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IDSA COMMENT

Vietnam-US Rapprochement: A New Phase

September 02, 2013

The swiftly changing security dynamics in East Asia has sprang many surprises to the countries of the region and the extra-regional powers alike. For instance, countries that were at loggerheads with each other during the Cold War years are now finding their interests converging. The Vietnam- US rapprochement is a case in point. Not so long ago, differences between these two countries began to escalate with North Vietnam’s conquest over the US-backed South Vietnam in 1975. However, since the establishment of ties in 1995, both the countries have realised the importance of reciprocity and foreign policy priorities.

Recently, in July 2013, Vietnam President Truong Tan Sang visited the US and met President Obama and secretary of state John Kerry. Interestingly, he is the second Vietnamese president to visit the country since 1995. The last Vietnamese president Nguyen Minh Triet visited the US in 2007. Sang’s visit came after Obama overtures reflecting Washington’s ‘desire to place Hanoi at the centre of its pivot strategy in East Asia’. It is expected that Obama will likewise visit Vietnam. The exchange of high-level visits is a significant break from the past, and will give a fresh impetus to the Vietnam- US relations.

While Sang’s visit can be seen as forging new grounds with the US, many would argue that in terms of tangible benefits, little was achieved. Reportedly, Sang’s visit coincided with simmering displeasure in the US on the human rights situation in Vietnam, which the US administration raised with the visiting leader. However, considering that for years Vietnam-US relations were marred by mutual suspicions, Sang’s visit, even at the rhetorical level, has broken new grounds. For instance, one of the major outcomes of the visit, according to the joint statement, was the decision to establish the Vietnam- US Comprehensive Partnership to ‘provide an overarching framework for advancing the relationship’. The Partnership is ‘intended to contribute to peace, stability, cooperation, and prosperity… (it) will create mechanisms for cooperation in areas including political and diplomatic relations, trade and economic ties…defence and security...’ While on the flipside, the text gives the impression of it being a homily with idealistic objectives difficult to achieve. Yet, it offers a lot of potential on numerous longstanding potential areas of bilateral cooperation. This will play a crucial role in fostering trust between the two countries and possibly culminating in a Strategic Partnership.

During the visit, increasing the bilateral trade volume was also discussed. The US is Vietnam’s largest export market and, it is expected, that in a few years the US will also become its largest source of foreign direct investment. Figures indicate that bilateral trade in 2012 was over US$ 20 billion, a 13-fold increase since the US extended ‘normal trade relations’ (NTR) treatment to Vietnam in 2001. In the last decade, Vietnam has also undertaken market-oriented reforms to bolster trade. Issues relating to the US-led Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), to which Vietnam is a party, were also discussed. It was agreed to finalise the agreement by the end of 2013. Reading the statements and catching the signals it is clear that Sang’s visit marks the beginning of an important phase in Vietnam-US relations. Kerry statement is pertinent, “The Vietnamese have learned from their own history that we all have no permanent enemies, only friends yet to be made.”

The Vietnam-US relation is also greatly influenced by China. Interestingly, the Southeast Asian countries earlier apprehension of US’ intentions in their backyard, are now finding it beneficial to lean towards Washington. The Obama administration’s pivot to Asia policy has further encouraged these countries to get closer towards it. Clearly, Vietnam is weighing its options and seems to have found the US as a safe and reliable partner. One of the stated diplomatic goals of Vietnam’s foreign policy has been to develop friendly relations with the major powers. It has forged strategic partnership with each of the members of the UN Security Council. The US is the only one left.

Vietnam is reaching out to the international stakeholders keeping in mind the possibility that it might need their support at the international forum, particularly the US. Likewise the US is seeking new friends in Southeast Asia not only to safeguard its interest but also as a counterweight to China. Its other interests include locking into the expanding and booming Southeast Asian markets and securing freedom of navigation in the disputed South China Sea. Arguably, the recent visit by President Sang and US’ rejuvenated interest in the region are efforts to upgrade their relations to a much higher level.

The tenor of Hanoi’s relations with Washington has changed since the end of the Vietnam War. While irritants exist, it is also evident, given the current level of tension in the South China Sea, that Vietnam and the US are strategically converging rather than sharpening their differences. President Sang’s visit has had a strategic pitch which has been difficult for the US to ignore in spite the human rights concerns being witnessed in Vietnam.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.