Updated June 9, 2020
Since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the
restricting and then halting travel, quarantining entire
United States and Vietnam in 1995, overlapping strategic
neighborhoods and villages where infections were detected,
and economic interests have led the two countries to expand
and conducting large-scale testing and contact tracing.
ties across a wide spectrum of issues. The United States is
Vietnam has donated COVID-19 test kits and protective
Vietnam’s 2nd largest bilateral trading partner (after China),
equipment to several countries, including the United States.
and Vietnam is the United States’ 13th largest trading
Underlying factors that helped Vietnam contain the virus’
partner. Since 2010, the two countries have formed
initial outbreak include its relatively youthful population, its
partnerships on many regional strategic and security issues,
recent experience with prior epidemics, and the
due in part to shared concerns about China’s increased
government’s broad authority and capacity to monitor and
assertiveness in the region. Vietnam is serving as 2020
restrict the activities of its citizens.
chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations
(ASEAN) and as a 2020-2021 non-permanent member of
the United Nations Security Council. The Trump
Administration has identified Vietnam as an important
partner in its promotion of a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”
President Trump has held three summits with Vietnamese
leaders, most recently in Hanoi in February 2019.
The pace and extent of the improvement in bilateral
relations is limited by several factors. First, Hanoi usually
does not undertake large-scale diplomatic moves—
especially with the United States—without first calculating
China’s likely reaction. Second, though opinion polls show
the Vietnamese public holds positive views of the United
States, many Vietnamese officials remain suspicious that
the United States’ long-term goal is to see an end to the
Vietnamese Communist Party’s monopoly on power
through “peaceful evolution.” Third, Vietnam’s human
rights record, which has deteriorated in recent years,
remains a challenge for improving the bilateral relationship.
Although the Trump Administration generally has placed a
lower priority on addressing Vietnam’s reported human
rights abuses, some Members of Congress have highlighted
human rights conditions in Vietnam.
Vietnam’s Political Structure
Sino-Vietnam Relations and South China
Vietnam is a one-party, authoritarian state ruled by the
China is Vietnam’s most important bilateral relationship.
Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV). In practice, the CPV
The two countries have Communist Party-led political
sets the general direction for policy, while the day-to-day
systems, providing a party-to-party channel, and
details of implementation generally are left to the state
contributing to often similar official world-views. China
bureaucracy, the National Assembly, and the Vietnamese
also is Vietnam’s largest bilateral trading partner.
military. The two top leadership posts are the CPV General
Secretary (currently Nguyen Phu Trong) and the Prime
The Sino-Vietnamese relationship, however, is prone to
Minister (currently Nguyen Xuan Phuc). Trong also serves
tension. For over a decade, disagreements have intensified
as President. In early 2021, the CPV is due to hold its 13th
over the two countries’ competing territorial claims in the
Party Congress to determine personnel positions and set the
South China Sea, particularly Chinese claims to much of
direction for Vietnam’s economic, diplomatic, and social
Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone, leading Vietnam to
policies. Party Congresses are held every five years.
expand its maritime capabilities and boost relations with
Vietnam’s COVID-19 Response
other maritime powers, such as the United States, Japan,
and India. Since 2007, China has taken a number of actions
Despite an 800-mile border and extensive ties with China,
to bolster its claims. Vietnam has protested China’s
Vietnam has largely contained the spread of the novel
increased seizures of Vietnamese fishing boats, its reported
coronavirus (COVID-19). As of early June 2020, Vietnam
warnings to Western energy companies not to work with
reported it had fewer than 350 cases of infection and no
Vietnam in the disputed waters, and its extensive land
deaths. Vietnam achieved these results through acting early,
reclamation on several features in the South China Sea.
China has protested Vietnamese actions such as oil
diversion caused by the Sino-U.S. trade dispute and trade
exploration and fishing in disputed waters, and seizures of
stimulation from the implementation of the Comprehensive
Chinese fishing boats. Vietnam also has stepped up its
and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership
presence in and near the disputed areas, including
(CPTPP). The United States’ bilateral trade deficit with
expanding offshore energy exploration and development to
Vietnam in 2019 ($56 billion) was its 5th largest. Vietnam
fuel growing energy demand. Vietnam has carried out its
was the second-largest source of U.S. clothing imports
own land reclamation projects, though these are on a much
(after China), and a major source for electrical machinery,
smaller scale than China’s reclamation efforts.
footwear, and furniture. U.S. imports of electrical
machinery from Vietnam more than doubled from 2018 to
China’s actions in the South China Sea have led the United
2019, from $11.0 billion to $21.5 billion. U.S. companies
States and Vietnam to intensify security collaboration. In
are major investors in Vietnam, with over 700 projects in
2016, the Obama Administration removed remaining U.S.
the country worth over $10 billion.
restrictions on sales of lethal weapons and related services
to Vietnam. Applications to export all defense items, lethal
The Trump Administration appeared to make trade deficit
and non-lethal, are subject to a case-by-case review by the
reduction one of the top agenda items for President
State Department’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls.
