The Future of Vietnam-U.S. Relations

Tuan Minh Ta
Tuan Minh Ta Visiting Fellow, Foreign Policy, Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies

April 14, 2010

The 35th anniversary of the fall of Saigon is approaching, on April 30, and Vietnam has prepared for a big event which marks a milestone in the nation’s contemporary history. This July also commemorates the 15th anniversary of the establishment of Vietnam-U.S. diplomatic relations, and over that span the two sides have travelled a long distance, despite some twists and turns in the road. Most observers would agree that Vietnam-U.S. ties differ sharply from any other type of relationship in international relations.  While optimism currently prevails in the relationship, there is hard work to be done if the two are to become real and substantive partners, and create an even better future.

Vietnam has changed dramatically in all spheres since 1986 when the ruling communist party adopted a comprehensive reform agenda, known as doi moi, that emphasized economic development. Opening up to the outside world required a peaceful and stable regional environment, and Vietnam had to shift its foreign policy from merely leaning on the Soviet Union to diversification and multilateralization, which included reaching out to former enemies such as the United States. Given the bitter past and the ideological difference, one could hardly expect Vietnam-U.S. relations would progress quickly.

But reality defied expectations: fifteen years have passed, and these bilateral ties have been fully developed. For example, in the political area, President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush both visited Vietnam while in office. Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet, Prime Minister Phan Van Khai and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung have all visited the United States, making the exchange of top leaders almost a yearly event since 2000. Considering the level of the bilateral relationship between Vietnam and the United States, it is not usual for U.S. president to come to Vietnam twice within six years and their Vietnamese counterparts to the States three times in the last four years. This is unprecedented if compared with Vietnam’s relations with other longstanding partners such as Russia and India. Ministers and secretaries from both sides, including from foreign affairs, defense and security agencies, meet quite often. The interaction between the two indicates that Vietnam and the United States have gradually overcome the past and built mutual trust, though at a medium level. Improved political ties have not only laid a solid ground for the bilateral relations in general, but also boosted cooperation in other fields.

Contemporary and historical challenges

Human rights issues

Some challenges lie ahead.  Problems, which may include differences in the interpretation and pratice of human rights, religious freedom, and the course of democratization, need more attention to solve. Though they root in the fact that the two countries have different political systems, they not only impede the present relationship to a certain extent, but also constitute a potential source of tension for the future. It is apparently the U.S. inclination to impose its will and values on other nations that do not share its ideology. President Clinton made this clear in his announcement on July 11, 1995 of the establishment of diplomatic relations with Vietnam, stating “normalization and increased contact between Americans and Vietnamese will advance the cause of freedom in Vietnam, just as it did in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.” This goal will continue to drive the U.S. agenda toward Vietnam and it will negatively affect bilateral relations to a great degree. Frequent moves by the U.S. House of Representatives to pass “The Vietnam Human Rights Act,” and criticism of Vietnam in State Department’s annual Human Rights Report and under the International Religious Freedom Act, do not appear helpful from the Vietnamese side and could reinforce the lingering distrust and suspicion in Vietnam vis-à-vis U.S. long-term intentions toward Vietnam and arouse even more Vietnam’s fear of a policy of “peaceful evolution.”

American priorities

The relatively low priority accorded to Vietnam in U.S. policy is another factor that may adversely impact bilateral cooperation. As in the U.S. relationships with other smaller countries, Vietnam may run the risk of being neglected at times because of U.S. global and regional priorities. As the war on terrorism and counter-proliferation efforts have become the focal points of U.S. foreign and security policy, and while U.S. Asia policy is still driven mostly by outstanding issues and periodic crises, Vietnam may rank even lower in U.S. foreign policy agenda and even suffer from a lack of attention. It is clear that China, Japan, India, and South Korea occupy a much higher place on the American agenda. In Southeast Asia, Indonesia seems most important to the United States. Vietnam seems to be considered important only in the United States’s calculations about the rise of China, and in the interplay of Vietnam’s ties with the aforementioned Asian powers and with ASEAN. However, if one takes into account Vietnam’s geo-strategic location and its increased international standing and participation, such as the proactive role it played during its 2008-2009 term as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, one would reasonably argue that Vietnam deserves a higher place in U.S. foreign policy priorities

War’s lingering legacy

Finally, for all the progress and optimism, historical burdens continue to play a negative role in Vietnam-U.S. relations, a natural legacy of one of the bloodiest wars in the 20th century. While it is undeniable that bilateral cooperation to solve the problems of the past is very positive,  such as the fullest possible accounting of Americans missing in action (MIA) in Vietnam, the nostalgia of the war still lingers. The Vietnam War remains an emotional and divisive issue in America. In the Congress, for example, one often could hear voices against normalization and improvement of relations with Vietnam. Though this opposition group is not homogenous in nature, it shares – in part – a wartime mentality. In Vietnam, perhaps it will take another generation to heal the wounds of war and probably a century to fully recover from its aftermath. Deep down in the heart of the Vietnamese, the sorrow of war has haunted hundreds of thousands of divided families and those who have not yet learned the stories of their 300,000 loved ones missing in action. Vietnamese people also keep on suffering from the enduring effects of Agent Orange, the chemical defoliant that the U.S. military used extensively in Vietnam. Studies have shown high rates of reproductive abnormalities such as miscarriages and premature and still births in the sprayed areas. As many as two million people were exposed to the toxic chemicals and it is estimated that up to 50,000 deformed children have been born to parents exposed to this herbicide. Millions of unexploded mines and other ordinance have killed and wounded more than 100,000 people since the end of the war in 1975.

