It took 20 years after the end of the war for Vietnam and the US to normalize their relations and more than a quarter of a century later, the two former enemies still could not upgrade their relationship to strategic partnership despite having the same interests in the face of concerns about China. Why?
With many efforts from US Senators like John McCain and John Kerry in the two decades after the war, Vietnam and the US have trust and goodwill to reconcile the former enemy relationship. Since then, President Bill Clinton just decided to lift the embargo with Vietnam in 1994 and the two countries officially normalized relations a year later.
But for a long time after normalization, the relationship between the two countries is not really normal, according to Dr. Nguyen Tuan Viet, head of the Department of International Politics and Diplomacy at the Vietnam Diplomatic Academy.
“Trust is a big factor that hinders the relationship between the two countries to go further,” said Ph.D. Viet at a discussion on the future partnership between Vietnam and the US by the Washington-based Center for International Studies (CSIS) on April 29 via online form.
Viet, who holds a Ph.D. thesis on US-Vietnam relations at the University of Virginia, said the relationship between the two countries developed very slowly in the years after normalization. Viet gave an example of the difficulty in negotiating between the US and Vietnam on the Bilateral Trade Agreement and the Permanent Normal Trade Relations which he said took a lot of time. According to him, one of many factors, which he learned through MPs like John McCain and Jim Webb and many high-ranking officials of Vietnam, said that it was “trust.”
The war that lasted for nearly 20 years has caused both sides to lose a lot of strength and property. More than 58,000 American soldiers were killed in Vietnam, while the Vietnamese side said more than 2 million Vietnamese people and soldiers were killed. After the war ended in 1975, the US imposed an embargo on Vietnam until it was lifted on July 12, 1995.
“There are feuds from both sides,” said Murray Hiebert, senior researcher at the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS, when talking about the history of relations between Vietnam and the US at the center’s seminar. “The Vietnamese army probably takes the US military very seriously, but they really don’t trust each other completely.”
Vietnam and the US have come a long way from their former enemies to becoming partners. In recent years, the two countries have become closer quickly due to shared concerns about China’s sovereignty claims and aggressive behavior in the South China Sea (Vietnamese call it the East Sea).
“However, there is still a lack of trust between Vietnam and the US,” said Bich Tran, a researcher specializing in Vietnam’s foreign and security policy at the Verve Research Institute, at a discussion on April 29. One of the reasons that the Vietnamese side does not have complete faith in the US, according to this researcher, because “there are doubts from Hanoi that the US’s support for dissidents encourages democracy and support for human rights in a bid to overthrow the Communist Party of Vietnam in a process known as “peaceful evolution.”
An updated report by the US Congress on the relationship between the US and Vietnam released in February said that the bilateral relationship between the two countries is still limited by a number of factors including the fact that Vietnamese leaders also doubt that “the long-term goal of the US was to see the end of the Vietnamese Communist Party’s monopoly of power through peaceful developments.”
Another reason, according to Ms. Bich Tran, who is also a member of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Antwerp, is that the US has yet to make a final decision on Vietnam’s exemption from being punished if buying Russian weapons under the United States Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATS) even though the US Congress in July 2018 removed Vietnam from this list.
Edgard Kagan, senior director for East Asia and Oceania at the US National Security Council, acknowledged the difficulty of changing Vietnam’s dependence on defense equipment against Russia. “This is not something that can change quickly and there are many factors in it,” Mr. Kagan said at the CSIS conference on April 29.
However, statistics from the Institute of Peace Research (SIPRI) in Stockholm in Sweden show that Vietnam’s arms purchases from Russia decreased significantly between 2000 and 2019 compared to 10 years earlier, from 68% to 25%. Other military equipment suppliers for Vietnam include Canada, Israel, Ukraine, and Slovakia, etc.
Vietnam and the US signed a comprehensive partnership agreement in 2014 and since then there have been talks between the two sides on enhancing the relationship. Since 2019, the two countries have wanted to upgrade their comprehensive partnerships to a strategic level, according to experts and observers of Vietnam’s politics. However, that has not happened even though Vietnam and the US have just celebrated the 25th anniversary of the normalization of relations.
Vietnamese Ambassador to the US Ha Kim Ngoc, at the first discussion on the future of Vietnam-US relations held by CSIS on April 27, said that bilateral cooperation between Vietnam and the US was essentially a “strategic partnership” and that the only thing to do is to change the name of the relationship. Similarly, RAND Corporation senior defense policy researcher Derek Grossman said during a recent ISEAS-Yusof Ishak conference at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies that although Vietnam and the US are now at a comprehensive level, the two countries have cooperated strategically in many fields.
