Taking stock: 15 years after normalization between U.S., Vietnam

(This article appeared in The Hill, Jul, 2010)

Diplomatic relations between the United States and modern Vietnam were established only in 1995. Fifteen years are a very short time to overcome a brutal war and deep ideo¬logical and philosophical differences. Even more impressive, then, are both the depth of the relationship and the outlook for continued deepening.

A year before establishing diplomatic relations, on February 14, 1994, President Bill Clinton lifted the trade embargo. Since then, the United States has become Vietnam’s biggest market and top investor. Economic reforms have lifted millions out of poverty in what is one of the world’s outstanding records on poverty reduction. “Not only have our two countries signed a historic bilateral trade agreement,” said Undersecretary of State for Economic, Energy, and Agricultural Affairs Robert Hormats, “but this agreement has increased trade more than 700% from just over $2 billion in 2001 to nearly $16 billion in 2009.”

Access to the U.S. market and foreign investment is a major prize for any nation. But Vietnam has moved ahead on a variety of other fronts, to leave the past behind and forge a new relationship. Led by a progressive government, Vietnam has become a leader in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, served a successful stint at the United Nations Security Council and is working hard on broadening its relationship with Washington beyond trade.

The rapprochement between Washington and Hanoi ironically started with a look to the past. President Clinton stated that he was lifting the embargo because he saw opening up as the best way forward on accounting for the many missing U.S. service members from the war. Vietnam has always taken the M.I.A. issue as a humanitarian problem, not a military or diplomatic one. National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones recognized that the relationship “ ... started with the great amount of help and compassion that the Vietnamese government showed in all our efforts to recover those who were missing in action.”

The Political, Security and Defense Dialogue, among others, has become an annual event that helps fortify the framework for bilateral relations. Military cooperation today addressed multiple arenas, including peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, disaster response, maritime security, counterterrorism and counternarcotics cooperation, border security, nonproliferation, and exchanges of high-level visits.

Last month, the bilateral relationship took another important step forward when the two countries inked a nuclear cooperation agreement. Given American proliferation fears, such agreements are not easy to reach. U.S. Ambassador Michael Michalak expressed his hope that “Vietnam builds on its achievements and implements all relevant international non-proliferation agreements, so that it can become a model for countries seeking to develop civilian nuclear power.” All this indicates that the United States has concluded that Vietnam is now a reliable partner in nuclear security and non-proliferation, noted Vietnam expert Carlyle Thayer, who teaches at the Australian Defense Force Academy.
Areas of friction remain alongside the progress. The State Department’s Human Rights Report cites Vietnam for problems in areas such as media freedom, property restitution and freedom of association. These are legitimate issues for an American audience, and disagreements about the best form of government are not new in the relationship.
The underlying difference is one Western individualism versus a more collectivist Confucian view of the world. Confucians focus on harmony over conflict, a very different concept from the United States, where voicing differences of opinion is valued highly. The art of criticism is to make one’s own position clear without sounding culturally insensitive to the other side. In this respect, the annual Human Right Dialogues between the U.S and Vietnam serves as an effective channel for both sides.

Undersecretary Hormats wrote on a State Department blog: “Our relationship with Vietnam is a pillar of our presence in Asia ... We don’t agree on everything. Obviously in areas such as human rights and labor practices, we don’t see eye to eye. But we want to work out our disagreements in a constructive manner.”

National Security Adviser Jones emphasized the need to keep working in the areas of agreement. “Security in the 21st century is far more about how we handle our climate, energy and trade and that kind of scientific cooperation, education, these are things we should be worried about in common. If we are able to do that we all prosper and benefit. That is why I think that the future of specifically [the] U.S. and Vietnam [relationship] is very bright.”