Is Biden's whirlwind Vietnam trip a warning to China?

Emphasizing 'growth and stability,' the president keeps an eye on Hanoi's neighbor to the north

Joe Biden and Vo Van Thuong
Biden's time in Vietnam was a "hedge against China," and a "signal" for Beijing
(Image credit: Illustrated / Getty Images)

Standing in the shadow of China's spiraling economy, President Biden had a clear and concise message for anyone wondering whether his frenetic trip through Southeast Asia this weekend was aimed at sending a message to Beijing: "I don't want to contain China," Biden told reporters in Vietnam, as he celebrated the recent upgrade in official relations between that country and the United States.

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"I think we think too much in terms of Cold War terms," Biden stressed," adding that while he hoped for China's continued economic success, "I want to see them succeed by the rules."

Measured words of encouragement notwithstanding, Biden's time in Vietnam — and his preceding few days at a G-20 conference in Delhi, India — was a "hedge against China" according to Reuters, and a "signal" for Beijing, per The Economist, coming amidst a broader American debate over how best to respond to China's increasing willingness to flex its geopolitical clout.

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What the commentators said

America's newly strengthened relationship with Vietnam allows both countries to put the formerly bellicose "ghosts of the past behind them," allowing them to focus on a "shared worry over China's mounting ambitions in the region," The New York Times reported. While neither Biden nor Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong directly invoked China in their official public remarks, it was "an important subtext for the move as Mr. Biden works to establish a network of partnerships in the region to counter aggressive action by Beijing."

The upgraded relationship between the United States and Vietnam, officially a "Comprehensive Strategic Partnership," suggests Hanoi "fears Beijing's aggression in the South China Sea" according to Politico, which also described Vietnam as "grateful for its economic windfall" from the ongoing trade jockeying between the U.S. and China. Hanoi is "navigating frosty relations" between the two superpowers while working to become a "low-cost manufacturing hub," agreed Reuters, noting that "top Chinese officials, possibly including President Xi Jinping," are scheduled to visit Vietnam in the coming weeks.

While China may loom large in Biden's mind during his trip to Hanoi, "the U.S. and its allies are trying to appeal to the global south to build a worldwide consensus against Russia" the Financial Times reported. Russia is currently "in talks for a new $8 billion credit facility to buy heavy weaponry" from its communist ally, according to Reuters. Still, assigning the United States its top-level diplomatic status is an "unusual and significant step for Vietnam and it is a sign of how strong Hanoi's desire is to counterbalance ties with China," Eurasia Group analyst Peter Mumford told FT.

The "greatest win" for the Biden administration, meanwhile, is that this new status "puts it more firmly in Beijing's backyard," the BBC reported, quoting National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan's assertion that Vietnam will play "a leading role [...] in our growing network of partnerships in the Indo-Pacific." That network includes new military bases in the Philippines, and Washington having "remarkably, [...] managed to broker a trilateral agreement with rival East Asian allies, Japan and South Korea." The achievements have "taken the Chinese by surprise," Pacific Forum senior director Dr John Hemmings told the BBC.

What next?

Even before Biden stepped foot in Hanoi, China had criticized his trip, with a government spokesperson urging the U.S. to "abandon the Cold War mentality and zero-sum game mindset." Vietnamese officials, however, have "gauged that China will do little more than harrumph" The Economist reported, noting "how valuable Vietnam is to China" as a major export market. Meanwhile, the upgraded relationship with Vietnam is poised to energize the semiconductor industry and supply chain, which has "emerged as a key source of tension in U.S.-China relations" according to CNN. And while "the rest of Asia underwhelms, Vietnam will still be one of the fastest growing economies"

Still, Americans hoping that Vietnam can be wholly "reeled into its camp" are engaged in "wishful thinking" according to The Economist. Vietnam was never fully up for grabs as an ally. Rather, it likely plans to "balance adroitly between" the U.S. and China, as the two superpowers continue to circle one another for global influence.

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Rafi Schwartz

Rafi Schwartz is a Politics Writer with The Week, where he focuses on elections, Congress, and the White House. He was previously a contributing writer with Mic, a senior writer with Splinter News, and the managing editor of Heeb Magazine. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, GOOD, The Forward, and elsewhere.

Rafi currently lives in the Twin Cities, where he does not bike, run, or take part in any team sports. He does, however, have a variety of interests, hobbies, and passions.