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Biden will visit Hanoi to sign a deal bringing the ex-enemies closer together

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

President Biden will be traveling to Vietnam this weekend, where the leaders of the two former enemies are expected to announce a deepening of diplomatic and economic ties. It's a visit that comes as Washington tries to counter China's growing assertiveness in the South China Sea and beyond. NPR's Michael Sullivan reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES CRASHING)

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: The city of Danang in central Vietnam has a lovely beach that fronts the South China Sea. It's where U.S. combat troops first came ashore in 1965, when the U.S. and communist Vietnam were in the early stages of what Vietnam calls the American war.

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SULLIVAN: It's a popular tourist destination, and a busy port as well, where I met fisherman Ho Ngoc Phuoc back in March 2018 during the first U.S. carrier visit to Vietnam since the war ended. And even then, he told me fishermen like him were getting bullied by Chinese vessels all the time.

HO NGOC PHUOC: (Through interpreter) When we're trying to fish, they would come and hit us or use water cannon against us. Sometimes they damaged our boats, so we'd have to run away.

SULLIVAN: That's pretty much a constant, fishermen say. But in the past year, China's also resumed harassing Vietnam's oil and gas exploration efforts in its exclusive economic zone. And that may have finally convinced Hanoi to agree to an upgrade in relations the U.S. has sought for years.

NGUYEN KHAC GIANG: So the news that they actually leapfrogged to a comprehensive strategic partnership now is absolutely a big surprise for many observers of Vietnamese politics.

SULLIVAN: Nguyen Khac Giang is a visiting fellow at the ISEAS think tank in Singapore.

NGUYEN: I think Vietnam is increasingly worried about China's aggression on the South China Sea, and they think that it is a good time to send a signal to Beijing that Vietnam is not along.

SULLIVAN: And then there's the economic argument to upgrade the relationship, he says, as Vietnam attempts to transition from a low-value-added and labor-intensive economy to a more advanced tech-driven one. And here, Hanoi and Washington's interests converge.

ALEXANDER VUVING: The great power rivalry between China and the U.S. causes the United States to seek a coalition with countries that are committed to denying China's regional hegemony. And also, the United States is seeking to friendshore its supply chain.

SULLIVAN: That's Alexander Vuving from the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu.

VUVING: Both these strategies will convert into a very big U.S. carrot for Vietnam because United States wants to promote Vietnam as a new China in terms of manufacturing power, as an important manufacturing node in the U.S. supply chain.

SULLIVAN: Semiconductor production is one area American companies are especially interested in. But this upgraded partnership doesn't mean Vietnam is picking sides in the rivalry between the U.S. and China, says carl Thayer, professor emeritus at the University of New South Wales.

CARL THAYER: Vietnam has a policy of four noes that won't change - no military alliances, no foreign bases, no combining with one country to act against a third party and no first use of force.

SULLIVAN: But despite the four noes, closer defense cooperation between the US. and Vietnam could still be in the offing. Thayer says Hanoi's main weapons supplier, Russia, is now toxic because of the war in Ukraine and that Hanoi is now searching for alternatives. It held a major defense expo last year, which U.S. defense contractors attended. It plans another soon, and...

THAYER: Vietnam has a draft law before the National Assembly that will allow its private-sector industries to form joint ventures with overseas foreign defense contractors, meaning America. And that would be a new avenue, would mean sales for the U.S.

SULLIVAN: None of this, of course, will make China happy, but Vietnam is hoping its fellow communist neighbor won't be too unhappy. China remains Vietnam's largest trading partner, just as the U.S. remains Hanoi's biggest export market, and Hanoi would like to keep both on side. Carl Thayer.

THAYER: A Vietnamese diplomat with long service in America used an expression the "Goldilocks" formula. And it's we don't want relations between the U.S. and China to get too cold - angry. We don't want them to get too hot like lovers. We want them just right so we can play off on those differences.

SULLIVAN: And in the process, protect its autonomy while it tries to grow its economy.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.