Vietnam and USA: Old Enemies, New (Possible) Friends against China

The global push of Beijing is a major reshuffle for the international community, with unexcepted and, till now, unthinkable repositioning dynamics, approaching even old enemies, more and more worried of plans and actions of China.

On 10 September of 2023, US and Vietnam have agreed to elevate their diplomatic relations to the highest level by signing a “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” agreement, which put Washington together with PRC (China), Russia, ROK (South Korea), and soon, India. Considering that for Vietnam this kind of framework is the higher level in its foreign relations, this step represents the culmination of a historic shift between both signatories.

2023 marks fifty years since the closing of one of the international chapters that transformed global reality; 1973 marked a turning point in the conception of the foreign policy of the hegemonic power of the 20th Century, the US suffered a disruption of the global map of its interests and relations of forces between international powers.

With the signing of the Paris Agreement between US and Vietnam in 1973, hostilities between both parties ceased, even there was not an official beginning, but a slow escalation from Washington initiated with the deployment of the 342 advisers of MAAG (Military Assistance Advisory Group), Vietnam in 1955, which replaced MAAG, Indochina, set up in 1945 in order to assist the French forces against the communist- backed Vietminh uprising and worked till the signature the Geneva accords of 1954 (2023 saw also the death, at 100, the Washington-maker of this agreement, Henry Kissinger). The withdrawal of the US forces from Vietnamese territory meant the growth in power of the regime to the communist spectrum (represented in the war by North Vietnam), whose greatest supporters were USSR and PRC. In this way, what for the Communist Party of Vietnam was an unprecedented victory (even obtained with an enormous human cost for Hanoi), for the opposing side marked a turning point in the military supremacy self-conception.

The US was affected not only by its international profile, but also by its internal resilience, due to the deep divisions that the Vietnamese conflict generated among the country’s society, population and culture. With the development of the Cold War, the relations between both actors were characterized by maintaining a certain distance and focusing on their most immediate issues. For US, the confrontation with the USSR and developing ties with PRC were a high priority. For the Vietnamese perspective, the consolidation of its state structure and the forging of alliances took up most of the efforts of the government of Hanoi for years.

However, the present situation is a deeply different from this context. Vietnam is today an emerging regional power with a developing economy, important signs of strength and a foreign policy dominated by its neighborly relations, mainly with PRC, with which it shares around 1,400 kilometers of border. In addition, it plays a fundamental role in the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), a very important platform for Vietnam in terms of the economy and relations with its Asian neighbors in terms of security, finance or foreign trade (not yet for defense, but there are the first steps in this direction as well). Finally, in 1995 diplomatic relations between Vietnam and US were normalized. On the other hand, Washington is witnessing a crucial moment for its global hegemonic position while having to address countless internal challenges, from high public debt to the questioning of its social model, face a competitor that poses one of the most complex and difficult challenges to its international dominance since the Cold War such is PRC. Far from the confrontational models of the last century, the current competition between both powers is characterized by being fought in a totally broader and interconnected worldwide scenario, where military force has been transformed in more lethal and mobile, while new areas of confrontation have emerged, such as cyberspace and outer space, without naming the classical search of influences in other countries, the brutal trade competition, the scientific rivalry and the setup of renewed and new international and regional organizations. Thus, global dynamics have been strengthening PRC’s role as the main rival for the US and many other states. Vietnam, for its geostrategic collocation, see the important changes ongoing in the Indo-Pacific with growing concern. The assertive stand of Beijing put Washington and Hanoi in a common front in this scenario: counteracting China’s weight and push in the region. Because of the above, their relationship, historically marked by conflict, evolved to reach high levels of cooperation in economic and security matters.

After fifty years of the Paris Agreement and twenty-eight of the normalization of their diplomatic ties, on September 10, 2023, US and Vietnam raised their relations to the highest level that the system of foreign relations of Hanoi sets. This new framework of cooperation is reflected in greater cooperation in areas as basic as science and technology, climate change or trade. However, it is necessary to highlight a key aspect for the role that both actors play in the region: cooperation in security and defense. Since Presidents Obama and Truong Tan Sang signed a strategic partnership agreement in 2013—a step prior to reaching the highest level of ties sealed in September—relations between the US and Vietnam have been marked by deepening in all aspects. Currently, the US has become one of Vietnam’s main partners in terms of security: since 2017 it has invested more than 100 million dollars in military aid for the country through the FMF (Foreign Military Financing) Program, aimed at strengthening its defensive and military capabilities. Likewise, the Obama Administration lifted the arms embargo on Vietnam in 2016, the year after which the US permanently export to Hanoi defense material worth more than $30 million annually. Added to this are the 108 million dollars in products and services that the US has received from Vietnam since that year. Another reflection of the improvement in relations in this area was the visit to Vietnam in March 2018 by the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson: the first of it in more than forty years. Later, in March 2020, it was the turn of another aircraft carrier. The improvement of connections in military and defense matters is also reflected in Vietnam’s participation in the GOPI (Global Peace Operations Initiative), established by US to contribute to the international missions of the UN. The development of relations in the field of defense and security is manifested in the perception of Washington by the Vietnamese society has today. According to ‘The State of South Asia 2023’ survey (a poll survey organized by the ‘ASEAN Studies Centre (ASC) at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute’), almost three quarter of the Vietnamese trusts the US as a guarantor of international peace and security with little bit more than ten percent do not (sic!).

