From Foe to Friend: A US-Vietnam Strategic Partnership

Posted on July 10, 2012

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Core US concerns with Vietnam remain unresolved, the most prominent being democracy and human rights.

In 1975, with the fall of South Vietnam to the North, the United States’ presence in Vietnam finally came to an end. For years after, memories of that disastrous foreign adventure haunted Americans, the desire of “not another Vietnam ” weighing heavily over its foreign policy.

It took the decisive victory over Saddam Hussein during the Persian Gulf War for Americans to regain confidence in their armed forces; but it was not until July 11, 1995 when President Bill Clinton officially normalized relationships with the unified, Communist Vietnam could a new chapter between the US and Vietnam be written.

Perhaps as a measure of how much has changed, today the US looks to Vietnam as a potential strategic partner in the 21st century. America, in its pivot to Asia-Pacific and its wariness of an increasingly assertive China, has turned to trusted regional allies such as the Philippines, Thailand, South Korea, Japan and Australia. The addition of the South China Sea disputes further gives the US’s return to the Asia-Pacific an air of danger, raising fears within Beijing that Washington is building a coalition of Southeast Asian nations to stifle China’s rise. Whether true or false, Vietnam has factored itself back into US politics.

Pivot to Asia-Pacific
Facing deep cuts to its defense budget, US foreign policy objectives in Asia-Pacific will undoubtedly take into account the new limitations of its military. It should therefore come to no surprise that Leon Panetta, the Secretary of Defense, spent much of his tour through Asia, from Singapore to India, outlining the US’s new role in the region.

Piracy, terrorism, and human and narcotics trafficking are considered serious threats to US interests. Moreover, these issues were also raised as threats to nations in the region. It is the hope, then, that the US could count on its regional allies to help combat these problems. Rather than taking the reins itself, it seems as if the US is content with supporting its allies on tackling these issues themselves instead of spearheading them alone.

China was noticeably absent from Secretary Panetta’s places to visit. Among the nations visited by the Secretary of Defense was Vietnam, which has been a thorn in China’s side regarding the Paracel and Spratly Island disputes.

It is no great secret that the US has been growing closer to Vietnam over the years. Joint naval exercises between the two countries, port visits in Vietnam by the US Navy, and US support for a multilateral resolution to the South China Sea disputes have merely reinforced this image of Vietnam as a strategic partner in the US’s Asia-Pacific pivot.

Insurmountable obstacles
The future and success of US-Vietnam relations, however, will be dependent on whether Vietnam can address the US’s core concerns, the most crucial being human rights. The United States has yet to lift its ban on selling lethal weapons to Vietnam for this very reason, demanding that Vietnam make the necessary improvements. Although Hanoi has released some of its political prisoners as a gesture of goodwill, such an act has fooled no one. Democratic and human rights activists continue to be arrested.

More than its struggling human rights record, Vietnam remains questionable as to whether it can be counted upon as a trusted ally. Washington is acutely aware that what is sold cannot be retrieved, and arming a state that may potentially use American-made weapons for reasons other than what Washington intended could be disastrous.

The US has no desire to go to war with China, and vice versa. In the event that Vietnam enters into conflict with China using weapons provided by the US, the use of said weapons could be misconstrued by China as tacit American approval of Vietnamese action. While China is unlikely to hold the US directly accountable for Vietnamese activities, Washington would not like to find itself in a position where it must defend its sale of armaments to a nation, and at the same time protest against said nation’s use of these armaments.

“Friends” and Friends
Another matter that has not endeared Vietnam to the US has been its mercurial nature on the world stage. Vietnam, in effort to counter China’s growing influence, has been courting India, Russia, UK and the US, hoping that such efforts would deter potential Chinese aggression. Hanoi, however, would be mistaken to believe that India and Russia would rush to Vietnam’s aid in the event of a conflict with China. Neither India nor Russia will jeopardize their relationship with China over Vietnam, a country whose respective importance is arguable.

