Vietnam: A tale of two Superpowers

by Sami Burgaz
By Sami BURGAZ, Editor-at-Large

The US withdrawal from Kabul has been compared to its humiliating retreat from Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War, however after forty-six years relations have improved so much so that the US Vice President, Kamala Harris has paid a visit to the communist nation on 25th of August 2021.

During her first official visit to Vietnam, Vice President Kamala Harris unveiled a comprehensive economic and military aid package aimed at assisting Vietnam to take on China’s increasing assertiveness in the region.

“We need to find ways to pressure and raise the pressure, frankly, on Beijing to abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and to challenge its bullying and excessive maritime claims,” said Harris during a meeting with the Vietnamese President.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS is an international treaty that outlines nations’ rights and responsibilities in the world’s ocean space. It forms the basis for how international courts, such as the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, settle maritime disputes.


  • Last year, the United States and Vietnam celebrated their 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations. Over the past several decades, the bilateral relationship between the two countries has made significant strides, to the point where the nations now cooperate on a wide range of issues, including fighting COVID-19 and preparing for future health security threats, combatting climate change, and addressing shared legacies of war.  
  • Contrastingly, Vietnam has an overly complex relationship with China. On the one hand China is a major trading partner of Vietnam. In 2020, China-Vietnam trade reached $192.28 billion, up 18.7 percent year-on-year. On the other hand, China has been trying to claim territorial waters that belong to Vietnam in the South China Sea.

As such, Vietnam has really been caught recently between China and the US. Thus, Kamala Harris has repeatedly asserted that the US will utilise all ways possible to mount pressure on Beijing. For this reason, the US has offered Vietnam quite a comprehensive military aid package that includes a new coast guard vessel and increased visits by US Navy ships.

Chinese reactions

  • China rebuked by stressing that the “real bully in the region is the United States” and Chinese officials clearly indicated that they were not happy with Ms Harris’s pronouncements.
  • In fact, China’s ambassador to Vietnam, Xiong Bo made a noticeably big point of meeting with the Vietnamese Premier right before Kamala Harris arrived in Vietnam. Ahead of her arrival in Vietnam on Tuesday evening, Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh and China’s ambassador to Vietnam held a previously unannounced meeting, reported Reuters. During the meeting, the Chinese ambassador pledged a donation of two million Covid-19 vaccine doses to Vietnam, according to the report.

Moreover, Global Times – a Chinese state affiliated media outlet summed the US-Vietnam meeting as;

“In a land that witnessed the “Saigon moment” in 1975, Harris, the first US vice president to visit Vietnam, talked up the “China threat” and the US commitment to its allies, even as the US is experiencing a debacle in Afghanistan withdrawal, a scene all too familiar to Vietnam”

The situation in Vietnam

  • During the meeting with the Chinese envoy, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, highlighted that “Vietnam does not ally with one country to fight against another”.
  • Although Vietnam wants the United States to be stronger in resisting China’s militarization of the disputed waterway, some in Vietnam’s leadership would be hesitant to be seen as part of a Washington-led effort to counter their giant neighbour, Le Thu said to the Washington Post.

All in all, the fracas for power in the ASEAN region is set to continue. However, with the United States facing a chaotic collapse in Afghanistan, China is extremely eager to counter its arch-rival in the region.


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