Three factors in the Vietnam–US relationship

Author: Hai Hong Nguyen, UQ

Optimism surrounding the potential Vietnam–US strategic partnership has been riding high after John Kerry, a Vietnam War veteran and key player in the bilateral diplomatic relationship, became US Secretary of State in February 2013.

Experience has shown that Vietnam–US relations are not determined by specific individuals, but by three factors: China, economic interests and human rights.

China has become a pull and push factor in the Vietnam–US relationship over the last four decades. Efforts to normalise Vietnam–US relations in the late 1970s failed partly because of China’s increased cooperation with the United States and their embargo of what Deng Xiaoping called the ‘Cuba of the East’. Vietnam and the United States subsequently halted talks about normalisation until the early 1990s.

The rise of China and its continuing aggressive activity in the South China Sea have now pushed Vietnam and the United States closer. Both countries realise that China could be a threat to their national interests and security, and the United States is relying on Vietnam to help make its pivot to Asia a reality.

The two countries exchanged a series of high-ranking official delegations in 2012; both US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta visited Vietnam to meet with top leaders. In publicised and unpublicised bilateral talks, the ‘China factor’ was discussed, and was implied most notably through talk of the South China Sea dispute. There were rumours that the two countries had expressed a desire to upgrade their relationship to a strategic partnership. But the failure to do so in 2012 recalled setbacks to their relationship in the 1970s. Depending on strategic calculations on both sides and how the US–China relationship changes after the Chinese power transfer in March 2013 — and how China behaves in the South and East China Seas in the meantime — a strategic partnership between Vietnam and the United States could either be achieved soon or drawn out again without a definite deadline.

Economic interests are the second reason for closer bilateral relations between Vietnam and the United States. In the early 1990s, America realised it could not stand by while other countries benefitted from their investments in the communist country. And for Vietnam, only by entering the US market could the door to international economic integration be opened. After normalising relations with the United States and establishing a bilateral trade agreement between the two countries in 1995 and 2000 respectively, Vietnam joined the WTO in 2007. Bilateral trade volume between Vietnam and the United States has increased year by year. By the end of 2012, bilateral economic and trade revenues were expected to reach US$22–24 billion as compared to only US$415 million in 1995.

Vietnam’s population is expected to reach 100 million in the following decade, meaning it will become a large potential consumption market for US products. While American businesses see Vietnam as a lucrative market, the American market remains the most important for Vietnamese exports. Economic difficulties are forecast to remain in 2013, but the economic relationship between the two countries is only set to get better. At the moment, Vietnam and the United States represent two of the 11 Trans-Pacific Partnership discussants, and economic interests have a great impact on bilateral ties between the two countries.

Last but not least, human rights issues are perhaps the biggest obstacle to improving Vietnam–US relations. American officials have consistently raised their concerns about human rights violations in Vietnam. They even publicly stated that an improvement in the human rights situation is a precondition to warmer military ties, including the sale of American lethal weapons to Vietnam. The United States has voiced its concern over the recent harassment, arrest and detention of bloggers, dissidents and anti-China demonstrators. John Kerry has been called on to put pressure on Vietnam’s human rights record, and Vietnamese diplomats should be preparing their response to such questions — they might argue that the human rights issue did not prevent Vietnam from entering into a strategic partnership with the United Kingdom. The United States will never abandon this issue, but it should bear in mind two proverbs when broaching the subject: ‘more haste less speed’ and ‘long-lasting rain causes floods’ (mưa dầm thấm lâu).

Vietnam and the United States have shifted from rivalry in war to a confidence-building relationship, and are aiming to build a strategic partnership. John Kerry telephoned his Vietnamese counterpart, Pham Binh Minh, during Vietnamese New Year, signalling a warmer relationship between the two countries. However, history has shown that this relationship is influenced by three factors: China, economic interests and human rights. In an increasingly complicated world, Vietnamese and American diplomats would do well to understand which factors should be downplayed or brought to light — and when — in the interest of strengthening the relationship.

Hai Hong Nguyen is a PhD candidate at the School of Political Science and International Studies, the University of Queensland.

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