Vietnam, as a sovereign nation, has the freedom to pursue whatever relationship it desires. It is not Vietnam’s partnership with India that has annoyed China, or its partnership with Russia that has annoyed the US. Rather, it is Vietnam’s transparent attempt at using these countries against China.

It is undoubtedly evident to the US that Vietnam is seeking a closer relationship with America not because it wants to, but because it needs to. Certainly, this is not to say that partnerships of convenience are wrong; however, the US has no desire to play Vietnam’s game with China in much the same way Vietnam has no desire to play the US’ games with China. The difference between the two, however, is that China would pose a greater threat to Vietnam than the US.

The requirement that Vietnam improve its human rights record is not too much to ask. Vietnam has nothing to lose by treating its citizens with greater respect. That being said, the government stands to lose its authority should democratization occur—an inevitable conclusion, one can assume, once the people are free to voice their political opposition without fear of repercussion. Therefore Hanoi’s refusal to respect human rights has nothing to do with its personal beliefs on the matter but a desperate attempt to hold onto power. It is right in fearing that any attempt at democratization, which the US would wholeheartedly support, would ultimately spell the end of the Communist regime.

While seeking American support and maintaining its fragile relationship with China, Vietnam has only succeeded in irritating the two. The Communist Party has demonstrated itself to be an unreliable partner, unwilling to commit. The democratization of Vietnam would be welcomed by the United States, but it should also be welcomed by China.

A free and democratic Vietnam would invite a level of predictability now missing in Vietnamese foreign affairs. While it is uncertain as to whether the US or China would benefit from such a change, what is certain is that both countries will be able to approach a Vietnamese government that is less likely to play games.

Khanh Vu Duc is a Vietnamese Canadian lawyer in Ottawa, focusing on various areas of law. He researches on International Relations and International Law.

Clinton Visit Puts Spotlight on South China Sea

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung during a meeting in Hanoi on Tuesday (July 10, 2012)

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Southeast Asia this week was expected to put a spotlight on territorial disputes in the South China Sea, as well as the growing significance of a relatively new actor in the region’s power plays: tiny, landlocked Laos.

Mrs. Clinton met with Vietnamese leaders Tuesday, reaffirming commercial and political ties between the two countries. Washington and Hanoi have grown especially close over the past few years as Vietnam has grown more wary of efforts by China, its northern neighbor, to project influence across Southeast Asia, especially in the resource-rich South China Sea, parts of which are jointly claimed by China, Vietnam, the Philippines and other countries.

“Vietnam has emerged as a leader in the Lower Mekong sub-region and in Southeast Asia, where the United States and Vietnam share strategic interests,” Mrs. Clinton said at a briefing after meeting with Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh.

Mrs. Clinton also addressed the situation in Egypt, where she’s heading later in the week, as newly elected President Mohammed Morsi faces off against the military leadership and constitutional court over the power to reconvene Parliament.

“Democracy is not just about elections,” she said. “It is including vibrant inclusive political dialogues, listening to several societies, having good relations between civilian officials and military officials, where each are working to serve the interests of citizens.” Calling on “all stakeholders” to engage in “intensive dialogues,” she said she looks forward to meeting with President Morsi and other leading officials.

In Southeast Asia, regional leaders are expected at the Asean summit in Cambodia later this week to debate a contentious code of conduct to govern behavior for China and other rival claimants in the South China Sea, despite China’s longstanding position that it prefers to discuss sea claims on a bilateral, rather than multilateral, basis.

Mr. Minh said he and Mrs. Clinton agreed Tuesday that territorial disputes in the South China Sea must be addressed peacefully, based on international laws.

“The U.S. greatly appreciates Vietnam’s contribution to a collaborative diplomatic resolution of disputes and the reduction of tensions in the South China Sea,” Mrs. Clinton said.

Mrs. Clinton was scheduled to arrive Wednesday in the Laotian capital of Vientiane, the first such trip by a U.S. Secretary of State in 57 years. Laos’s political profile has risen as it has moved deeper into China’s orbit. Her trip to Laos will be followed by a visit to Cambodia, where she will attend a regional forum of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and meet with U.S. businesses.

