For Vietnam, it “serves both symbolic and substantive purposes”, said Le Hong Hiep, a senior fellow at the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
The agreement is expected to lead to greater economic activity between the two countries, as the United States seeks to diversify its manufacturing supply chains away from China, and as Vietnam aspires to develop advanced technologies. American semiconductor firms have expressed “a willingness to support them in that ambition”, said a senior Biden administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the agreement has not yet been announced.
The United States is now the top destination for exports from Vietnam, which has made a dramatic economic transformation over the past two decades.
VinFast, the country’s leading electric vehicle manufacturer, is now selling its sleek SUVs in California and recently held an initial public offering of its stock on Nasdaq.
American companies have likewise shown a willingness to do business: Apple and Google suppliers have invested heavily in new factories in Vietnam, and a major announcement is expected from Boeing, which said earlier this year that it intends to expand its footprint in the country.
The upgrade in relations also stands to boost defence and security co-operation between the United States and Vietnam.
Hanoi and Washington are expected to increase US aircraft carrier visits, joint military exercises and arms sales, officials said.
Among the top buyers of Russian arms, Vietnam has said publicly it wants to diversify its military arsenal.
Last year, Vietnam hosted its first international defence fair, and US defence contractors Raytheon and Lockheed Martin sponsored the two largest booths.
Vietnam does not have treaty allies. Instead, the communist state has a rigid three-tier hierarchy of bilateral ties.
Washington was granted “comprehensive” partnership status a decade ago, and normally it takes years for Hanoi to move a country to the next level, dubbed “strategic”.
But officials say Hanoi is slated to fast-track an upgrade to the highest tier, with Washington earning the “comprehensive strategic” designation.
Despite the communist affinity with its big brother to the north, Vietnam has been motivated to find new partners due to Beijing’s aggressive activity over the past decade.
But, said the senior administration official, Vietnam was also enticed by Washington’s engagement this year with India – another major developing country in the region – that has resulted in agreements to partner in technology, defence and education.
“We were able to make a credible case” to Hanoi to take the relationship “to the highest level”, the official said.
But the deal is not a stepping stone to a formal defence alliance, Biden administration officials said.
“This is not Vietnam coming to the American side of the playground,” said Gregory Poling, director of the South-East Asia program at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. “This is Vietnam ensuring that it can balance the two powers [China and the United States] so it can maintain its own autonomy.”
Vietnam, which shares a border with China, has long disputed Beijing’s territorial claims over the Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea. China’s coast guard continually harasses Vietnamese oil and gas drilling operations and regularly boards Vietnamese fishing ships.
Vietnam has expressed interest in increasing co-operation with the United States on maritime surveillance and technology, said Le, the analyst in Singapore. “With the comprehensive strategic partnership in place, this is all on the table.”
Hanoi remains cautious of offending Beijing, which is steadily modernising its military, analysts say.
Last week, shortly before the White House announced Biden’s trip to Vietnam, Communist Party of Vietnam general secretary Nguyen Phu Trong travelled with the Chinese ambassador to Vietnam, Xiong Bo, in what some saw as an attempt to mitigate potential backlash once the upgrade in relations is announced.
While inspecting a border trading pass in Lang Son province, Trong – widely considered the most powerful political figure in Vietnam – praised the “comrades and brothers” friendship with China. Biden is scheduled to meet with Trong in Hanoi.
But the deepening US-Vietnam relationship has drawn criticism from human rights advocates, who say Hanoi continues to crack down on dissent and religious freedom and accuse Washington of placing strategic interests ahead of core values.
Ben Swanton, co-director of the 88 Project, a US-based non-profit that tracks the arrests of activists in Vietnam, said he was sceptical that closer relations with the United States would lead to greater freedoms for the Vietnamese people. In the past decade, Hanoi’s warming relationship with Washington has done little to deter a rising authoritarian trend led by Communist Party hardliners, he said.
According to the 88 Project, Vietnam has imprisoned nearly 200 people on political grounds, including several of the country’s most prominent climate activists. In 2016, as part of a highly publicised visit to Vietnam, then-president Barack Obama met with a group of civil society leaders; many of them are now in jail or in exile.
“The commitment to democracy and human rights,” Swanton said of the Biden administration, “has been cast aside in favour of extending US dominance in the region.”
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