Opportunities for collaboration

These obstacles are understandable for a growing relationship and especially for one that had to undergo the hardest test of all. It may take more time and more efforts on the part of the two countries to move it ahead, and there are a number of opportunities to cooperate, both multilaterally and bilaterally.

Energy and nonproliferation

At a multilateral level, Vietnam and the United States can work toward a Southeast Asia free from nuclear dangers. The Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) has established the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (SEANWFZ) Treaty. As a pro-active member of the Association, Vietnam could accelerate the ASEAN-U.S. dialogue on the U.S. signing the SEANWFZ Treaty Protocol. So far, there have been disagreements and the discussion has been locked in a stalemate. However, since the United States has acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, differences could be perhaps solved more favorably. The recent developments in President Obama’s policy on non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and disarmament show a new effort to counter proliferation globally, which could be considered a positive and serious move and welcomed by ASEAN. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung noted in his address on April 13 to the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington that Vietnam supports international efforts on disarmament and non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Although Southeast Asia does not pose a direct WMD threat, it always catches attention from the United States because: (i) the region has important international sea lanes which can possibly used by nuclear capable states, for instance North Korea or Iran, if such countries want to trade nuclear technologies and materials; (ii) transport and transfer of dual-use technologies from regional countries could create a real possibility of them falling into the hand of unwanted parties; and (iii) four out of eleven countries in the region are pursuing nuclear energy development programs and the first nuclear power plant is expected to be operational in 2020. Vietnam, together with other fellow members, could propose binding initiatives which could help assure the United States that ASEAN’s nuclear energy programs are transparent and not proliferation threats.

Climate change

Climate change mitigation constitutes a new priority in the agenda of Vietnam and the United States. The U.S. policy indicates an increased interest in combating climate change, and in fact the States has played the leading role in this effort for the last year. Vietnam is one of the five countries most affected by rising sea levels, and the U.S. has already proposed Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) cooperation on the issue. Vietnam could take this chance to call on the United States (and Japan) for implementing specific projects to enhance cooperation with other Mekong countries. Such programs have long-term significance and help bring the U.S. (and Japan) closer to the region politically; Vietnam itself surely will benefit from its collaboration with the United States through the GMS mechanism.

Natural disasters

Every year Southeast Asia suffers many natural disasters such as storms, floods, drought, and landslides, which cause severe human and financial losses. Because of its geography and population, Vietnam is one of the worst hit countries, therefore natural disaster control and rescue and relief operations could be promising areas that Vietnam and the States could work bilaterally or through ASEAN. Vietnam can initiate, perhaps together with the Philippines, ASEAN collaboration programs with the United States, for example opening training courses and establishing ASEAN disaster relief center with U.S. support. The U.S. military’s Pacific Command, which has assumed a greater role in regional disaster relief since the Aceh tsunami and proved its efficiency, could be tasked to take the lead in these efforts.

Promotion of ASEAN-U.S. high-level dialogues will consolidate Vietnam-U.S. relations through a multilateral political forum that gathers all leaders of ASEAN and the President of the United States. Although the first ASEAN-U.S. meeting in Singapore last year was a success, there was no formal agreement to make the meeting a regular event. The Obama administration has suggested that it might invite ASEAN leaders to the United States in 2010, however more endeavors are needed for the idea to materialize. Vietnam, as the chair of ASEAN this year, can work closely with the ASEAN Secretariat to arrange and regularize the meeting, which could become another venue for leaders of Vietnam and the United States to hold side talks on bilateral issues. Frequent meetings at the highest level would form a confidence building measure and will certainly reinforce mutual trust between Hanoi and Washington

Bilateral initiatives

Not only can Vietnam and the United States cooperate multilaterally, the two can work together on a bilateral basis as well. Two rounds of the U.S.-Vietnam Political, Security and Defense Dialogue have been held, in 2008 in Hanoi and 2009 in Washington. Although the dialogues were positive and were declared successes, the two sides kept some of their differences unsettled and only tried to reach certain common understandings. A perception breakthrough is needed if the dialogues are to gain substantive results in the future. They would serve as the best means through which issues of mutual concern are put on the table and addressed directly. The United States expects straightforward talks, including on sensitive issues such as how to view the regional security environment, defense cooperation and human rights, but the talks will be far more fruitful only if can the two decide on the scope and extent of each issue, and be ready to overcome their domestic political barriers. This is crucial as it will showcase how deep, comprehensive and close Vietnam-U.S. relations really are.

Given the U.S. economic and security role in Asia Pacific, Vietnam welcomes active U.S. presence in the region. The competition between China, Japan and India (and perhaps including South Korea and Indonesia) for regional leadership would possibly trigger a new race for alignment of power, and therefore the United States could become a balancer. Furthermore, a number of problems facing the Asia-Pacific as a whole, and Vietnam in particular, cannot be solved without American cooperation. The current state of Vietnam-U.S. relations is best described as good, and one should view these bilateral ties in a wider Asia-Pacific context. A basis has been laid for faster development, and the future now lies in the hands of the leaders of the two countries. In the midst of generational change in both Vietnam and the U.S., it remains to be seen whether younger leaders that did not experience much of the bitter past will be able to grasp opportunities and surmount challenges.