Moving toward a New Normal: U.S.-Vietnam Relations at 20
September 18, 2014
Vietnam’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister, Pham Binh Minh, will visit Washington in early October for consultations with Secretary of State John Kerry. Their meetings will provide a venue for adding more concrete components and depth to the comprehensive partnership announced when President Truong Tan Sang visited the Oval Office in July 2013.
Next year the United States and Vietnam will celebrate the 20th anniversary of their normalization of relations in 1995 following a long war and years of acrimony. Conditions today are right for leaders in both countries to take specific steps to fully normalize relations. Doing so will require trust and mutual respect. A strong foundation for such cooperation has already been established.
Since normalizing relations, the United States and Vietnam have established embassies in each other’s capitals and signed a bilateral trade agreement, Washington supported Vietnam’s membership in the World Trade Organization, leaders have exchanged visits, and the two militaries have expanded security cooperation.
The United States supported Vietnam’s membership in the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade negotiations and the two governments have negotiated an agreement for peaceful nuclear energy cooperation, known as a 123 agreement.
Today U.S. policymakers view Vietnam as a promising partner in the Asia Pacific. In a dynamic and rapidly transforming region, Washington and Hanoi increasingly share common geopolitical, security, and economic interests. The two governments have a mutual concern in safeguarding the freedom of navigation and commerce in the South China Sea, preventing the use of force in territorial disputes, and ensuring the peaceful resolution of maritime disputes.
Bilateral trade and investment ties have blossomed since the United States lifted its trade sanctions in 1994. By 2013, two-way trade had reached $25 billion. The United States today is Vietnam’s largest export market and seventh-largest foreign investor.
The two countries hold two annual dialogues at the vice-ministerial level to find ways to boost cooperation in defense and security. Officials meet regularly to discuss human rights issues, one of the thorniest irritants in bilateral relations. And Washington and Hanoi have begun to work together to address legacies of the Vietnam War, including the impact of dioxin contamination from use of Agent Orange and the removal of unexploded ordnance remaining in Vietnam’s soil.
To be sure, Hanoi’s concerns about neighboring China play a critical role in Vietnam’s calculus about how far and how fast to move in improving ties with Washington. But China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea in recent years has convinced some Vietnamese leaders that they need to bolster their ties with the United States to safeguard their strategic interests. At the same time, Vietnamese questions about the depth and seriousness of the U.S. rebalance to Asia have kept Hanoi from moving too quickly with Washington, particularly in the area of military cooperation.
Nonetheless, bilateral relations between Vietnam and the United States are promising even though they are still nascent and not without challenges. By working together over the past two decades, Vietnam and the United States have begun to establish a certain level of trust and understanding, making it possible for them to look beyond the past and toward the future.
Both the United States and Vietnam have strong national interests in taking their relationship to a new and deeper level as they prepare to celebrate the anniversary of diplomatic ties. Top leaders in both countries will need to instruct their governments to take the necessary steps to see to fruition the key recommendations suggested below, including engaging principal stakeholders in both countries and building support within their respective governance structures.
The United States and Vietnam should:
- Make a commitment for President Barack Obama to visit Vietnam in 2015 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of normalization of relations, perhaps when he travels to Southeast Asia for annual economic and security summits in nearby Malaysia and the Philippines in November.
- Discuss what steps the U.S. government expects from Vietnam in order to ease and eventually remove the U.S. ban on lethal weapons sales to Vietnam.
- Expand the scope of U.S.-Vietnam naval engagement, including joint humanitarian and disaster relief exercises, emphasizing interoperability, and access for U.S. ships for maintenance and repair.
- Mount a regular dialogue between U.S. government agencies and Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security on human rights issues in an effort to find ways to ensure the release of political prisoners. Hanoi should allow additional visits by international human rights groups.
- Work with partners to complete and ratify a high-standard TPP trade agreement and work within the East Asia Summit to articulate the next steps for regional economic integration through a Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific.
- Work to lift Vietnam’s designation as a nonmarket economy in the spirit of the bilateral improvement of relations.
- Complete the cleanup of dioxin contamination in Danang by 2016 and commit to a realistic timetable to clean up dioxin at the former Bien Hoa airbase.
- Establish an annual U.S.-Vietnam Strategic Dialogue at the track-1.5 level to develop ideas for deepening bilateral ties.
A timetable for achieving these initiatives could be hammered out when Deputy Prime Minister Minh visits in October with the goal of having most of them under way by the time President Obama visits Hanoi, hopefully next year.
(Many of the recommendations in this commentary are expanded in A New Era in U.S.-Vietnam Relations: Deepening Ties Two Decades after Normalization (CSIS/Rowman & Littlefield, June 2014). It can be accessed at http://csis.org/files/publication/140609_Hiebert_USVietnamRelations_Web.pdf.)
(This Commentary originally appeared in the September 18, 2014, issue of Southeast Asia from Scott Circle.)
Ernest Z. Bower is senior adviser and Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Murray Hiebert is senior fellow and deputy director of the Sumitro Chair.
Commentary isproduced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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