On the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Strategic Partnership Agreement, both parties have recognized the interdependence of their relations by expanding the areas of cooperation (investment, management of the legacy of war, promotion of security, promotion of prosperity, crisis climate, health cooperation and management of the Mekong River). This expansion reflects the positive status of the relations between Hanoi and Washington.

​Vietnam: Bamboo Diplomacy and its Obliged Ties with China

The foreign policy of Hanoi has been marked by a peculiar approach, applying Marxist-Leninist principles (an essential ideological axis for the country) to foreign policy. The combination of firmness in ideological elements and the required flexibility in diplomatic methods, set up the so-called “bamboo diplomacy”, putting together the strong roots of the ideology and the flexible stems of the methods.

However, the aforementioned foreign policy is being challenged by regional drive, strongly marked by geopolitical competition, led by China and its ambitions. Along these lines, Vietnam and its society are aware of the threat posed by Beijing, and Hanoi had ties with China that are very difficult to break, even if, as the above-mentioned survey states, more than three quarter of the population distrust China. This situation run from the historical rivalry to the recent crisis, worsened by the claims of Beijing to around 85% of the South China Sea, and which affects multiple countries, including Vietnam. For China, the control of the aforementioned area is vital for its survival and hegemonic plans: without it, Beijing consider that the naval projection capability of the US would block the access and control of key points for the national supply, like the Strait of Malacca. The magnitude of the issue for China is reflected in an increased actions to undermine any initiative that poses a threat to her interest and priorities.

For Vietnam those claims means that the country will remains sea locked, without access to international maritime spaces and this is a not acceptable situation and the most severe attempt to its national sovereignty. The claims of China existed since years, but the tensions raised in recent times (see the regional destabilizing effect of the claims; Philippine and Chinese coast guards are in face-off situations in South China Sea since weeks). The claim of sovereignty of the Paracelsus and Spratly islands, the implementation in 2014 of a Chinese oil platform in the waters of the EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) of Vietnam or the maritime clashes between both nations motivated by drilling activities carried out by Vietnam in 2017 exemplifies the confrontation between both geopolitical strategies. However, the relationship between Vietnam and China, more than a threat, entails a series of historical and economic ties. To begin with, both countries have a similar historical evolution: their respective systems, based on communism, entered a stage of financial openness and iron fist in internal repression, that led them to political and economic dualism. On the other hand, it is worth highlighting key differences in terms of governance. For example, the secretary-general of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Trong, is a different figure from the head of state, Vo Van Thuong, while in China power is concentrated in one person, Xi Jinping. Giving the relevance of the ideological dimension for Vietnam, the Communist Party still have a pivotal role in the country’s policy making, but the state keeps a separate nature, a counterbalance the power of the party; this, avoiding the disfunctions that emerge more and more in China, which appear increasingly in trouble to manage the challenges of sophisticated society with the total overlap between state and communist party.

Despite the above-mentioned problems, old and new, China remains Vietnam’s first economic partner, where around 40% of its imports come from. Through the signing of more than thirteen economic agreements, Vietnam has become China’s sixth largest trading partner. Consequently, the economic aspect is a fundamental link in these relations, which places Vietnam in a complex position in the face of commercial and geopolitical imbalance. As a sign of their wish to keep as possible good relationship in this area, in October 2022 the Vietnamese President was the first foreign leader to travel to Beijing after the designation of Xi Jinping’s as supreme leader of the country’s third term. Given the situation described, Vietnam has decided to establish some distance with its partner in foreign policy, while seeking not to take actions that could irritate the important neighbor. This ambivalence has been put into practice in the foreign policy of Vietnam through the principle of the “three nos”: no to foreign military bases, no to forming part of military alliances and no to supporting a country in struggle with another. This principle once again reflects the character of ‘bamboo diplomacy’, which is committed to sovereignty and international peace while granting a certain margin of action to the country in its relations with other states, covering itself from any accusation by China regarding its links with other nations in the military field. Now, Vietnam is aware of the threat that China represents in the region and, directly, to its relations. Consequently, Vietnam has begun to promote certain agreements with other actors that seek to serve as a counterweight to the influence of the PRC; and in the US, despite a controversial past, it has found a partner that may support the re-opening of an old framework. To face China, one of the most mentioned geopolitical concepts in the Cold War has been put back on the table: the policy of containment. For Vietnam, the rapprochement with the US, indirectly, try to compensate the decisive alignment between Moscow and Beijing especially after the beginning of the war in Ukraine; this major shift worried Vietnam for a possible weakening of Russian support vis-à-vis the Chinese push and the need of an alternate security provider and guarantor become an imperative for Hanoi.

