Old Enemies Become Friends: U.S. and Vietnam

For two governments that fought each other in a long, bitter war, the steady improvement in U.S.-Vietnam relations in recent years has been a remarkable development. At a time when America’s relations with some old friends are strained, our friendly ties with this old enemy must seem surprising to many people. As two veteran Asia hands, former U.S. Ambassadors Stephen Bosworth and Morton Abramowitz, recently commented, “Ironically, Vietnam may … be the most pro-American country in Southeast Asia.” While America’s “soft power” may be eroding elsewhere in Asia, young Vietnamese idolize Bill Gates and aspire to study at our universities.

Vietnamese-American ties will get attention this fall when President Bush visits Hanoi for the November 18-19 meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. In addition to attending the multilateral APEC meeting, Bush will make an official visit to Vietnam, meeting the leadership in Hanoi and visiting Ho Chi Minh City, the country’s leading economic center.

Vietnam’s first experience as host of the mammoth APEC gathering will be an important coming-out party for Asia’s second fastest growing economy. Vietnam also seems poised to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) just before or after the APEC meeting. The WTO entry will be a major milestone in the country’s post-cold war integration into the world.

The good relations between Washington and Hanoi can be attributed to two factors: (1) a pragmatic approach by both countries since normalization in 1995, focusing on present and future mutual benefits rather than obsessing about the past, and; (2) more recently, the realization by both parties that we have no strategic conflict and, in fact, have important areas of strategic convergence.

1995 – 2003: Reconciliation and Trade

Until fairly recently, the U.S. approach to Vietnam was separate from any strategic plan for the East Asia region. Beginning in the early 1990s, the process of normalization involved a series of steady yet cautious steps whose pace was set by single-issue interest groups: POW-MIA families seeking to account for their missing loved ones, veterans seeking reconciliation, Vietnamese refugees wanting reunification with family members left behind, humanitarian and educational institutions, and American businesses seeking to export to Vietnam or invest there. Vietnam has seemed motivated primarily by its wish for access to U.S. markets and investments and by the importance of U.S. support for admission to the world’s leading clubs, from APEC to the WTO.

As bilateral ties strengthened in the late 1990s, the focus turned toward economic opportunities. Two-way trade has grown over five-fold since a bilateral trade agreement was signed in December 2001, followed quickly by textile and civil aviation agreements. The U.S. is now Vietnam’s biggest trade partner. U.S. investment in the country grew more slowly but is now a significant factor in Vietnam’s growth. Intel’s announcement last February that it will build a $605 million chip plant and testing facility in Ho Chi Minh City was a significant event in the country’s progress beyond garments and shoes to higher levels of manufacturing. A Vietnamese leader told me recently that the country’s decision in 2005 to give Lockheed Martin the contract to build and launch the country’s first commercial satellite, a sensitive item, was an important symbol of trust and strong ties.

This healthy economic relationship has been accompanied by significant humanitarian and educational cooperation. In 2004 President Bush decided that Vietnam, which had taken a very responsible approach to the SARS epidemic, would be the only Asian country to benefit from a special presidential fund for HIV/AIDS. In the educational field, the U.S. government contributes more than ten million dollars each year toward Fulbright and other programs for Vietnam, a greater amount than for any other country.

Post-2003: Strategic Dimension Added (Quietly)

Until the second half of 2003, this progress moved at a slow pace. Important elements in each society remained wary or even opposed to closer ties. Complete normalization, including military, intelligence, and law enforcement cooperation, only became possible when each side began to see the other as useful in maintaining regional balance with China.

By the second half of 2003 both governments were doing some strategic reassessment. For nearly two years after September 11, 2001, Washington had described Sino-U.S. ties as the “best since 1979” as our government depended on Beijing’s cooperation in counter-terrorism and in controlling weapons proliferators such as North Korea. But as the Bush administration approached the end of its first term, Washington’s focus returned to the inherently competitive nature of our relationship with Beijing. Sino-American ties were now described by Bush as a “complicated” mix of cooperation and competition. The concept of “hedging” relations with China against the uncertainty of how Beijing will use its new power and influence became a central tenet of U.S. policy. Vietnam, with its long history of troubled relations with its huge neighbor, was seen by some Washington policy makers-especially in the Pentagon-as an obvious partner.

At the same time in late 2003, Vietnam was becoming concerned that China’s influence was rising in Southeast Asia while the U.S. appeared to be hopelessly distracted in the Mideast. Vietnamese leaders informed us they would now welcome major steps that they had resisted for years. In rapid succession, then-Defense Minister Pham Van Tra visited Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, the first U.S. Navy ship since 1975 visited Saigon Port, our access to top leaders became much easier, and we began a dialogue on strategic issues that Hanoi had previously considered off-limits. This pattern continued with then-Prime Minister Phan Van Khai’s visit to Washington in June 2005, the first by a Chief of State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Several more U.S. naval ships have visited Saigon Port and Danang and the two countries signed military and law enforcement cooperation agreements that had been stalled for years.

This increased strategic alignment is an important development but should not be exaggerated. Vietnam remains wary of the U.S. While Hanoi values America’s role in maintaining a regional balance of power, it is suspicious of our proselytizing for democracy, human rights, and religious freedom. More importantly, Vietnam will never want to be seen as part of a containment policy against China. It will look over its shoulder to make sure its big brother is not unduly provoked. The Bush administration understands Hanoi’s sensitivity, which poses no problem for America’s overall strategy. Containment of China would be an impossible objective and Vietnam’s role in a policy of “hedging” will be a modest one.

This constructive relationship seems likely to follow its pattern of steady, careful progress. The Vietnamese leadership continues to seek new foreign investment and integration with the world, goals that require good relations with America. The U.S. will continue to have differences with Vietnam on human rights. Pressure from Vietnamese-Americans, fundamentalist Protestants, and human rights activists continue to generate Congressional and Administration attention on cases of repression of house churches, cyber dissidents, and others who defy the political order. But, the Administration clearly is determined not to hold the entire relationship with Vietnam hostage to any one issue – including human rights. The U.S. will continue to value Vietnam’s dynamic economy, its increasingly sophisticated leadership and its quietly growing leadership role in Southeast Asia.

The author served as United States ambassador to Vietnam, 2001-2004.