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Romance between Hanoi and Washington By Dr. Rajaram Panda

C3S Paper No. 0074/ 2015



The past three years or so have seen a flurry of diplomatic activities between the United States and Vietnam with top leaders visiting each others’ countries to discuss economic, security and strategic issues of bilateral, regional and global importance. A note-worthy aspect of such diplomatic activities has been the increasing bonhomie between Vietnam and the US as geopolitical considerations in a changing world draws both countries closer. Given the past acrimonious relations between the two countries, this could seem strange to some analysts. But historical precedents throw a different picture. For example, Britain, the US and France were bitter enemies for centuries and yet they are allies since World War II. Similarly, Australia and Turkey were bitter enemies for nearly thousand years and yet they were allies in World War I. Why such change in course? When mutual interests are affected, past acrimony gives ways for friendship. This is why Hanoi and Washington are allies today. But does it mean that Hanoi has forgotten the bitter past? International relations and diplomacy would tell that Vietnam may have forgiven the US for its role in the Vietnam War but is unlikely to forget. Yet, the wind does not always blow in the same direction. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger may have warmed up Sino-US relations in early 1970s but Beijing and Washington are not too close in the current context as they fail to reach an “arrangement” as national interests have shifted priorities. This is the lesson of geopolitics. No wonder, when Hanoi and Washington reach out towards each other, Beijing feels a sense of discomfort. Given that Hanoi might not forget the past, the bonhomie between Hanoi and Washington may be seen in the context of changing geopolitics. The lesson demonstrates that bitter foes of the past can become good friends today.


Indeed, bilateral ties have blossomed since the establishment of diplomatic relations in July 1995. When Vietnam President Truong Tan Sang visited the US on 24-27 July 2013 and had a summit meeting with President Barack Obama, it assumed importance and received the desired attention of the media and analysts. This is because the visit came in the wake of China’s assertive stances on territorial issues in the region and in particular Vietnam’s concerns over China’s claim to almost all of the South China Sea. It was the first time President Sang visited Washington and only the second time a Vietnamese president ever visited the Oval Office since both countries normalized relations in 1995. Vietnam has learnt that in diplomacy there are no permanent enemies but only friends. It is a quirk of history that almost four decades after the Vietnam War ended, Vietnam is increasingly looking at the US for strategic assurance in view of the perceived threat from China. Vietnam’s insecurity stems from China’s belligerent posture in recent times, especially its claims over the South China Sea and violation of international code of conduct with impunity. In view of this, there is a broadening of consensus in terms of perception that China is posing a threat to Vietnam’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.


During Sang’s visit to the US in July 2013, both the leaders, after decades of efforts, launched an initiative called the U.S.-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership to guide the continuing transformation of relations between the peoples of both countries. This partnership is supported by visionary veterans, including Secretary of State John Kerry and Senator John McCain, thereby reflecting the reconciliation. Secretary Kerry observed in December 2013, “no two countries have worked harder, done more and done better” to overcome the past and work for the future.

As both countries prepare to celebrate the 20th anniversary of normal diplomatic relations in July 2015, both feel the need to broaden and deepen their friendship, trust and collaboration. Through the Comprehensive Partnership, both aspire to chart the course and expand cooperation in a broad range of areas including economy and trade, security and defense, healthcare and humanitarian assistance, education and the environment. Both also intend to remove outmoded obstacles, such as the arms embargo.

The choice of market-based reforms through three decades of renovation has resulted in spreading prosperity among the people of Vietnam and lifted millions out of poverty. From 2000 through 2014 alone, Vietnam’s Gross Domestic Product per capita – the output per person – rose five-fold from about $400 to almost $2,000. As consumer demands have increased, Vietnam has emerged as the 26th largest trading partner of the US, with total two-way volume reaching $36 billion in 2014. This meant a four-fold increase from 2006 and a 70-fold increase since 1995, when diplomatic relations was established. Vietnam Airlines purchased $1.7 billion worth of engines from GE recently. GE also sold $800 million worth of engines to VietJet Air (Vietnam’s first private airline) and $94 million worth of turbines to Cong Ly WindFarm. Such commercial deals are mutually beneficial as exports to Vietnam support American businesses and jobs, while helping Vietnam improve its economy and living standards. Vietnam is also going to join with the US and 10 other countries the Trans-Pacific Partnership under negotiation at present. When realized, it will help transform trade across the Pacific, accelerate Vietnam’s market reforms, and energize its economy.

