- China’s President Xi Jinping and Vietnam’s Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong attended a welcome ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi on December 12, 2023.
- Vietnam leapfrogged South Korea to become the United States’ sixth-largest trade partner by import value in 2022.
On a state visit last month, his first in six years, Chinese leader Xi Jinping aggressively courted Vietnam, a fulcrum of strategic activity in the region, including the South China Sea and Taiwan. The visit comes just months after the Biden administration upgraded ties with Vietnam, following years of increasing U.S.-Vietnam security cooperation that led many analysts to see Vietnam, after Singapore, as Washington’s closest security partner in Southeast Asia.
Vietnam has a long history of wars and historical enmity with China, and China is not generally popular with the Vietnamese public, which has erupted in multiple anti-China protests in recent years. Hanoi also, among Southeast Asian states affected by China’s increasingly aggressive actions in the South China Sea, has been most assertive in pushing back, by bolstering ties with powers like Japan and the United States, upgrading Vietnamese coastal forces, and, at times, directly and forcefully confronting Chinese vessels in a way the Philippines and other claimants have not or cannot.
In many ways, in the unstable security environment in Southeast Asia, Vietnam is the fulcrum state, a country with a large and professional military, critical ports where even aircraft carriers can dock, and, if it is clearly aligned with one side or the other, the capability of tipping the regional security balance. It is no accident that so many powerful actors—including India, Australia, and other Southeast Asian states—have spent many years almost desperately wooing Hanoi. CFR
Vietnam leapfrogged South Korea to become the United States' sixth-largest trade partner by import value in 2022. https://t.co/OexCHOrQQQ— National Interest (@TheNatlInterest) January 3, 2024
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic and rising US–China trade tensions, Vietnam leapfrogged South Korea to become the United States’ sixth largest trade partner by import value in 2022. This jump represents an important pivot in Vietnam’s economy — Vietnam’s biggest export to the United States is no longer textiles and garments, but high-tech products.
By the end of 2023, many flagship Apple products will have been assembled in Vietnam. Rather than competing against China’s ‘world factory’ tag, Vietnam has branded itself as an additional manufacturing destination to China within the global supply chain ecosystem, so making itself the biggest beneficiary of the US–China economic decoupling. National Interest
Will it matter?
But as Xi’s visit shows, despite all their hedging and new deals with Washington and Tokyo, the Vietnamese leadership still probably views China as their closest strategic partner. Beijing is by far Vietnam’s dominant trading partner, and has been for years, and even with greater military aid from Japan, the United States, or South Korea, Vietnam’s military remains based on Russian platforms, which is why they have continued to try to buy Russian arms despite sanctions.