International relations, South China Sea | Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, The World

20 September 2021

A visit from the United States vice president has reinforced a growing alliance between former adversaries, forged around freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, Chander Shekhar writes.

The United States Vice President Kamala Harris visited Vietnam last month during a pivotal point in time for Southeast Asia.

Her visit comes in the wake of the Afghanistan chaos and the COVID-19 pandemic, and as Chinese activities in the South China Sea are posing a growing challenge to the international order in the region.

This was Harris’ first visit to Southeast Asia and the second recent high profile bilateral meeting between Vietnamese and American officials, after United States Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made his successful three-nation tour in July 2021.

These visits, along with the virtual East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in August 2021, demonstrated the increasing strategic importance of Southeast Asia to US foreign policy since the Biden-Harris administration took office.

During this last visit, the United States moved to set the geopolitical equation in the South China Sea by upgrading its ties with Vietnam to a comprehensive strategic partnership.

More on this: Vietnam and the South China Sea’s roiled waters

This move to strengthen ties comes after China refused to acknowledge the United States’ freedom of navigation interests in the South China Sea, it being a crucial principle of international law, and five years after the South China Sea ruling that rejected China’s claims to much of the ocean territory.

Throughout Harris’ three-day visit, leaders from both nations discussed their common legacy of war, strategic interests, and shared vision for the Indo-Pacific, as outlined in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.

This visit demonstrated to the international community how the former adversaries have overcome past grievances in pursuit of mutual economic and strategic interests when it comes to addressing the impacts of COVID-19, the climate crisis, supply chain maintenance, and ensuring freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

The relationship between Vietnam and the United States dates back to the Cold War era after Vietnam gained independence from France in 1945. A decade later, both the United States and Vietnam lost tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians during the Vietnam War.

More on this: The South China Sea then and now

Vietnam’s relationship with China has also been marred by conflict, notably in the 1974 Battle of the Paracel Islands and the 1988 Johnson South Reef Skirmish.

Both the Paracel islands and Johnson South Reef are in the South China Sea and remain disputed.

As far as maritime order and safety is concerned in the South China Sea, the new strategic partnership between the United States and Vietnam will make China more responsive by building pressure for a legally binding United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea verdict, as well as strengthening bilateral cooperation between the two nations.

The last few decades have shown a vast improvement in their bilateral relationship, which has shifted from purely a security partnership to including economic cooperation. Here, it is important to underscore the rise of Vietnam’s export market in the United States – bilateral trade between the nations increased by 19.8 per cent to $90.8 billion in 2020.

During her visit, Harris reaffirmed that the United States is committed “to a strong, prosperous, and independent Vietnam, as well as a free, open, healthy, and resilient Indo-Pacific region”. She also announced that the United States will donate an additional one million COVID-19 vaccinations to Vietnam.

Harris’ visit shows the advancement of the strategic partnership between Vietnam and the United States as important allies in Southeast Asia, and highlights their mutual objectives and concerns about maintaining ASEAN’s centrality in the region and an international law-based maritime order in the South China Sea.

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