According to Ambassador Ngoc, both Vietnam and the US want to raise their relationship to a new level in the near future.
The US is said to want to upgrade its comprehensive relations with Vietnam to a strategic level to be able to cooperate more with the Southeast Asian nation in order to deal with China’s growing influence, but for a number of reasons this has not been done, part of which, as Professor Carl Thayer of the University of New South Wales in Australia said in a previous interview with VOA, there is a difference in statements about “strategic partnership” of the two countries. Vietnam does not want a military alliance with any country to oppose a third country in its “4 no” defense policy while, according to GS Thayer, the US sees “strategic” in the direction of an ally in security and defense cooperation.
However, this seems to be changing when Vietnam, in the National Defense White Paper launched in 2019, has changed its “3 no” policy to “4 no” but opens the possibility of the alliance in case of need.
“Vietnam’s latest National Defense White Paper says that depending on specific circumstances and conditions, Vietnam will consider developing the necessary appropriate military and defense relations with other countries regardless of the differences in political institutions and development levels,” said researcher Bich Tran. “This will pave the way for Vietnam to cooperate more deeply with democracies such as the US, Japan, and India.”
According to Kagan, who was appointed to the National Security Council by President Joe Biden in January, the US and Vietnam “have a chance to take the relationship to new heights.”
There is plenty of evidence that Vietnam and the US are building trust with each other, in almost everything from politics, security, and defense to economics, despite a tragic past and the differences between the two countries, according to Ph.D. Viet.
“We see that today the US respects the Vietnamese political system and has had far more high-level meetings in recent years than before,” said Viet.
General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong became the first Communist Party leader to visit the White House on a trip to Washington in 2015. A year later, President Barack Obama lifted the ban on lethal weapons against Vietnam. The Vietnam-US relationship deepened under President Donald Trump when he made two trips to Vietnam during his four-year term. Besides, there are numerous visits of the US Defense Secretary and high-ranking officials to Hanoi.
A recent survey by a research institute in Singapore found that 84% of Vietnamese respondents said they trust the US, one of the highest rates in the region.
Not only has its confidence level increased, but Vietnam has now also taken more seriously the demands of the US, according to Viet. This is reflected in the fact that Vietnam actively helps to find the remains of American soldiers missing in the Vietnam War. Meanwhile, the US announced in July last year that it would assist Vietnam with modern DNA extraction and analysis equipment to find and identify more than 200,000 Vietnamese soldiers missing in the war. Since 1985, the US and Vietnam have worked together to search for the remains of American soldiers missing in the Vietnam War. Currently, more than 700 of the total of nearly 2,000 American soldiers missing in Vietnam have been identified and repatriated.
In addition to cooperating on finding the remains of missing soldiers, the US also helps Vietnam clean up dioxin in polluted areas, assist Agent Orange victims, and clear unexploded ordnance.
“Resolving war legacies more responsibly will be the key to building more trust between the two countries,” said Viet.
Human rights are one of the biggest differences between the two countries and the most “delicate” issue in the Vietnam-US relationship, but now the two sides are able to speak frankly with each other, according to Viet.
With the same opinion, Mr. Kagan said that “human rights are clearly still a challenge but we have reached the point where there is nothing more to hide when we realize that we must find a way to make progress but not just pointing at each other.”
The US and Vietnam annually organize Human Rights Dialogue, which is considered as one of the nine communication channels to enhance the comprehensive development of the relationship between the two countries. Immediately after the 2020 Human Rights Dialogue ended in October last year, Vietnam arrested the independent journalist Pham Doan Trang, and the US State Department immediately criticized the arrest.
The Biden administration places human rights at the heart of foreign policy and Washington’s access to global problems. However, it is not clear how the Biden government will apply this policy to Vietnam.
According to Mr. Kagan, the US considers Vietnam a key leader in the region and an important partner in the US’s strategy in the Asia-Pacific. And although there is “friction” in the relationship with Vietnam, he is “extremely optimistic” about the future partnership between the two countries.
In the new Interim National Security Strategy Guide issued by the administration of President Joe Biden in March, Vietnam is specifically named as a partner Washington aims to deepen cooperation regional security. Most recently, the Biden administration also removed Vietnam from the list of countries manipulating the US currency.
“This is a very different relationship but also one that we have a lot of common interests in,” said Mr. Kagan, saying the US wants to expand its partnership with Vietnam. According to Ph.D. Viet, with the increased goodwill and mutual trust and many mutual interests between the two countries, the future of the partnership between Vietnam and the US will be advancing.