U.S.-Vietnam: From Comprehensive to Strategic Partners?

By Carl Thayer

Vietnamese military officials USS Curtis Wilbur prepare to moor in Da Nang. Carl Thayer argues the United States and Vietnam assign different meanings to their partnership agreement.. Source: U.S. Navy photo, U.S. Government work.

Vietnamese military officials watch U.S.S. Curtis Wilbur arrive in Da Nang. Carl Thayer argues the United States and Vietnam assign different meanings to their partnership agreement.. Source: U.S. Navy photo, U.S. Government work.

Lew Stern argues that Vietnam has adopted a new strategic vocabulary that will facilitate an upgrade in U.S.-Vietnam defense relations from a “comprehensive partnership” to a “strategic partnership.”*

Stern ascribes greater efficacy to the term “strategic partner” (đối tác chiến lược) than Vietnamese officials do. How else can one explain why Spain is one of Vietnam’s strategic partners?

In fact, the United States and Vietnam use the term “strategic partner” differently. For the United States the term places a greater emphasis on defence relations. To the Vietnamese a “strategic partnership” is a political term generally used to identify states that have developed comprehensive bilateral relations with Vietnam and which Vietnam considers to be particularly important for the attainment of its national interests.*

This idea of Vietnam becoming a strategic partner of the United States was first mentioned in the 2010 Quadrennial Defence Review where Vietnam was listed alongside Indonesia and Malaysia as a “potential strategic partner.” The idea reportedly was first proposed directly to Vietnam by former secretary of state Hillary Clinton that same year.

Strategic partnerships are embodied in official declarations whose form and content varies from partner to partner. Strategic partnership agreements normally set out a high-level joint mechanism to oversee their implementation. Strategic partnership agreements are also accompanied by a multi-year Plan of Action covering objectives in each sector of the agreement such as political-diplomatic, economic, science and technology, social-cultural, security and defense, etc.

Vietnam presently has thirteen strategic partners: Russia (2001), Japan (2006), India (2007), China (2008), South Korea (2009), Spain (2009), United Kingdom (2010), Germany (2011), and Italy, France, Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand (2013). In 2009, Vietnam re-designated its bilateral relations with China and South Korea as strategic cooperative partnerships, while Vietnam and Russia re-badged their bilateral relations a comprehensive strategic partnership in 2012.

Vietnam’s relations with both Australia and the United States are both characterized as comprehensive partnerships. In Australia’s case, former prime minister Kevin Rudd reportedly rejected the term “strategic partner” as inappropriate for two reasons. First, Rudd did not favor a term that was merely symbolic; he wanted it to have practical meaning. Second, Rudd felt that the term “strategic” should be reserved for close allies, such as the United States.

In 2013, the United States and Vietnam opted for a comprehensive partnership because it suited both sides not to become formal “strategic partners.”

The key terms that Vietnam uses to appraise its relations with the United States are objects of cooperation (đối tác) and objects of struggle (đối tượng). These were adopted for the first time in 2003 and revised and updated by the party Central Committee last year. Vietnam’s Central Military Committee (Quân Ủy Trung ương) is presently conducting conferences for senior officers to disseminate this new resolution (Quân đội nhân dân, February 15, 2014).

Basically, Resolution No. 8 directs Vietnam to cooperate with the United States for mutual benefit when their interests converge and to struggle with the United States when it challenges Vietnam’s national interests, such as one-party rule and human rights.

While Vietnam and the United States share a convergence of security interests, these interests are not congruent. Vietnam does not want to become a “strategic partner” of the United States in the defense sense used by the Pentagon.

Dr. Carlyle A. 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.

*The author has expanded on this point in: Carlyle A. Thayer, “Vietnam on the Road to Global Integration: Forging Strategic Partnerships Through International Security Cooperation,” Keynote Paper to the Opening Plenary Session, 4th International Vietnamese Studies Conference, co-sponsored by the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences and Vietnam National University, Hanoi, November 26-30, 2012.