The trip to Laos is drawing especially close attention, not least because political analysts have long seen the country as too small, and politically insignificant, to generate much interest from Washington. The entire country has fewer residents than New York City, with a population of fewer than seven million. It also has the smallest economy in Southeast Asia, with annual economic output of about $7 billion, versus about $125 billion for Vietnam.

But Laos has significant untapped mineral resources and a growing consumer market that are of interest to both American and Chinese companies.

It also represents another voice in the increasingly tense debates over territorial rights in the South China Sea, as well as other regional issues linked to China’s expanding influence.

Analysts have warned it will be difficult to obtain a consensus on the matter, in large part because the Southeast Asian nations themselves haven’t been able to agree on the best course of action. Most maritime states—notably Vietnam and the Philippines—want to take a hard line against China to limit its activities in the South China Sea, but many mainland Asean nations, including Thailand and Cambodia, have resisted steps that would embarrass Chinese leaders. Those divisions are enhancing the clout of countries like Myanmar and Laos, which share borders with China and enjoy significant Chinese investment—but are increasingly eyed by Washington as potential allies in limiting China’s reach.

“I think the U.S. is worried it doesn’t have enough clout within Asean and East Asia as China becomes so significantly important, and so I think they feel a vote is a vote—whether you’re the size of Indonesia or the size of Laos, you’re still a vote in the Asean environment,” said Christopher Bruton, an analyst at Dataconsult Ltd. in Bangkok.

State Department officials said Mrs. Clinton would meet with Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong and other senior government officials to discuss regional issues, including efforts to more closely integrate Southeast Asia’s economy and promote a U.S.-led project known as the Lower Mekong Initiative. Mrs. Clinton launched the initiative in 2009 to boost development in areas such as education, infrastructure and the environment in countries through which the Mekong flows, though analysts say it also has the benefit of boosting American influence there.

The environmental health of the Mekong is itself a key issue. Laos has sought to develop a controversial $3.5 billion dam project as part of a wider strategy to become a hydroelectric power hub for Southeast Asia. Countries downriver—notably Cambodia and Vietnam—have said the Thailand-financed project could block crucial river flows, with potentially devastating effects on fish and other food supplies.

Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey have also raised concerns about the environmental impact of dams on the Mekong River, adding to speculation that U.S. officials would seek to broker some kind of compromise lest the issue further divide the region at a time when Washington wants to see more cooperation in Southeast Asia, in part so it can become more unified in dealing with China.

Laos officials said recently they were putting the project on hold while more studies are done, though it has indicated it hopes to proceed eventually.

Laos isn’t a natural ally of the U.S. It is one of the last remaining Communist outposts in the world, and bilateral relations have been strained for years. U.S. bombers decimated much of the countryside during the Vietnam War, leaving many areas honeycombed with unexploded ordnance. Trade between the U.S. and Laos was just $71 million in 2010.

Vietnam and China, by contrast, have exercised far more influence over Laos in recent decades, with China increasingly beating out Vietnamese investors to launch new mining and plantation projects there, diplomats say. The projects also include a $7 billion Chinese high-speed rail link through the country which has been under development, though people familiar with the matter say the project has bogged down over the past year amid discussions over land rights and other issues.

Laos has introduced a number of market reforms over the years, though, indicating a growing willingness to diversify its economy beyond over-reliance on China and Vietnam.

The U.S. normalized trade relations with Laos in 2004, and a number of trade delegations have ventured into the country over the past year. The trips included a delegation organized by the U.S.-Asean Business Council last year that featured some of the biggest names in Corporate America, including Coca-Cola,   Chevron,  General Electric  and Johnson & Johnson. That trip followed a similar delegation sponsored by the U.S. Embassy, the American Chamber of Commerce in Thailand and the U.S. Commercial Service in Thailand that included Citibank and other American businesses.

Patrick Barta

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