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Vietnam and rapprochement with the United States

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US President Barack Obama and Vietnamese General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong shake hands during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, 7 July 2015. (Photo: AAP)

In Brief

The visit, the week before last, of the general secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Trong to Washington at the invitation of President Obama marked another important step on the long journey towards rapprochement between Vietnam and the United States. The visit marked the twentieth anniversary of the 'normalisation' of diplomatic relations and the removal of some of the embargoes after the end of the Indo-Chinese war nearly twenty years earlier.


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In all, it’s taken a generation to heal officially the wounds of war and the scars of US defeat at the hands of Ho Chi Minh’s North Vietnamese forces and their triumph over the South.

Nguyen’s reception at the White House, wrote Hoang Binh Quan, a member of the central committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam and chairman of the its commission for external relations, in the Washington Post in the lead-up to the visit, symbolised respect for Vietnam’s choice of political regime. By inviting the party general secretary, a position that has no equivalent in the American system of government, Washington at last extended proper respect to Vietnam’s political choices. Vietnam’s political system may not reflect that of the United States in many ways, but Vietnam now sought to move in the same direction as the United States — as a market economy, with protections for foreign investors and the same ambitions for peace and stability in international affairs, Hoang wrote. ‘Strong partners — and good friends — are not necessarily those who are most alike but those who can accept each other as they are and have a frank dialogue about their differences’.

The celebrations in Washington and Hanoi naturally focused on how far the relationship has come and where it might go, not on how long it took to get there.

Moving beyond what President Obama called the two countries’ ‘difficult history’ has taken a long time, contrary to the hype about how remarkable and rapid their reconciliation had been during the visit. Within a decade, the United States was in deep alliance with the former Axis powers, Germany and Japan, after their defeat in the Second World War. Vietnam was different. It tore at America’s heart and profoundly divided its people. Vietnam was bound to remain in the sin bin (or the penalty box), so long as there was no overwhelming strategic imperative for seeking rapprochement. Contrast Australian and US post war relations with Vietnam. Australia too was mired in the Vietnam War, and deeply complicit in its origins. Its conduct and its failure divided the nation. Yet Australia opened diplomatic relations with Hanoi in 1975; quickly lifted embargoes on trade; embraced Vietnam’s joining ASEAN in 1995 and entered into defence cooperation from 1998 — despite becoming proportionally one of the developed world’s largest hosts to Vietnamese refugees from the anti-Hanoi South.

As Murray Hiebert points out this week US-Vietnam economic relations have blossomed since normalisation, with two-way trade topping US$36 billion last year, up 12-fold since 2001 when the two countries signed a bilateral free trade agreementPolitical and security ties between Vietnam and the United States have also come a long way since the two countries normalised relations, Hiebert says. ‘Since then, they have stepped up high-level visits and launched regular political, security, and defence dialogues to tackle outstanding issues. During a visit to Washington in July 2013, Vietnam’s president and his US counterpart laid the groundwork for a comprehensive partnership between the two countries. They agreed on nine areas of cooperation including political and economic relations, security ties, human rights, and cooperation on tackling environmental issues’.

Two main things have thus driven the eventual concession of respect for Vietnam as it is, rather than how it might be refashioned, by the United States.

First, Vietnam came to prosper and thrive despite its effective economic and political isolation from the largest power in the West (until the United States lifted embargoes in 1994, normalised diplomatic relations in 1995, signed the United States–Vietnam trade agreement in December 2001 and Vietnam acceded to the WTO in November 2006). Vietnam, though a one-party state, was more successful in the reformation of the economic, social and political conditions of its citizens from the 1980s than many in America might have presumed, given the nature of its political system. In the early years it was favoured by earnings from oil and gas exports. Over the past three decades a centrally planned economy has largely been supplanted by a market economy — in large part the result of bottom-up pressure for change to which the country’s Communist Party leadership has acquiesced. This prospect would have been remote had Vietnam not diplomatically re-positioned into ASEAN and. consistent with its outward-looking development model, embraced and been embraced by its neighbours in East Asia, including China, Japan, Australia, as well as countries elsewhere  in the world, like Europe. Vietnam became a relatively prosperous lower middle income economy — increasingly integrated into the world economy — that demanded attention in ASEAN and globally, despite its earlier isolation.

Second, there has been steady growth of the political imperative to build a surrogate alliance relationship around both countries’ anxieties over the rise of China, inspired more recently by the US pivot towards Asia.

Now both countries are engaged in the negotiation of the twelve-nation Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement that would give Vietnam preferred access over other Asian partners, for example, in US textile markets (not ‘displacing US workers’, as Hoang tellingly noted in his Washington Post piece, but displacing other Asian suppliers, some of which are poorer in per capita GDP terms than Vietnam). In the language of international economics, the dominant element in the deal that appears to be on the table between the United States and Vietnam in the TPP diverts trade; it does not create it. It’s a horse trade of economic for political favours, although relaxation of embargoes on weapons sales awaits tangible progress on human rights in Vietnam.

As David Brown observes in this week’s lead essay, human rights — chiefly political and religious freedoms — have been on the American agenda since Washington and Hanoi resumed direct dialogue about a quarter of a century ago. ‘Though bilateral ties have grown vastly broader, US prodding on civil liberties still piques Vietnam’s one-party regime’.

Brown argues that Americans are unlikely to put aside their criticism of Vietnam on human rights no matter how close US–Vietnam ties may become in other respects. Hanoi can complain with some justification that Washington holds it, among America’s friends, to a uniquely high standard. ‘There’s a subjective element at work here: Vietnam’s intolerance of domestic dissent is a significant impediment to the resolution of America’s Vietnam War trauma. Americans want their former foes and others to be more like America. If, like Germany and Japan, the Vietnamese become exemplary world citizens, the sting of defeat is eased, the spilt blood and treasure somehow justified’.

Yet, Brown concludes, the political model in Vietnam is not the United States or other pluralist democracies, nor China: it’s Singapore, the city state that has effected ‘authoritarian legalism’. Whether that’s a stage along the way in political development, or an end-point, there’s a way to go before Vietnam gets there.

Peter Drysdale is Editor of the East Asia Forum.

One response to “Vietnam and rapprochement with the United States”

  1. Thank you for your perceptive article on Vietnam’s rapprochement with the United States. All true, but you could perhaps add for completeness the pause in the otherwise positive development of Australia’s bilateral relations. After Vietnam invaded Cambodia to remove Pol Pot in December 1978, Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser reversed all efforts at reconciliation. Aid was curtailed, visits cancelled, commercial feelers discouraged. Only on Bob Hawke’s election in 1983 did things improve, when Foreign Minister Bill Hayden instructing the new Ambassador to Hanoi to start an aid program, encourage trade, and hand back our diplomatic premises in Saigon to the new regime in Hanoi. Such was the opposition from Washington, Beijing and ASEAN to such initiatives (particularly Bangkok), that our aid was given under UN auspices rather than bilaterally. Fraser later admitted that he over-reacted.

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