The Significance of Kamala Harris’ Vietnam Trip: Interview with Donald K. Emmerson

Emmerson talks to VnExpress about the implications of Harris’ visit to Hanoi, the first such visit by a U.S. vice president.
SINGAPORE (Aug. 23, 2021) Vice President Kamala Harris visits combat ship USS Tulsa, part of a deployment in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operation in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific region. SINGAPORE (Aug. 23, 2021) Vice President Kamala Harris visits combat ship USS Tulsa, part of a deployment in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operation in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific region. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Richard Cho via Flickr

Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to Hanoi on Tuesday, August 24, as part of a high-stakes visit to Southeast Asia this week that aims to bolster economic and security ties with U.S. partners in Singapore and Vietnam. Ms. Harris is the first U.S. Vice President to visit Vietnam.

Vietnamese online newspaper VnExpress spoke with APARC Southeast Asia Program Director Donald K. Emmerson about the significance of Harris’ visit. The following is an expanded version of the interview.  

VnExpress: What does the visit mean to the United States, to Vietnam, and to the U.S.-Vietnam relationship?

Emmerson: U.S.-Vietnam relations have steadily and markedly improved in recent years, especially in the security realm. A case in point is the recent visit of the U.S. secretary of defense. The first-ever visit to Hanoi by a sitting American vice-president, Kamala Harris, is meant to further strengthen U.S.-Vietnam relations. Their importance will be underscored by Kamala Harris’s status in the U.S. government, second only to President Biden’s. Their scope will be advanced by the prominence of nonmilitary topics on her agenda.

The two governments have agreed to call their relations “comprehensive.” By attending to economic and social cooperation as well as security matters, the visit will better illustrate that inclusive label. It is even possible that the United States and Vietnam could, in the not too distant future, upgrade their relationship by calling it not only “comprehensive” but “strategic” as well.

VnExpress: In Hanoi, Harris will launch the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regional office in Southeast Asia. Why did the United States choose Vietnam for the CDC regional office? And what is your assessment of the Vietnam-U.S. medical cooperation, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Emmerson: In the realm of health, Vietnam offers a record of achievement and challenge. Based on official statistics, Vietnam appears to have countered the virus more effectively than most Asian countries. Yet it still needs to deal more thoroughly with the consumption of wildlife sold in wet markets where future viruses can bridge the gap from animals to people. COVID-19, which began in neighboring China, has killed nearly 4.5 million people worldwide and worsened the lives of almost everyone on the planet. A regional office of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Vietnam could reduce the threat of future pandemics while helping to strengthen health systems and policies throughout Southeast Asia.  

VnExpress: What do you think about Vietnam's role in the region and in the world?

Emmerson: Nearly five decades have passed since the end of Vietnam’s successful “Resistance War against America” in 1975 and the failure of China’s invasion of Vietnam in 1979. The challenge for Vietnam going forward will be to maintain the resilience and autonomy that it has earned at such a high cost in lost lives. Kamala Harris’s visit can contribute to that goal. If and as inter-state peace continues to prevail in East Asia, one can also hope that Vietnam’s leaders will feel less threatened and thus possibly less obliged to curtail the rights and freedoms of their own people.  

As for Vietnam’s role in the region (and, indirectly, the world), one priority could be for Hanoi to coordinate its policies on the South China Sea with those of other Southeast Asian claimant states and possibly with other states who use the sea and also oppose China’s campaign to control its waters.

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