By Hai Hong Nguyen
Vietnam and the United States are at a turning point in their bilateral relations as the two former enemies prepare to commemorate the 20th anniversary of normalizing diplomatic relations in July. While the two countries have exchanged frequent high-ranking visits in the past two years, the upcoming visit of Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) general-secretary Nguyen Phu Trong to Washington, expected in July, will likely attract the most attention (plans are also in the works for President Barack Obama to visit Vietnam later this year). During a meeting with Trong in Hanoi last month, visiting Senator John McCain, a key actor together with Secretary of State John Kerry in promoting the normalization and fostering of diplomatic relations between the two countries, was quoted for saying that he was committed to do his best to “make the visit be able to achieve the best results.”
What might be “the best results” as meant by McCain? More importantly, how will these results impact bilateral relations in the years to come, given the fact that the security situation in the Asia Pacific in general, and the South China Sea in particular, has become more complicated?
Currently, three outstanding issues have emerged in the relationship between Vietnam and the United States: the possibility of upgrading the comprehensive partnership to the strategic partnership, the conclusion of bilateral negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, and U.S. recognition of Vietnam as a market economy as well as full abolition of its weapons embargo on Vietnam.
The 20th anniversary of normalizing diplomatic relations should be taken as an opportunity for Vietnam and the United States to upgrade bilateral relations to a strategic partnership. In July 2013, President Obama and President Truong Tan Sang established a comprehensive partnership during Sang’s visit to the White House. Some Vietnam experts feel there is an implicit understanding between both sides that the comprehensive partnership should be seen as a strategic partnership under another name. Progress has been made in all nine areas of cooperation identified in the joint statement issued by Obama and Sang over the past two years, including in bilateral defense cooperation.
However, it is not just a matter of name. For the United States, a strategic partner must share not only its security concerns and economic interests but also the same values, including respect for human rights and democracy, which have been traditionally a difficult issue in the bilateral relationship. Hence, it is hard to expect a full strategic partnership agreement to be signed during Trong’s visit to Washington.
But Trong and Obama can define a new framework for U.S.-Vietnam relations, which can serve as an experimental transition to a potential strategic partnership. This framework should help set the outlook for bilateral relations in the future. It can be characterized as “comprehensive partnership, mutual trust, strategic cooperation, and shared development” (đối tác toàn diện, tin cậy lẫn nhau, hợp tác chiến lược, cùng nhau phát triển).
On the TPP front, there are reasons to be confident that the two countries will declare the conclusion of bilateral TPP negotiations on this occasion. Among TPP member countries, Vietnam has perhaps shown the strongest desire to conclude the agreement as early as possible. For Vietnam, joining the TPP is as simple as its accession to other international regimes like the World Trade Organization (WTO), because all decisions are made without challenges to the Communist Party’s legitimacy given its monopoly of power, barring a few key concessions on labor and legal reforms that would be required to join TPP. On the U.S. side, though still facing critiques from different circles and sectors, the Obama administration is determined to conclude TPP negotiations with all partners by the end of this year.
Only by winning in the TPP front will the United States be able to create a counter-weight against an emerging China-led Asian economic architecture and ensure that it still writes international trade rules. A joint statement on the conclusion of bilateral TPP negotiations between Vietnam and the United States could be tremendously significant. An immediate effect of this would be the U.S. self-executive recognition of Vietnam as a market economy.
The third point to be discussed during Trong’s visit is the full abolition of the arms embargo imposed by the United States after the Vietnam War. Last year, Secretary Kerry announced a partial lifting of the sales of lethal weapons to Vietnam for maritime security reasons, as a way to counter China’s actions in the South China Sea. However, Vietnamese foreign minister Pham Binh Minh has said that maintaining the ban in a normal relationship is abnormal.
Senator McCain has recently called for providing more defensive weapons to Vietnam in response to China’s expanding land reclamation projects in the South China Sea. This was followed by a joint vision statement on defense cooperation signed by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and his Vietnamese counterpart General Phung Quang Thanh during the former’s three-day visit to Hanoi in early June. But according to U.S. ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius, human rights issues are the biggest obstacle for the United States to fully abolish the arms embargo.
Despite this, nothing is impossible, as Osius reckoned. The ambassador also said that the United States now considers Vietnam a partner and is willing to help Vietnam become stronger. Hence, while still making sure that American values are respected or at least pushing Vietnam to relax its tightly controlled space for civil society to operate, the Obama administration could take a further step forward in reinforcing strategic cooperation with Vietnam by lifting fully the arms embargo on the condition that it will do this based on an annual review of Vietnam’s human rights record.
It remains to be seen whether and how the two governments will address the issues above. Both Vietnam and the United States will surely want the visit to be more substantive rather than being merely symbolic. With Trong’s visit, Vietnam signals that it is increasingly relying on the United States to balance China in the South China Sea. Concurrently, by according strategic importance to Trong’s visit, the United States shows that it values Vietnam as a newly elevated regional partner in its “pivot” policy to the Asia-Pacific region.
Dr. Hai Hong Nguyen is a research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Center for the Responsibility to Protect at the University of Queensland.