By Phuong Nguyen —
U.S. presidential visits to Vietnam, where America was involved in a long, brutal war that scarred its national consciousness, are bound to be emotional events. But when President Barack Obama visited Vietnam May 23-25, the high emotions on both sides had less to do with post-war reconciliation and more to do with exhilaration over the future possibilities for the former adversaries.
Former U.S. president Bill Clinton sought to “heal the wounds of war” when he traveled to Vietnam in 2000 — five years after he announced the normalization of ties with Hanoi; and George W. Bush signaled to the world when he rang the bell of the Ho Chi Minh City stock exchange in 2006 that Vietnam was “open for business.”
Obama — whose young adulthood was less entangled with U.S. military involvement in Vietnam – arrived in Hanoi, the seat of the Vietnamese government, and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s economic heart, to open a new chapter of partnership that will define U.S.-Vietnam relations in the 21st century.
News on the first day of Obama’s meetings in Hanoi, that the United States would fully lift its decades-long ban on the sale of lethal weapons to Vietnam, quickly came to dominate headlines on both sides of the Pacific. In October 2014, Secretary of State John Kerry announced the administration’s easing of the ban, officially to help Vietnam boost its maritime security capabilities and in response to “modest” human rights improvements.
On May 23, standing side by side with Vietnamese president Tran Dai Quang at the presidential palace in Hanoi, Obama said the United States would lift the ban completely, to ensure that “Vietnam has access to the equipment it needs to defend itself.” With that he jettisoned the remnant of a blanket ban on Hanoi based on wartime ideological differences.
Missing the point?
The U.S. messaging left the impression in some quarters that the presidential visit and the arms ban removal had everything to do with countering China’s aggression in the disputed South China Sea, where Vietnam is an active claimant, and U.S. efforts to somehow “lure” Vietnam away from China. This zero-sum thinking, however, misses the point — both about Vietnam and what the United States hopes to build with this young country of nearly 100 million people, as it looks to anchor U.S. leadership across the Asia Pacific.
U.S. and Vietnamese strategic interests converge well beyond the security front. In Obama’s own words, Vietnam is a “vital country in a vital part of the world,” where the majority of jobs, growth, and business opportunities are expected to be created this century; and America wants to be a part of that. Few can fully appreciate U.S. vested interests in Vietnam without realizing the vigor of bilateral trade and investment relations that have reinforced increasingly strong ties between the two countries.
Vietnam has become the largest trading partner and exporter to the United States among Southeast Asian countries — with the total value of bilateral trade reaching $45 billion last year. Major U.S. companies such as Intel and General Electric have sizable operations throughout Vietnam, and are helping train the country’s next generation of engineers. A growing number of Silicon Valley-based venture capitalists have come to set up shops in Vietnam, betting on the country’s tech start-ups, and a rising generation of tech entrepreneurs and innovators. When the Fulbright University Vietnam — partly backed with U.S. taxpayer money — opens its doors in Ho Chi Minh City this fall, more and more young Vietnamese will be pursuing U.S. standards of education, in addition to the 19,000-plus Vietnamese students already studying in the United States. These figures will grow exponentially if and when the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement – already signed by Vietnam — is finalized.
Statistics including surveys and polls show us three things about Vietnam. No other countries in Asia have recorded the broad-based support for the U.S.-led TPP more than Vietnam. No other cultures in Asia are more in favor of the free market system than Vietnam, and no other Asian countries have registered higher levels of concern about China’s efforts to dislodge the current international order in the South China Sea.
Economics are and will continue to be the name of the game in Asia, just as the long-term strategic contest of the 21st century between the United States and China will be about which of the superpowers will get to write — or rewrite — the rules of the future regional and global economic order. U.S. officials are well aware that by boosting trends now underway in Vietnam, Washington will win not only an important partner in its Southeast Asian efforts, but also hundreds of millions of hearts and minds along the way. As for Vietnam, its leaders understand that without building a globally integrated, developed, and diversified economy over the coming decades, no amount of security assistance from or granting of basing access to foreign powers will help it cope with the challenges posed by a rising China.
Speculation that Washington’s main motivation is to lure Hanoi away from Beijing shed little light on the historical and strategic nuances behind one of Asia’s most important triangular relationships. Washington recognizes that the only way to draw Hanoi away from Beijing’s orbit would be in effect to change Vietnam’s current geography — an impossible mission. Vietnam’s geostrategic fate is forever bound to China, and cordial relations with Beijing would be critical for Hanoi even in the worst of times.
For Hanoi, the new normal in U.S.-Vietnam defense relations — to be ushered in following the full removal of the arms ban — will afford Vietnam more options to reinforce its emerging identity as a regional strategic player, rather than becoming a sort of U.S. proxy in the South China Sea region — a scenario few countries in Southeast Asia would want.
Vietnam has already begun granting strategic access along its coast to other foreign navies, including those from Japan, Russia, and France. In light of the now fully normalized military relations between Vietnam and the United States, and the positive sentiment among Hanoi’s collective leadership over advancing to the next phase of military cooperation, Washington will be the latest, but surely also the grandest, entrant to Hanoi’s careful strategic dance.
U.S.-Vietnam relations are now at a historic high, as the two countries deepen their new engagement. But the best years of this transformative relationship may still lie ahead for Washington and Hanoi.
Phuong Nguyen is an adjunct fellow at CSIS focused on Southeast Asia.