Can U.S.-Vietnam Relations Move Above and Beyond the China Challenge?
On Sunday, President Obama arrives for his first visit to Vietnam. It is surprising the trip has taken this long given the dramatic improvements the Obama administration has achieved in U.S.-Vietnam relations. As an element of its ‘pivot’ to the Asia-Pacific region, the United States has increased the strategic nature of its dialogue with Vietnam, enhanced cooperation on regional issues and expanded economic connectivity. From Hanoi’s perspective, U.S.-Vietnam relations represent an increasingly “independent” relationship – meaning Vietnamese leaders consider policy approaches towards the United States on their own terms, without weighing the potential implications to its relationship with China. The Obama visit provides an opportunity to forge a stronger bilateral partnership with its own compelling vision for the future and means to achieve it.
Over the past several years, China has clearly been a driving force behind improving U.S.-Vietnam ties. While unintended by Beijing, China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea and willingness to employ economic coercion to achieve political ends has underscored to Vietnam’s leaders the need to diversify its strategic and economic engagements. The United States has been a beneficiary of this shift in policy, but is not alone – Vietnam has also taken unprecedented steps to improve relations with Japan, enhance ties with India and consolidate its regional engagements bilaterally and through ASEAN.
A reactive foreign policy, however, has inherent limits. It is in both the U.S. and Vietnamese interests to ensure the pace and scope of bilateral ties are not set by the ups-and-downs of Vietnam-China relations. Ultimately, an independent U.S.-Vietnam relationship will widen the aperture of potential areas for cooperation and could provide more stability in Vietnam’s relationship with China. To build an enduring and comprehensive U.S.-Vietnam partnership, it will be essential to concurrently advance four specific areas.
First, the two sides must carefully address lingering war legacy issues, which remain unresolved and deeply sensitive. Without steady care and progress, the issues wait as potential flash points to undermine domestic support for closer ties. The United States is wisely keeping the President’s visit future-oriented, while tending to the past through cooperation on service members missing in action, remains recovery, and Agent Orange clean-up.
Second, it will be essential for Vietnam to respect the universal human rights of its people. During the historic visit of Vietnam Communist Party Secretary General Trong to Washington last year, the United States assured him that U.S. policy is not bent on regime change or undermining the Vietnamese system. On the contrary, it is the imprisonment of religious leaders, stifling of public dissent, and restrictions on dialogue, including online, which weaken governments and undermine legitimacy. A robust human rights agenda is one of the foundations of the U.S. pivot, necessary for forging stronger government and people-to-people ties. While the two countries have improved dialogue on these issues, human rights violations will place a ceiling on bilateral relations.