Despite seeking a balance between the superpowers, Vietnam desires more robust security ties with Washington.
As the incoming Biden administration formulates its South China Sea strategy, one regional partner that looms large is Vietnam. Over the last few years, tensions between China and Vietnam in the South China Sea have remained high, impacting fishing and natural resource exploration in disputed waters. While the Biden administration is likely to continue the positive momentum in bilateral ties, it is less clear what specifically Hanoi seeks from Washington to help it effectively deter Beijing.
This is wholly understandable. As I have recently examined at length in a RAND research report, Vietnam is doubling-down on its delicate balancing act as U.S.-China competition throughout the Indo-Pacific dramatically heats up. Although Hanoi feels compelled to counter China’s bad behavior in the South China Sea, it also understands that its future is inextricably tied to peaceful relations with Beijing. Thus, Hanoi typically avoids publicly airing policy preferences, and even privately, the Vietnamese are notoriously subtle and difficult to read.
That leaves Washington in the dark most of the time. But through my research and discussions with Vietnamese interlocutors over the years, a few policy preferences have become apparent.