Updated February 16, 2021
U.S.-Vietnam Relations
Since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the
Prime Minister. In May, the National Assembly is to gather
United States and Vietnam in 1995, overlapping strategic
to vote on Phuc and Chinh taking up their new positions.
and economic interests have led the two countries to expand
ties across a wide spectrum of issues. The United States is
Vietnam’s COVID-19 Response
Vietnam’s 2nd largest bilateral trading partner (after China),
As of mid-February 2021, Vietnam reported it had fewer
and Vietnam is the United States’ 10th largest trading
than 2,200 cumulative cases of infection from the
partner. Since 2010, the two countries have formed
Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) and fewer than 50
partnerships on many regional security and economic
deaths. Vietnam achieved these results through acting early,
issues, due in part to shared concerns about China’s
restricting and then halting foreign travel, quarantining
increased assertiveness in the region and to Vietnam’s
entire neighborhoods and villages where infections were
position as a rising middle power. Vietnam is serving as a
detected, and conducting large-scale testing and contact
2020-2021 non-permanent member of the United Nations
tracing. Underlying factors that helped Vietnam contain the
Security Council, providing addition opportunities for
virus’ initial outbreak include its relatively youthful
bilateral cooperation.
population, its recent experience with prior epidemics, and
the government’s broad authority and capacity to monitor
The pace and extent of the improvement in bilateral
and restrict the activities of its citizens.
relations is limited by several factors. First, Vietnam
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, U.S. concerns about
Vietnam’s human rights record, which has deteriorated in
recent years, remain a barrier to improving the bilateral
Vietnam’s Political Structure
Vietnam is a one-party, authoritarian state ruled by the
Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV). In practice, the CPV
sets the general direction for policy, while the day-to-day
details of implementation generally are left to the state
bureaucracy, the National Assembly, and the Vietnamese
military. The two top leadership posts are the CPV General
Secretary and the Prime Minister.
In early 2021, the CPV held its 13th Party Congress to

determine personnel positions and set the direction for
Vietnam’s economic, diplomatic, and social policies. Party
Sino-Vietnam Relations and South China
Congresses are held every five years. During the Congress,
Sea Tensions
Nguyen Phu Trong (born April 1944) was reelected to a
China is Vietnam’s most important bilateral relationship.
third term as General Secretary, receiving exemptions from
The two countries have Communist Party-led political
the mandatory retirement age limit and from a rule limiting
systems that provide a party-to-party channel for
the party head to two terms. Trong is the longest-serving
communication, and contribute to often similar official
leader of the CPV since the 1980s. During the Party
world-views. China is Vietnam’s largest trading partner.
Congress, current Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (b.
July 1954) also received a retirement age waiver and
The Sino-Vietnamese relationship, however, is prone to
reportedly was selected to be the next President, a largely
tension. For over a decade, disagreements have intensified
ceremonial post. Pham Minh Chinh (b. December 1958),
over the two countries’ competing claims in the South
currently head of the CPV’s Commission on Personnel and
China Sea, particularly Chinese claims to much of
Organization, is believed to have been selected as the next
Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone, leading Vietnam to
expand its maritime capabilities and boost relations with