In the field of education and culture, cooperation is being too intensified. As many as 16,500 Vietnamese students are receiving education in US universities. In 1995, a Fulbright Economics Training Program was founded in Ho Chi Minh City. Both are talking now to establish a Fulbright University. As in the case of Japan, China and South Korea, the legacies of the war always remain contentious. Therefore, both the US and Vietnam are in agreement to resolve bilateral issues relating to Vietnam War. While Vietnam has agreed to cooperate fully on MIA issues, the US is helping Vietnam to clean up the Agent Orange herbicides and defoliants, as well as unexploded ordinance. Climate change and disaster relief are other issues in which both countries are cooperating.


In the security domain, both have established 11 dialogue mechanisms, including the annual Bilateral Defense Dialogue and Political-Security-Defense Dialogue aimed at expanding cooperation in maritime security, search and rescue, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, nuclear nonproliferation and peacekeeping. The joint efforts received a big boost in 2013, when Secretary Kerry announced $18 million in assistance to enhance Vietnam’s search and rescue, disaster response and other maritime capabilities. Other non-traditional security-related issues on which both countries are in agreement to cooperate are enhancing maritime law enforcement efforts, combat transnational crime including piracy, and narcotics, human and wildlife trafficking, high-tech crime and cyber security. Vietnam has also decided to participate in UN peacekeeping operations. The US has also agreed to assist with training and other support for this effort through the Global Peace Operations Initiative (GPOI).


In particular on the maritime security issues, there is huge possibility for India too to join the US and Vietnam to cooperate. India’s relations with both Vietnam and the US are ballooning in recent times. Both political understanding and economic interests are driving this relationship. While China’s assertive stances in the South China Sea is a matter of concern, India is engaged in oil exploration activities in areas of South China Sea that is under control of Vietnam. This is objected by China.


During the visit of Vietnam foreign minister Pham Binh Minh to India in July 2013, he delivered a lecture at the ICWA in which he sketched the global shift of power to Asia and the attendant focus on the Asian region of major powers. He identified four major developments impacting the shaping of the Asian security environment. These are (a) China’s spectacular rise, (b) America’s strategic rebalancing of forces in Asia Pacific, (c) India’s Look East policy, and (d) a greater role by Japan. It is in this context, the international community has an enormous responsibility to observe and respect international law and conventions as well as having faith in multilateral dialogue process for any conflict resolution.

Over half the world’s merchant tonnage flow through the South China Sea. Over 15 million barrels of oil per day and over 100,000 vessels per year pass through the Strait of Malacca. Therefore, security is essential to the free flow of trade and commerce in Southeast Asia. Vietnam is in the forefront to cooperate in the field of security with other countries having common interests in global commons. South China Sea is the key area where tension is building up because of China’s claims. Vietnam is keen to cooperate with such as the US, India, Japan, Philippines etc. to address the South China issue. Establishing a binding Code of Conduct is sine qua non to ensure peace and stability in the region. Vietnam does not hesitate to raise its concerns over these tensions at the highest of levels, including with Chinese leaders. What is needed is one set of rules in the South China Sea. Indeed, freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region is crucial to economic growth. Vietnam shares with countries friendly with it in a vision where all parties pursue resolution of their territorial and maritime disputes through peaceful means, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The Minister of Public Security Tran Dai Quang visited the US in March 2015 and had discussion with senior US security and diplomatic officials in Washington on enhancing security cooperation. US officials and Quang agreed to foster cooperation in security and civil justice and deepen the Vietnam-US strategic partnership. Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong will pay a visit to the US in June 2015. When that happens, it will be a significant milestone in relations between the two countries. There are reports also that President Obama is planning to visit Vietnam in 2015 too, though this news remains unconfirmed at the moment.

Trong’s visit to the US run through some unnecessary controversy as protocol issues came under way. Trong’s direct counterpart in the US is the head of the Democratic Party and thus no direct counterpart. In strict protocol terms, Obama is not his counterpart. By agreeing to host Trong and a summit meeting with Obama, the US has made a huge concession, which the Chinese may not rejoice. One issue that Trong is likely to press with his US host is to obtain a firm commitment from Obama that he will visit Hanoi when he travels to Asia to attend the APEC meeting at Manila and the ASEAN and related summit in Kuala Lumpur in November 2015. Thus a visit by Obama to Hanoi seems to be in the horizon. If this happens, Trong’s US visit would have come in just the right time. Whether the Obama administration would insist on the “deliverables” – commitment on substantial progress on the nine areas listed in the Agreement on Comprehensive Partnership needs to be seen. From whatever angle one examines and analyses, there is an upward trajectory in the US-Vietnam relations, a development that is surely to please other Asian capitals, excepting Beijing.

(Dr. Rajaram Panda, former Senior Fellow at the IDSA, New Delhi, is presently an Independent Researcher on security/strategic issues of the Asia-Pacific based in New Delhi. E-mail: rajaram.panda@gmail.com)

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