By Carl Thayer
On July 25, President Barack Obama and President Truong Tan Sang announced their decision to “form a U.S.-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership to provide an overarching framework for advancing the relationship.” Prior to Sang’s visit to Washington from July 24-26, many observers expected that Vietnam and the United States would raise their bilateral relationship to a strategic partnership, first suggested by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a visit to Hanoi in 2010.
Vietnam has long sought to diversify its foreign relations. In the process of expanding its foreign relations, Vietnam applies the term “strategic partner” to special states which it considers particularly important to its national interests. Currently Vietnam has formed strategic partnerships with China, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Russia, South Korea, Spain, Singapore, Thailand, and the United Kingdom. Vietnam’s partnerships with Russia and China were later raised to comprehensive strategic partner and strategic cooperative partner, respectively.
In his keynote speech at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said that Vietnam sought strategic partnerships with all permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Since Vietnam already had strategic partnerships with China, Russia, and the United Kingdom, it would need to establish strategic partnerships with France and the United States in order to realize the vision that Dung laid out.
Vietnam’s strategic partnerships with other countries vary in form and substance from partner to partner. In general, these agreements set out a high-level joint mechanism to oversee their implementation, and are accompanied by a multi-year Plan of Action covering objectives in key sectors of cooperation, such as political-diplomatic, economic, science and technology, social-cultural, and security and defense.
There are two possible explanations for why the United States and Vietnam opted for a comprehensive partnership rather than a strategic partnership.
First, as negotiations on a strategic partnership bogged down partly due to Vietnam’s worsening human rights record, both sides concluded that a less high-level agreement was preferable to no agreement at all. Second, senior party conservatives within the Vietnamese Communist Party reportedly objected to using the term “strategic partnership” to characterize their country’s relations with the United States.
The question, then, arises on whether the U.S.-Vietnam comprehensive partnership should be viewed as a strategic partnership by another name. A closer look at the Joint Statement issued after discussions between Obama and Sang reveals that the U.S.-Vietnam comprehensive partnership is very much a work in progress.
First, most of the items included in the nine points of the Joint Statement merely reiterated existing areas of and mechanisms for cooperation. They are: the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement Council, the Joint Committee for Scientific and Technological Cooperation, the Defense Policy Dialogue, and the Political, Security, and Defense Dialogue. Nonetheless, the Comprehensive Partnership created a new political and diplomatic dialogue mechanism between the U.S. Secretary of State and Vietnam’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Second, the Comprehensive Partnership makes no mention of a Plan of Action. Instead, the Joint Statement notes that the two governments will create new mechanisms for cooperation for each of the following nine sectors: political and diplomatic relations, trade and economic ties, science and technology, education and training, environment and health, war legacy issues, defense and security, protection and promotion of human rights, and culture, sports, and tourism.
In summary, the new partnership will help advance bilateral cooperation on trade and economic issues, including the conclusion of negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, and institutionalize a regular dialogue at ministerial level between the two countries. However, it falls short of Vietnam’s other formal strategic partnership agreements and currently lacks the strategic vision of Vietnam’s comprehensive partnership with Australia.
Carlyle Thayer is Emeritus Professor at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra, Australia. Read more by Professor Thayer here.