The Time is Right for President Obama to Visit Vietnam in 2015
February 19, 2015
The year 2015 marks an unparalleled opportunity for the United States and Vietnam to bolster their relations, culminating with a widely expected visit to Hanoi by President Barack Obama toward the end of the year.
The one-time battlefield foes this year are marking the 20th anniversary of their diplomatic ties. The strides the two countries have taken since then-president Bill Clinton announced the normalization of U.S.-Vietnam relations in 1995 have been nothing short of impressive. The United States and Vietnam now cooperate on a broad array of economic, political, security, and educational issues, and are working together to promote regional economic integration and stability.
Officials from the two countries are planning a number of landmark initiatives to commemorate this anniversary. By visiting Vietnam in November, when he will be in the region to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ summit in the Philippines and the East Asia Summit in Malaysia, Obama can lock in important foreign policy gains and help expand the scope of the comprehensive partnership he announced with his Vietnamese counterpart in 2013.
On the economic front, assuming the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement – of which the United States and Vietnam are members – will be concluded in the first half of 2015, Obama will head to Asia late this year with an important feather in his hat. The math adds up for him to come to Vietnam. Two-way trade between the United States and Vietnam totaled $35 billion last year, accounting for 22 percent of U.S. trade with ASEAN and making Vietnam the single largest ASEAN supplier to the U.S. market. With the TPP in place, bilateral trade is expected to surge to $57 billion by 2020, according to an estimate by the American Chamber of Commerce in Vietnam. U.S. investment in Vietnam is also expected to rise significantly.
U.S. companies have been more active in Vietnam in recent years. Intel, which operates its largest test and assembly plant outside the commercial capital of Ho Chi Minh City, has been among the pioneers in gradually transforming Vietnam’s economy into one that is technology-driven. U.S. companies Boeing, Westinghouse, and General Electric have been in talks to supply Vietnam’s aviation and nuclear energy markets, and diplomats from both sides hope the president can witness the signing if these major contracts come to fruition.
With the recognition that trade and investment ties will continue to be key drivers in U.S.-Vietnam relations, the two governments can solidify recent progress in political and security cooperation by hammering out a joint vision statement on the future direction of the partnership and the wider region. This idea has been floated by the U.S. side at different times in the past year and has been well received by Vietnamese leaders.
The existing framework for U.S.-Vietnam security relations, the Memorandum of Understanding for Advancing Bilateral Defense Cooperation negotiated in 2011, outlines five priority areas –high-level dialogue, maritime security, search and rescue, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and peacekeeping – that provide specific guidelines for security cooperation for the two countries to work on for several years. Hanoi and Washington share increasingly common strategic interests on regional issues, and in the maritime domain in particular. As Obama has done with his Indian and Japanese counterparts, issuing a joint statement on areas of mutual concern sends the message that a U.S. vision of the prevailing rule of law and a stable and peaceful Asia Pacific is widely shared among regional allies and partners.
While in Vietnam, the president should consider giving a speech on what he sees as the future of the U.S. rebalance to Asia and reaffirm the importance of Southeast Asia to long-term U.S. interests in the region. U.S. policy toward Vietnam since the normalization of relations, especially under the Obama administration, has sought to integrate both strategic elements and firmly held U.S. values, leading to a steady and significant improvement in bilateral ties in recent years. As the two countries celebrate the anniversary of their ties this year, Vietnam could be a fitting place for Obama to deliver such a speech.
Two other signature U.S.-led initiatives that could get a boost from the president’s visit are the proposed establishment of the Peace Corps in Vietnam and the planned Fulbright University, which would create the first independent, U.S.-style university in Vietnam. It was difficult some years ago to imagine that these two countries with such a difficult past would one day work together on so many areas, and more importantly, connect at the people-to-people level. Vietnam now sends more students to the United States than any other Southeast Asian country, and 76 percent of Vietnamese surveyed by the Pew Research Center last year said they have a positive impression of the United States. If Obama could announce an agreement on the Peace Corps and the Fulbright University during his visit, he would strengthen the soft power components of U.S. foreign policy in Southeast Asia.
Obama is also in the best position to touch on two important and often sensitive issues in U.S.-Vietnam relations: human rights and legacies of the Vietnam War. He should make clear to his hosts that the Vietnamese government’s continuing progress on human rights issues, particularly the treatment of the media and political bloggers, will play a crucial role in shaping future bilateral cooperation as well as Vietnam’s own standing in the region.
The president’s visit will also be a chance for the United States and Vietnam to discuss ways to step up efforts in addressing the lingering effects of Agent Orange and unexploded ordnance in Vietnam.
A visit to Hanoi by Obama will help alleviate what some describe as the “America syndrome” among some senior officials of the ruling Communist Party. An older generation of Vietnamese officials who fought during the Vietnam War remain wary of contact with the United States as well as its intent in pushing for closer relations with Vietnam. While this sentiment clearly has not derailed the relationship, it has sometimes acted as a deterrent hobbling deeper bilateral cooperation.
In an effort to address the America syndrome among some in Vietnam’s leadership, Hanoi plans to send Nguyen Phu Trong, the secretary-general of the Communist Party of Vietnam, to Washington this year. Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly extended an official invitation to Trong during a recent phone call with Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh. Those in Hanoi pressing for closer U.S.-Vietnam relations believe a meeting between Obama and Trong, who in principle holds the highest position in Vietnam’s political system, will be of paramount importance going forward.
This year represents a critical opportunity for the United States and Vietnam to add more strategic meaning to their existing cooperation. An Obama visit to Vietnam following the completion of the TPP would reinvigorate the message that the United States is serious about making trade and investment the foundation of its engagement in Southeast Asia. A presidential trip is without doubt the biggest boost U.S.-Vietnam relations could receive in the second term of the Obama administration.
(This Commentary originally appeared in the February 19, 2015, issue of Southeast Asia from Scott Circle.)
Murray Hiebert is senior fellow and deputy director of the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Phuong Nguyen is research associate with the Sumitro Chair.
Commentary is produced 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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