This situation has many points in common with the one that affect India, once strong partner with Moscow in anti-Chinese drive; but now the axis between Russia and China forced New Delhi in re-orient its strategy in double track, reinforcing its strategic autonomy and getting closer to US, Australia, France and Japan; this without entering in direct, major, confrontation with Beijing, giving that China remains the most important economic partner of India, and co-member of SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) and BRICS.

In the light of enhanced regional (and transregional) solidarity policy, Vietnam has repatriated over 1,000 citizens from Myanmar due to looming crisis there, as well as helping certain Egyptians, Malaysians and Singaporeans leave the country amid the conflict between states forces and the government ones.

The Return of the Old: Towards a New Containment

The origins of the containment policy date back to the ‘long telegram’ written in 1946 by the then US ambassador to USSR, George F. Kennan. This notion became the center of the political debate in the following decades after the publication of “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” in ‘Foreign Affairs’. Based on the need to contain Soviet expansion through the so-called spheres of influence, this policy found its motivation in the reality exposed by Kennan’s text, where it was highlighted that the idiosyncrasies of the Soviet communist system would not allow peaceful coexistence with the American political ideology and praxis.

US structured the world into Moscow and Washington zones of influence on which its foreign and security policies protected their stability and interests. The conceptual framework that this policy provided for the development of both political and military resistance to Soviet-led expansionism is fundamental to understanding US actions throughout the Cold War. Without being exempt from criticism, the containment policy was shaped by the different ideological currents that marked each US Administration. Under its protection, important events occurred that still have a fundamental weight on the international stage, such as the creation of NATO in 1949 or the Vietnam War, which ended in 1973. Therefore, when talking about expansion intentions Chinese in the Indo-Pacific and the rest of the world, numerous political analysts and scholars have rescued the USSR-focused terminology and approaches of containment and shifted it to the confrontation of the challenges that the PRC poses both regionally and globally to US hegemony.

For Washington, the Indo-Pacific megaregion is a fundamental point for its foreign policy. The US foreign strategy is aware of the importance of China’s push actions in the region, as well as its ambitions and already known intentions. Consequently, Washington has found a possible partner in Vietnam. In this framework, Hanoi is aware about the importance of using multiple approach to its strategy, seeking not to raise tensions with Beijing and not miss the opportunity to have the deterrent element that Washington represents.

Giving the relevance of the sub-region, the US is working to build strong relationships with Southeast Asian countries that also find common ground in this endeavour. Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines (all ASEAN member states) are among the nations with which Washington has signed specific security and defense cooperation agreements. As example, along the same lines is the renewal of defense cooperation between the US and the Philippines after both parties showed their concern about the PRC’s actions in the South China Sea, which caused serious concerns for Manlia. Therefore, the Chinese pressure is evident, and the sub-region’s countries are fully aware of it, even though they keep strong economic ties with Beijing, they seek and find in the US a partner in the defense of their stability, despite the economic partnership with Washington is much less attractive.

Another element of high importance is security and defense cooperation between US and Vietnam, especially in naval dimension, as it is strongly related to the joint objective of encircling China by sea (someone could say that Washington looks for a ‘sea’ containment), and this a critical point because the Vietnamese Navy and Coast Guard are not especially strong. In its Comprehensive Strategic Partnership agreement, the US mentions that it will pay special attention to strengthening Vietnam’s naval capabilities in terms of security and defense so that the country has the necessary resources to enforce international law and its sovereignty.

The above-mentioned Foreign Military Financing (FMF) program includes the progressive increase in the US Government’s investment in this sector, which is so elemental at a geopolitical level for both parties. As the case of Vietnam focuses, the essential axis of the program is to support, transfer, reinforce and promote the resources of the country’s Navy and Coast Guard supporting her stance in the South China Sea. Along these same lines, Vietnamese Navy has participated since 2018 in the RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific), the largest naval military exercise in the world, which the US holds biannually with its allies.

