Panegyrics were expressed all around when the United States and Vietnam marked the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations, a remarkable reconciliatory event between the former bitter adversaries.
Vietnam is now regarded as America’s closest ally in Southeast Asia, while Washington regularly goes out of its way to champion Hanoi and improve its international standing.
“Today we can sincerely call one another friend and partner,” said US Ambassador to Vietnam Daniel Kritenbrink on July 11 to commemorate the event, while his Vietnamese counterpart Ha Kim Ngoc returned the gesture by commenting on the “mutual affection” of their peoples.
According to a Pew Research Center, a survey in 2015, 40 years after the end of the Vietnam War, found that 76% of Vietnamese had “favorable” views of the US, which was an even higher 89% among “more highly educated people.” It was one of the highest such percentages of any country included in the poll.
During their 19-year war, more than 47,000 American soldiers were killed, while Vietnam saw more than two million casualties of troops and civilians from both the partitioned North and South.
After the victorious communist North reunified Vietnam in 1975, Washington maintained its sanctions throughout the 1980s. That was chiefly because Hanoi allied with the Soviet Union, but also for its 1979 overthrow of Cambodia’s genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, which America later backed in that country’s long and debilitating civil war.
Relations improved slowly at first. In 1991, Vietnam’s communist government opened a POW/MIA office in Hanoi, while American tourists were allowed to enter the country months later.
US firms were allowed to open representative offices the following year, and in 1994 then-US president Bill Clinton lifted the US trade embargo on Vietnam. An arms embargo was later lifted in 2016.
The year before, Nguyen Phu Trong became the first chief of the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party to visit America. US President Donald Trump welcomed Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc to the White House in early 2017, the first Southeast Asian leader invited under the new administration. Trump later hand-picked Hanoi as the host city for his second round of peace talks with North Korea last year.
“It was a historic step, one that first required us to face the dark legacy of war between our two nations,” said US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a statement last weekend that referred to the resumption of diplomatic relations in 1995.
“Since then, we’ve built a friendship on common interests, mutual respect, and bold resolve to overcome the past and look toward the future,” America’s top envoy added.
Indeed, the future looks bright for Vietnam. Bilateral ties are set to move from strength to strength economically, with the US now Vietnam’s second-largest trading partner, trailing only neighboring China.
Trade has expanded massively from just over US$400 million in 1994 to US$77 billion last year. Even with the Covid-19 crisis, trade increased to $26 billion in the first five months of the year, up almost 8% from the same period last year.
Analysts believe that trade will increase in the coming years, thanks in no small part to American firms eyeing Vietnam as an ideal location to shift operations as Washington seeks to “decouple” supply chains away from China. Indeed, Vietnam was one of the few Asian countries to benefit from the US-China trade war due to the industrial exodus out of China.
But a major reason for America’s strong reconciliation with Vietnam, which notably hasn’t happened with other Vietnam War era adversaries like Laos, is because Vietnam is now the region’s strongest opponent of Chinese expansionism, especially in the South China Sea where Beijing and Hanoi spar over contested territory.
For Vietnam, America provides a superpower buffer and potential protector against China, its historic occupier and long-time perceived threat.
Back in 1995, US senator John McCain – who was held for more than five years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam – was a major driver of resuming diplomatic ties. He noted then that it was in the US’ “national security interests to have an economically viable Vietnam strong enough to resist, in concert with its neighbors, the heavy-handed tactics of its great power neighbor”, referring to China.
This has largely been American policy towards Vietnam since, though in recent years the two sides have greatly strengthened their military ties as Beijing has moved to militarize the territory it holds in the South China Sea.
In March, a second American aircraft carrier docked in Vietnam in as many years, while the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, a military initiative now under deliberation in the US Senate, could offer as much as $6.9 billion for US military spending aid among its Asian allies, including Taiwan and Vietnam.
As for Vietnamese officials, they are “building a strategic trust between the two countries and they want to engage the US more in the South China Sea,” Nguyen Thanh Trung, of the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City, told Voice of America in March. “I think that in the future Vietnam will be more welcoming of US naval ships.”
US support has also helped Hanoi to become a primary interlocutor of Asian affairs in recent years. Vietnam currently holds the annually rotating chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc and is a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for the next two years.
But there is still a debate over whether Hanoi wants to take bilateral relations to the next level. Currently, US-Vietnam ties are classified only as a “comprehensive partnership”, compared to Vietnam’s more impressive “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership” with China, an ideological brethren of Hanoi.
Last year, Communist Party chief Trong was supposed to visit Washington, but his trip was put off most probably because of ill-health, after he is thought to have suffered a stroke months earlier.
It was speculated at the time that the Vietnamese leader would have boosted bilateral relations to a “strategic partnership”, a clear sign that the two sides see eye-to-eye on China’s rise. Trong is expected to visit Washington when travel resumes following the Covid-19 pandemic, a highest-level visit at which the two sides’ partnership would likely be upgraded.
“Our growing security and defense relationships reflect the fact that our security interests are very much alike,” US Ambassador Kritenbrink told media over the weekend.
“We are more interested in expanding the co-operation between our two militaries and advancing our work together on shared security priorities on the East Sea or in the Mekong Delta and even Korean Peninsula,” he added.
Yet, despite the expressed bon mots and perceptions of Vietnam as America’s closest ally in Southeast Asia, relations are still troubled in areas. Hanoi is still trying to play a balancing act between the US and China, without jumping fully into one camp or the other, and still purporting amity with both.
Writing in China’s Communist Party-affiliated Global Times in March, Cheng Hanping, of Nanjing University, commented: “The US and Vietnam have extremely different ideologies, and they have had many disputes on human rights, democracy, and freedom of public opinion. This cannot be suddenly changed upon finding a similar strategic objective.”
He went on: “[The] US-Vietnam partnership would be nothing like the partnerships the US has with Japan, South Korea, and even the Philippines.”
Indeed, maybe the relationship’s greatest challenge will be how both sides avoid sensitive topics like human rights and democracy, says Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, a Washington-based think tank.
As American attention refocuses on China’s human rights violations, including Beijing’s mistreatment of minority Uighurs and Hong Kongers, “it is conceivable that renewed criticism of Vietnam’s communist regime would occur,” Grossman added.
Not everyone in Washington is happy with how successive US administrations have ignored Vietnam’s abysmal human rights record. Representative Christopher Smith has noted that American diplomats “are so focused on the fact that Vietnam is not China that this oppressive police state is granted trade and security benefits without conditionality.”
This is hardly new, as Smith noted back in 2018, because historically America has “overlooked civil rights abuses in countries when we are trying to have alliances that support our national security.” But today, Smith went on, “US policy has failed the Vietnamese people.”
“We have enriched Vietnam’s Communist leaders and coddled their interests at the expense of the hope and desires of the Vietnamese people for liberty and human rights, which they are striving to achieve but have been, unfortunately, repressed,” he added.
Nonetheless, Secretary of State Pompeo’s statement on July 11 notably mentioned continued bilateral “respect for each other’s independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political systems.” This, said Grossman, “has served as the basis for productive bilateral relations since the end of the war.”
The other basis for the mutual appreciation is the old concept that an ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’, a notion that has allowed the two former foes to bury their antagonistic past and look towards a more cooperative future.