Vietnam–US relations balancing ideology and geopolitics

Author: Cuong T. Nguyen, University of Chicago

On 7 July 2015, Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong met US President Barack Obama at the Oval Office, marking a historic milestone in advancing US–Vietnam relations. But the trip was largely symbolic as Trong returned to Hanoi with only modest progress on comprehensive US–Vietnam relations. So, when eloquent rhetoric collides with hard logistics, what was the main roadblock in furthering US–Vietnam relations?

 U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam David Shear, second right, and Vietnam's Deputy Defense Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh, third left, cut ribbon during a ceremony marking the start of a project to clean up dioxin left over from the Vietnam War, at a former U.S. military base in Danang, Vietnam Thursday Aug. 9, 2012. (Photo: AAP)

Many argue that ideology remains a persistent impediment to the advancement of a US–Vietnam alliance. Beyond differences in political systems, the legacy of the Vietnam War is another element of this ideological divide.

One of the unresolved issues of the Vietnam War is the damage that Agent Orange and unexploded ordnance (UXO, that is explosive weapons such as bombs and landmines which have not exploded) have inflicted upon Vietnam’s people and environment. It is estimated that over 3 million Vietnamese victims of the dioxins in Agent Orange suffer severe health problems. An estimated 800,000 tons of UXO affects 20 per cent of the country’s land area and affect 5 per cent of its arable land. With 300,000 Vietnamese soldiers missing in action, numerous divided families still carry horrid memories of the war.

Still both parties have achieved progress in redressing societal grievances through their cooperation in removing the dioxin and UXO. Since 2007, the United States has spent US$110 million on dioxin removal. In 2013, the United States and Vietnam signed a memorandum of understanding on cooperation to overcome the effects of ‘wartime bomb, mine and unexploded ordnance’ in Vietnam.

In Vietnam today anti-American sentiments, stemming from the Vietnam War, are no longer ubiquitous. More Vietnamese parents are sending their children to the US for higher education. With 16,000 students studying across the United States, Vietnam now ranks 8th in the list of countries sending the most students to American universities. Soon Fulbright University Vietnam will be established in Ho Chi Minh City, opening new channels for formal academic exchanges between the two systems.

According to a recent public opinion survey on US–Vietnam relations by the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences, almost 92 per cent of respondents were in favour of the US with little discrepancy in response between northern and southern Vietnamese (91 per cent and 93 per cent respectively). In terms of trade and investment, nearly 47 per cent of respondents selected the US as the country with which they most desired greater relations. As domestic anti-Chinese sentiment has dramatically risen in recent decades, forming an alliance with the US to hedge against China could further boost public approval of closer US–Vietnam relations.

Despite all this, those who believe that ideological rivalry hinders US–Vietnam relations miss an important point: ideology is neither static nor subject solely to endogenous change. Geopolitics is also important. Perceptions of threats and friendship are shaped by external factors, and leaders redefine ideology to fit both domestic and foreign policy objectives.

From Washington’s perspective, the speed at which a potential US–Vietnam alliance develops depends on Vietnam’s progress in upholding human rights. Promoting human rights is a core pillar of US foreign policy. The promotion of human rights improvement in exchange for US military support and Vietnam’s membership in the TPP is a case in point.

Upon the conclusion of negotiations, the TPP will bolster the bargaining power of domestic constituents — especially blue-collar workers — against state officials. The proposal reflects the International Labor Organization’s Declaration of Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, including freedom of association, effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining and the elimination of all forms of compulsory or forced labour. It is plausible that Vietnamese workers will be permitted to organise or participate in independent unions that protect their interests from state officials’ arbitrary intervention or state–business collusion in labour exploitation.

Geopolitics and ideology are two key pillars of state governance. Vietnam has been trying to grasp a formula harmonising these two aspects and increasing engagement with the US will provide a key litmus test.

Cuong T. Nguyen is a graduate of the Committee on International Relations (CIR) at the University of Chicago, and currently a lecturer in the Faculty of International Relations at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Ho Chi Minh City. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own.