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Vietnam: Conference on Relations with the U.S. By Carlyle A. Thayer

C3S Paper No. 0027/ 2015

Q1. Vietnam hosted a conference on relations with the United States. One of the speakers said at the seminar, “Vietnam welcomes the United States’ greater role in the region.” Why might this be the case?

ANSWER: Since 1991 Vietnam has pursued a policy of “multilateralizing” its external relations. This may be viewed in more orthodox terms as a system of multipolar equilibrium. Officially Vietnam welcomes a US role in the region as long as it contributes – in Vietnamese eyes – to peace, cooperation and development. Why does Vietnam want the US to play a greater role? First, Vietnam wants the US to maintain the current balance of power. If the US withdrew, China would dominate Southeast Asia. Second, Vietnam wants the US to play a greater role for its own material benefit. This includes access to the US market, more scholarships for Vietnamese students, assistance with health, and assistance in building capacity in maritime security. There are nine major areas of cooperation outlined in the 2013 Agreement on Comprehensive Partnership between Vietnam and the United States.

Q2. What do you think about the US partially lifting the ban on lethal weapons recently? What motivated the change and what will be the effect?

ANSWER: Since at least 2009 Vietnam has lobbied the US to remove ITAR (International Trafficking in Arms Regulations) restrictions on the sale of lethal weapons to Vietnam. Then this was mainly motivated to end what Hanoi perceived to be discriminatory measures against Vietnam. The removal of ITAR restrictions was urged by conservatives in Vietnam who argued rhetorically, to the more liberally inclined members of the party, “why should we step up relations with the US, what has the US done for us?” Conservatives have continued to press for the removal of ITAR restrictions and more US funding to clean up the legacy of the Vietnam War –dioxin poisoning form Agent Orange and unexploded ordnance. This is a kind of Vietnamese bargaining mentality – the US always presses Vietnam to undertake new areas of cooperation that Washington views a mutually beneficial, the conservatives want something in return. US Ambassador Ted Osius has stated that according to information he has received the Vietnamese are carefully considering what request to make and the US government would be respectful of this decision. The US appears willing to assist in maritime domain awareness and strengthening the Vietnamese Coast Guard. This could mean the sale of coastal radar, communication systems, maritime reconnaissance aircraft (P-3 Orion) and perhaps even US Coast Guard cutters. It should be noted, however, that the US is very cautious about lethal weapons. It removed the main guns from the high-endurance cutters it sold to the Philippines. The Philippines had to buy their own weapons. The US was motivated to end its total ban on weapons sales to Vietnam for two main reasons. First, the US wanted to assist Vietnam in building up their capacity for maritime security. This would draw these countries closer to the US and obviate the need for direct US intervention. Second, the US wanted to improve relations with Vietnam in a more general sense. The arms ban was an irritant that could be quickly addressed. In the end the decision was cautious, a partial lifting on a case by case basis not a total removal of ITAR restrictions.

Q3. What are the major reasons for optimism when it comes to political/security ties between the two countries? What are the major obstacles holding back cooperation?

ANSWER: The US and Vietnam share an increasing convergence of political/security interests but these interests are not congruent. Vietnam has long been identified as an emerging power in Southeast Asia that has constructively contributed to regional security through its membership in ASEAN, the ASEAN Regional Forum, the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus and the East Asia Summit. The US and Vietnam share a congruence of interests in resisting China’s muscular approach to South China Sea disputes by supporting the peaceful resolution of disputes through the use of international law. They share interests in addressing non-traditional security threats ranging from trafficking in drugs, arms and persons to international criminal activities. Both sides see value in cooperating in improving capacity for search and rescue, maritime salvage, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and training for UN peacekeeping operations. The main obstacle are US insistence on “demonstrable progress on human rights” and sensitivities and fears by Vietnam’s party conservatives that the United States still supports the “peaceful evolution” of Vietnam’s political system from a one-party state to a pluralist democracy through a popular “colour revolution” seen in Europe. Vietnamese leaders do not want to see cooperation in security/political ties get ahead of economic and other forms of cooperation. There is a second obstacle held by Vietnamese leaders – concern that moving too close to the United States will incur costs in Vietnam’s relations with China.

Q4. What is on the horizon?

ANSWER: In July this year Vietnam and the United States will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations. Both sides want to use this as a platform to advance their bilateral relations under the Agreement on Comprehensive Partnership. Vietnam has been lobbying for over a year for the US to receive the Secretary General of the Vietnam Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Trong. Vietnam is pressing for a meeting between Secretary General Trong and President Barack Obama in The White House. This presents protocol issues for the US and is  presently under discussion. Vietnam also wants to host a visit by President Obama, probably around the time of the APEC Summit in Manila. While many issues are under discussion about how to advance bilateral relations, Vietnam’s agreement on the TPP would definitely be a sweetener.

(Article reprinted with the permission of the author Carlyle A. Thayer, Emeritus Professor,The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra email:

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