U.S.-Vietnam Relations
other maritime powers, such as the United States, Japan,
human rights in its overall approach to Vietnam. In the
and India. Since 2007, China has taken a number of actions
116th Congress, S. 1369 and H.R. 1383 would have
to bolster its claims. Vietnam has protested China’s
criticized Vietnam’s human rights practices and expressed
increased seizures of Vietnamese fishing boats, its reported
the sense of Congress on various human rights issues.
warnings to Western energy companies not to work with
Vietnam in the disputed waters, and its construction of
Economics and Trade
seven military-equipped artificial islands in the South China
Over the last decade, Vietnam has emerged as a major
Sea. China has protested Vietnamese actions such as oil
manufacturing center in Asia and has risen to become one
exploration and fishing in disputed waters, and seizures of
of the top 10 trading partners for the United States. This has
Chinese fishing boats. Vietnam also has stepped up its
been stimulated in part by shifts in regional supply chains,
presence in and near the disputed areas, including
driven by rising production costs in China and the
expanding offshore energy exploration and development to
completion of regional trading agreements, as well as trade
fuel growing energy demand. Vietnam has carried out its
tensions between the China and the United States.
own land reclamation projects, though these are on a much
According to U.S. trade figures, bilateral trade in goods was
smaller scale than China’s reclamation efforts.
nearly $90 billion in 2020, up 17% from the previous year.
The United States’ bilateral trade deficit in goods with
China’s actions in the South China Sea have led the United
Vietnam in 2020 ($69.7 billion) was its 3rd largest. In 2020,
States and Vietnam to intensify security collaboration. In
Vietnam was the second-largest source of U.S. clothing
2016, the Obama Administration removed remaining U.S.
imports (after China), and a major source for electrical
restrictions on sales of lethal weapons and related services
machinery, footwear, and furniture.
to Vietnam. Applications to export all defense items, lethal
and non-lethal, are subject to a case-by-case review by the
Some U.S. companies have made allegations of unfair
State Department’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls.
competition by Vietnamese companies, and the Trump
The Obama and Trump Administrations prioritized bilateral
Administration launched investigations of Vietnam’s timber
maritime assistance, including providing 24 new coast
exports and designated Vietnam as a currency manipulator.
guard patrol vessels, aerial drones, coastal radar, and two
Vietnamese companies have accused the United States of
decommissioned U.S. Coast Guard Hamilton-class cutters,
unwarranted and discriminatory trade regulations and
Vietnam’s largest coast guard ships. Bilateral cooperation
restrictions designed to reduce Vietnam’s exports to the
increased in other areas from 2017 to 2021, as part of the
United States. U.S. regulations on imports of Vietnamese
Trump Administration’s policy of helping the Vietnamese
catfish have been a particular source of friction.
military “develop the ability to challenge China’s power-
projection capabilities.” In March 2018, the Carl Vinson
According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF),
made the first port call to Vietnam by a U.S. aircraft carrier
Vietnam was one of 26 economies that grew in 2020.
since the Vietnam War. In February 2020, the Theodore
Vietnam reported 2.9% real gross domestic product (GDP)
Roosevelt made the second such visit.
growth in 2020, down from 7.0% in the two previous years.
Human Rights
U.S. Foreign Assistance to Vietnam
The CPV maintains an extensive country-wide organization
Congress appropriated just under $170 million in assistance
that allows it to monitor the daily activities of citizens. For
to Vietnam for FY2021, about 20% more than the Trump
the past three decades, the CPV appears to have followed a
Administration’s $141 million request. For FY2020,
strategy of permitting many forms of personal and religious
Congress’ appropriation was nearly $165 million, about 6%
expression, while selectively and increasingly repressing
more than the Trump Administration requested. In FY2018
individuals and organizations that it deems a threat to the
and FY2019, Congress’s aid appropriations to Vietnam
party’s monopoly on power. While the CPV has allowed
($149 and $154 million, respectively) were almost double
people to engage in private enterprise and religious
the requests.
observance, it has cracked down harshly on what it deems
to be anti-government activity and on some unregistered
One legacy of the Vietnam War is the damage to the people
religious groups. Vietnamese law requires religious groups
and environment from the Agent Orange and its
to be approved by and register with the state.
accompanying dioxin defoliant that the U.S. military
sprayed over Vietnam between 1961 and 1971. The
Over the past several years, according to many observers,
Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin
repression against dissenters and protestors has worsened,
(VAVA) estimates that between 2.1 million and 4.8 million
and the government has increased its legal and
Vietnamese were directly exposed to Agent Orange. Since
technological capacity to monitor Vietnamese citizens’
2007, Congress has appropriated over $380 million for
social media activity. The government also increasingly has
dioxin removal and related health care services. About 70%
targeted bloggers and lawyers who represent human rights
has been used for dioxin removal. A joint dioxin cleanup
and religious freedom activists, particularly those who
project in Da Nang was completed in 2017. In 2020, the
authorities allege are linked to pro-democracy networks or
two governments developed a 10-year remediation plan for
who are critical of the government’s policy toward China.
cleaning up the Bien Hoa airbase, with an estimated cost of
Although the Trump Administration continued the annual
up to $450 million. The Vietnamese government has
bilateral human rights dialogue and criticized Vietnam’s
pushed the United States to do more to remove dioxin and
human rights record in various annual reports and selected
provide help for Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange.
statements, it did not appear to assign a high priority to

U.S.-Vietnam Relations

Michael F. Martin, Specialist in Asian Affairs
Mark E. Manyin, Specialist in Asian Affairs

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