One-time enemies, the US and Vietnam are developing new-found links as both countries take stock of China’s rise.
Just over fifteen years after the US and Vietnam normalised relations marred by war, the naval destroyer USS John S. McCain docked in Da Nang last week to mark the anniversary. The ship is named after the grandfather of 2008 US presidential candidate John McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam. Commanding officer Jeffrey Kim said that “over the last 15 years, we’ve established trust, a mutual respect, and I know that, in the coming years, our friendship and relationship will continue to become better.”
According to a Vietnamese scholar who requested anonymity, the tighter relations are seen as a good thing inside the country. “Vietnamese view the US rather positive as the war is becoming history in the memory of a new generation”, he said in an email.
Trading off civil liberties?
From a low base, US-Vietnam relations have grown during the decade-and-a-half since normalisation, with both Presidents Clinton and Bush II visiting Vietnam while in office. However, human rights activists have criticised what seems to be a bipartisan drive in Washington to develop ties with the one-party state. In 2006, on the eve of President Bush’s visit to Vietnam for an economic summit, the US State Department removed Vietnam from its short list of the world’s worst religious persecutors.
After Vietnam joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in January 2007, the government arrested nearly 40 dissidents, sentencing more than 20 to lengthy prison terms. National Assembly elections were held in May of that year, but only 50 of the 500 deputies chosen did not belong to the Communist Party. Internet and media censorship remains tight, with a 2008 decree specifying the information that private bloggers may legally post on their blogs. Several political bloggers were harassed, temporarily detained, or jailed during 2009. A 2003 law bans the receipt and distribution of antigovernment e-mail messages, and, reminiscent of Thailand nowadays, websites considered “reactionary” are blocked.
Nonetheless, as Walter Lohman, Asia Studies Director at the Heritage Foundation put it “Since 2001 conclusion of the US-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Act really, economic relations with the U.S. have taken off.” The U.S. is Vietnam’s top export market and Americans are Vietnam’s top foreign investor, with bilateral trade reaching US$15.4 billion in 2009.
The McCain visit came after another by the USS George Washington – a massive Pacific-based aircraft carrier also utilised in recent US-South Korea naval exercises in the Yellow Sea, which irked both North Korea and China, which responded with highly-publicised military exercises of its own.
The US is developing new links with southeast Asian countries as a counter to China’s growing influence – with statistics published on Monday August 16 suggesting that China may have overtaken Japan as the world’s second largest economy, albeit an assessment based only on quarterly data.
China is claiming ownership of the South China Sea, where it has territorial disputes with some southeast Asian countries, Vietnam included. At the July meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton American angered China by offering US support for “a collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants for resolving the various territorial disputes without coercion.”
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi acknowledged that “there are territorial and maritime rights disputes” between China and some of its neighbors but, he said, “those disputes should not be viewed as ones between China and ASEAN as a whole just because the countries involved are ASEAN members.”
According to Dr Jian Junbo, Assistant Professor at the Institute of International Studies, Fudan University “the tactic of internationalizing South China Sea issue will be a bad thing for this region. China will never agree to internationalize this issue.”
The US and Vietnam are discussing a nuclear energy deal, which will build on a March agreement between the countries to expand cooperation on peaceful nuclear energy. Vietnam said in June it plans to build as many as 13 nuclear power plants with a capacity of 16000MW over the next twenty years.
Critics say the deal is contrary to the US counter-proliferation agenda – with China alleging double-standards. Other say that the the deal could lower the bar for nuclear technology transfer compared with US agreements with other countries, such as recent demand that the United Arab Emirates agree not to make nuclear fuel – a step on the road to developing nuclear weapons. Some say it is highly-unlikely that Vietnam would go rogue on nuclear technology, and that it lacks the technology to enrich uranium, for example. Carlyle Thayer is a Vietnam expert at the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra. He said that “Vietnam is a signatory to all the relevant conventions and would be open for intensive inspections to ensure that it was not diverting weapons grade material.”
Despite the growing US-Vietnam ties, Hanoi is not about to jettison China, the apparent model for its own doi moi governance system – economic liberalisation shackled down with continued one-party rule. has also moved to develop defence contacts with China. Vietnamese naval ships made their first port visit to China in 2010, after the two countries and China and Vietnam conducted their first joint search and rescue exercise. There is extensive cooperation over a swathe of areas – political, economic, social, cultural, defence – and through a variety of bilateral party to party, state-to-state, province to province and military to military channels, with hundreds of bilateral meetings each year.
However contentious issues such as the disputes over islands in the South China Sea, the massive bilateral trade balance and hundreds of thousands of illegal Chinese workers in Vietnam all perhaps stoke a feeling that China’s assertiveness needs countering. The two countries are thought be discussing a more formalised military relationship. According to Thayer , “Vietnam is signaling it want the US to remain engaged in the region as a hedge against Chinese military dominance.”
It is unlikely, however, that Vietnam will go too far to offend China in the process. To illustrate, in April 2009 the Vietnamese government temporarily suspended news magazine Du Lich for running articles about the country’s territorial dispute with China on the 30th anniversary of the Vietnamese-Chinese war. Dr Jian said that “Vietnam should keep friendly relations with China, although they have territorial disputes. Relying on US is not a good way to keep regional stability in South East Asia in a long run.”Show