Trump’s first meeting with Prime Minister Phuc in May
The Obama and Trump Administrations have prioritized
2017. Following their meeting in Hanoi in February 2019,
bilateral maritime assistance, including providing several
Trump complimented Phuc for Vietnam’s efforts to reduce
new coast guard patrol vessels and two decommissioned
the trade imbalance, including through purchases of U.S.
U.S. Coast Guard Hamilton-class cutters. The United States
commercial aircraft, and possibly military aircraft. In May
transferred the first cutter, Vietnam’s largest coast guard
2017, the two leaders also stated they would promote trade
ship, in 2017. The other is scheduled to arrive in 2020.
through the existing Trade and Investment Framework
Bilateral cooperation has increased in other areas, as part of
Agreement, though no significant progress along those lines
the Trump Administration’s policy of helping the
appears to have been accomplished since that meeting.
Vietnamese military “develop the ability to challenge
China’s power-projection capabilities.” In March 2018, the
Vietnam would like the United States to officially recognize
Carl Vinson made the first port call to Vietnam by a U.S.
it as a market economy. The United States’ designation of
aircraft carrier since the Vietnam War. In February 2020,
Vietnam as a non-market economy makes it more likely
the Theodore Roosevelt made the second such visit.
that antidumping and countervailing duty cases would
result in the Commerce Department issuing adverse rulings
against Vietnamese companies. Vietnam also has
The CPV maintains an extensive organization throughout
complained about the United States’ imposition of a stricter
the country that allows it to monitor the daily activities of
system for inspecting imports of Vietnamese catfish.
Vietnamese citizens. For the past three decades, the CPV
appears to have followed a strategy of permitting many
U.S. Foreign Assistance to Vietnam
forms of personal and religious expression, while
The United States obligated over $135 million in foreign
selectively and increasingly repressing individuals and
assistance to Vietnam in FY2019. For FY2020, Congress
organizations that it deems a threat to the party’s monopoly
appropriated over $159 million in bilateral assistance, 6%
on power. While the CPV has allowed people to engage in
more than the Administration’s $141 million request. In
private enterprise and religious observance, it has cracked
FY2018 and FY2019, Congress’s aid appropriations to
down harshly on what it deems to be anti-government
Vietnam ($149 and $151 million, respectively) were almost
activity and on some unregistered religious groups
double the Administration’s requests.
(Vietnamese law requires religious groups to be approved
by and register with the state).
One legacy of the Vietnam War is the damage that Agent
Orange and its accompanying dioxin have done to the
Over the past several years, according to many observers,
people and the environment of Vietnam. According to a
repression against dissenters and protestors has worsened,
Government Accountability Office (GAO) report and
and the government has increased its legal and
several academic studies, the U.S. military sprayed Agent
technological capacity to monitor Vietnamese citizens’
Orange over nearly 10% of then-South Vietnam between
social media activity. The government also increasingly has
1961 and 1971. The Vietnam Association of Victims of
targeted bloggers and lawyers who represent human rights
Agent Orange/Dioxin (VAVA) estimated that between 2.1
and religious freedom activists, particularly those who
million and 4.8 million Vietnamese were directly exposed
authorities allege are linked to pro-democracy activist
to Agent Orange. Since 2007, Congress has appropriated
networks or are critical of the government’s policy toward
over $333 million for dioxin removal and related health
China. In the 116th Congress, S. 1369 and H.R. 1383 would
care services. A joint cleanup project in Da Nang has been
criticize Vietnam’s human rights practices and express the
completed, and the two governments have begun work on a
sense of Congress on various human rights issues.
second, larger project in the Bien Hoa airbase. The
Vietnamese government has pushed the United States to do
Economics and Trade
more to remove dioxin from Vietnam and provide help for
Since the end of U.S. trade embargo on Vietnam in 1994,
Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange.
bilateral trade has grown rapidly. According to U.S. trade
figures, bilateral trade topped $77 billion in 2019, up 32%
Mark E. Manyin, Specialist in Asian Affairs
from the previous year, stimulated, in part, by trade
Michael F. Martin, Specialist in Asian Affairs
This document was prepared by the Congressional Research Service (CRS). CRS serves as nonpartisan shared staff to
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