US–Vietnam relations have come a long way. In 1982, in his report to the Fifth Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV), Secretary-General Le Duan claimed that US–China collusion constituted ‘a factor constantly threatening world peace, and especially seriously menacing security and stability in Asia’. Today, Vietnam considers the US to be a stabilising factor in the Asia Pacific. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung told the Shangri-La Dialogue on 31 May 2013 that Vietnam welcomed the strategic engagement of the United States as a Pacific power and expected that, together with China, it would assume ‘the biggest role in and responsibilities to the region and the world’.
Two factors have driven this change of heart: the need for dramatic reform to avoid economic and regime collapse in the 1980s, and China’s increasing challenge to Vietnam’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. In this context, the United States is well positioned to meet Vietnam’s needs.
Efforts to overcome mutual distrust eventually led to the normalisation of diplomatic relations between the two former enemies in 1995. China’s aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea and the convergence of US and Vietnamese strategic interests have since led to a rapid improvement in bilateral security relations.
Progress on the diplomatic front is illustrated by increasing visits by Vietnamese leaders to the United States and vice versa. Bill Clinton was the first US president, and William Cohen the first secretary of defense to visit Vietnam in 2000. Phan Van Khai was the first prime minister of a unified Vietnam to visit the US in June 2005, followed by former president Nguyen Minh Triet in 2007. If the CPV Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong visits the US as planned later in 2015 he would be the first top party and country leader ever to visit the United States.
The removal of the US trade embargo against Vietnam in 1994 opened up an era of economic cooperation, leading to a comprehensive bilateral trade agreement in 2000, normalisation of trade relations in 2006, and Vietnam’s ascension to the WTO in January 2007. As a result, US–Vietnam bilateral trade has grown from US$451 million in 1995 to nearly US$35 billion in 2014. US direct investment in Vietnam rose from US$126 million in 2000 to US$1.1 billion in 2013.
The conclusion of negotiations for Vietnam to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) remains unfinished business. For Vietnam, the TPP brings with it certain risks, but they are compensated for by numerous economic, political and strategic benefits, including facilitating the recognition of Vietnam’s status as a market economy. For the US, the TPP provides a firm economic foundation for its ‘rebalancing’ to Asia strategy. But Congressional reluctance to pass ‘trade promotion authority’ legislation remains a key road block.
Military relations have begun to accelerate since 2009 as the security interests of Vietnam and the US have converged. In 2009, China drew a nine-dashed line claiming 80 per cent of the South China Sea, before placing a huge oil rig within Vietnam’s claimed exclusive economic zone in 2014. Recently, China has embarked on large-scale reclamation projects to turn submerged rocks into islands, possibly to serve as military outposts. While the US is impartial to territorial disputes among claimants, it considers China’s claim to be illegitimate and opposes the use of coercion or force to change the status quo.
The US has also pledged to help Vietnam improve its defence capability, by partially lifting the ban on the sale of lethal weapons to Vietnam and by offering US$18 million for Vietnam to strengthen its coastguard patrol. The US and Vietnam have also agreed to a ‘comprehensive partnership’ and to cooperate in multilateral forums.
But US officials have repeatedly insisted that unless there is demonstrable progress on human rights, relations between the two countries cannot reach their full potential. While there has been progress, differences remain over the freedoms of religion, expression, association and the internet. Vietnam’s efforts to reform its criminal code to protect individual freedoms may or may not meet US expectations.
For years, relations between Vietnam and the US have suffered from mutual distrust because Vietnam suspected the US of using ‘human rights’ as a means of destabilising its regime. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has called for the building of ‘strategic trust’ between the two countries. This stage has now perhaps nearly been reached.
In addition to the commitment to ‘respect each other’s political systems,’ Increased ties in education and training are key to building this trust. Among the 16,000 Vietnamese students in the United States, many are the children of Vietnamese leaders. Graduates from American universities are no longer viewed with suspicion but have been placed in important positions.
Lesser known but no less important are the increasing visits by high-ranking Vietnamese leaders to the United States to set up working relations with their US counterparts, including the annual practice of sending ministers and provincial heads to the Harvard Kennedy School of Government to attend short seminars.
While the convergence of strategic interests may prompt a temporary partnership between the US and Vietnam, it is educational exchange and training that can lead to more shared values and interests. That foundation of mutual understanding, trust and close cooperation will provide the basis for a more solid and lasting relationship, especially when the mantle of leadership passes to a new generation of Vietnamese leaders.
Hung Nguyen is Professor Emeritus of Government and International Affairs at George Mason University and Nonresident Senior Associate of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, DC.