice president.
Trong sought to flatter Biden, who faces persistent questions at home about being 80 years old and running for reelection next year.
"You have nary aged a day, and I would say you look even better than before," Trong said. "I would say every feature of you Mr. President is complementing your image." Biden chuckled.
Biden was given five draft deferments and was exempted from military service because he had asthma as a teenager.
Earlier Sunday, Jon Finer, Biden's chief deputy national security adviser, addressed reports that Vietnam was pursuing a deal to buy weapons from Russia, even as it sought deeper ties to the United States. Finer acknowledged Vietnam's lengthy military relationship with Russia and said the U.S. continues to work with Vietnam and other countries with similar ties to Russia to try to limit their interactions with a nation the U.S. accuses of committing war crimes and violating international law with its aggression in Ukraine.
U.S. trade with Vietnam has already accelerated since 2019. But there are limits to how much further it can progress without improvements to the country's infrastructure, its workers' skills and its governance. Nor has increased trade automatically put the Vietnamese economy on an upward trajectory.
Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said that the CEOs she talks with rank Vietnam highly as a place to diversify supply chains that before the pandemic had been overly dependent on China. Raimondo has been trying to broaden those supply chains through the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, an initiative Biden launched last year.
"Whether it's Vietnam or Malaysia, Indonesia, India, companies are really taking a hard look at those countries as places to do more business," Raimondo said. "It is also true that they need to improve their workforce, housing, infrastructure and, I'd say, transparency in government operations."
Vietnam's economic growth slipped during the first three months of 2023. Its exporters faced higher costs and weaker demand as high inflation worldwide has hurt the market for consumer goods.
Still, U.S. imports of Vietnamese goods have nearly doubled since 2019 to $127 billion annually, according to the Census Bureau. It is unlikely that Vietnam, with its population of 100 million, can match the scale of Chinese manufacturing. In 2022, China, with 1.4 billion people, exported four times as many goods to the U.S. as did Vietnam.
There is also evidence that China is still central to the economies of many countries in the Indo-Pacific. A new analysis from the Peterson Institute of International Economics found that countries in IPEF received on average more than 30% of their imports from China and sent nearly 20% of their exports to China. This dependence has increased sharply since 2010.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan saw an opening to broaden the U.S. relationship with Vietnam when one of its top officials, Lê Hoài Trung, visited Washington on June 29.
After talking with Trung, Sullivan walked back to his office and decided after consulting with his team to issue a letter to the Vietnamese government proposing that the two countries take their trade and diplomatic relations to the highest possible level, according to an administration official who insisted on anonymity to discuss the details.
Sullivan picked the issue back up on July 13 while traveling with Biden in Helsinki, speaking by phone with Trọng, the general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam.
At a fundraiser at a barn in Maine a few weeks later, Biden went public with the deal.
"I've gotten a call from the head of Vietnam, desperately wants to meet me when I go to the G20," Biden said. "He wants to elevate us to a major partner, along with Russia and China. What do you think that's about?"
Associated Press writer Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.
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