​For its part, Vietnam has its own strategy regarding its relations in the region, whose ultimate goal is to contain Chinese actions. Unlike the US and its containment policy, which forces it to choose those points where it can exert pressure on its rival to reduce its influence, Vietnam is naturally part of the Indo-Pacific countries that form a counterweight to Chinese expansion, as happens to India, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand.

In common Washington and Hanoi have points but also differences vis-à-vis in the use of the containment policy in this specific context. While US make efforts into building a politico-military-economic fence around China, Vietnam is more linked to the dynamics of its regional alliances and first ASEAN (except for Cambodia and Laos, openly considered puppet states of Beijing, and Myanmar/Burma, considered under heavy influence of China).

Whether or not they share a vision of the application of the containment policy, the ultimate goal is valid for the strategic objectives of both Vietnam and the US trying to reduce the influence and expansion of China in Southeast Asia. In the case of the US, this objective is vital for the preservation of its regional first, and secondly, the global hegemony; for Vietnam, it is a matter of political independence and survivability.

Ties and Obstacles

The broadening and deepening of the bilateral relations between Vietnam and US mean leaving the past behind, but there are still points of friction. Firstly, is the ideological distance between both countries, but their common needs have managed to overcome it to make cooperation possible. In this sense, the development of this new stage in US-Vietnamese relations can be reflected with another global actor of high importance and influence and, of course, a vital enemy for the Washington: Russia.

Vietnam has maintained a special relationship with Moscow, starting from ideological brotherhood, but also the support of Russia during the prolonged military efforts, first against France and then against US, with more than 350 million dollars annually during the period, without mentioning the support provided in 1979, during the Chinese invasion.

That connection has not been lost, since the historical ties have been maintained to this day, Russia continues to be a fundamental partner for Vietnam: it is its main importer of weapons (despite the problems originated by the needs originated by the war in Ukraine) and a key player in energy supplies. For Moscow, Vietnam is a key due to its role in maritime trade and in the projection of power in the South China Sea (and from there to the Pacific, Singapore straits and Eastern Indian Ocean). This access provides Russia with an important presence in regional dynamics.

In this context, it is plausible that Vietnam does not reject totally its relationship with Russia, considering it a key pillar in its foreign policy. As an example of the needs of Vietnam to keep a wide window of dialogue with Moscow, Hanoi is one of the few countries that has not condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine in the UN General Assembly, which represents a point of friction with Washington. Said that, Vietnam monitor with silent restlessness the rapprochement between Moscow and Beijing would affect her security.

However, the strong economic ties with China, are other elements that, as above mentioned, oblige Vietnam to not extremize the relations. Through the export of microchips, semiconductors, integrated circuits, etc., China provides Vietnam with everything necessary to achieve technological capacity at the level of global demands. Finally, despite the internal problems, the unstoppable growth of Chinese military capabilities constitutes a deterrent against the enlargement and the deepening of the military alliance with the US.

There is no doubt that Vietnam does not want to be a satellite country of Beijing. Hanoi’s strategic autonomy requires the liberation from any ties and the ambitions of the neighboring country. For its part, Russia, aware that its relationship with Hanoi is fundamental and requires attention and care, is also aware of China’s strength in Southeast Asia, so it cannot be of great tool to Vietnam either.

Consequently, even if the alliance between the US and Vietnam can be considered fundamental for the region and for the geopolitical strategies of both actors, it takes place in a framework where the possibility of dangerous escalation is very easy a tactical error can lead to an escalation of tensions that is difficult to control afterwards.


Geopolitical trends determine the importance of Southeast Asia in the XXI Century. Any actor who seeks to occupy a global hegemonic position must have a strong presence in the area and to reflect his geopolitical interests with his actions in the region. The historical tour of the relationships between US and Vietnam, two antagonistic actors, is understandable even if it is unusual. Both were able to overcome their interests thanks to a geopolitical analysis with a key common element: holding the expansion and ambitions of China in Southeast Asia. In this context, the continuing and growing friendship US-Vietnamese relations gain greater significance for the international community, since the two parts represent a counterweight to China, which the rest of the actors in the region can benefit. The growing level of commitment with US implies for Vietnam the adoption of a geopolitical focus in accordance with the traditional principles of its external politics, considering this in balance with China and, Russia ASEAN, and then Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand with which it shares the goal of safeguarding national interests in front of Beijing objectives. Directly or indirectly, the geopolitical dynamics of Southeast Asia imply the intention of Washington to generate a space of containment for China’s expansion and the association of Vietnam is vital for this objective. Consequently, the intensity of the Washington-Hanoi relationships will have a decisive impact on the Chinese dynamics and ambitions which look not only in Southeast Asia, but also reflect in an uncertain global scenario in the coming decades.

Enrico Magnani, PhD, is a retired UN official and expert in military history and international politico-military affairs.