Moving the U.S-Vietnam Relationship into the Future
With China looming large in the background, it is easy to characterize the recent warming in relations between the U.S and Vietnam, which culminated in President Obama's latest visit to Vietnam, as a marriage of convenience. While this is undoubtedly true to a certain extent, such characterization fails to capture the full essence of U.S-Vietnam relations and where this relationship is heading in the near future. The U.S and Vietnam have been moving closer together for strategic reasons but this is possible because both sides have been building strategic trust, thereby laying the foundation for a more sustainable partnership in the longer term.
Although Obama visited Vietnam just several months before leaving office and at a time when he is considered by many as a "lame duck" president, this trip has both symbolic and substantive significance. First and foremost, the U.S finally agreed to fully lift its four-decade-old lethal arms embargo on Vietnam, thereby removing one of the last vestiges of the Cold War and paving the way for closer defense cooperation between two countries. Second, both countries also deepened their economic relations as VietJet reached a groundbreaking $11.3 billion deal with Boeing, purchasing 100 Boeing's B737 MAX 200 aircrafts and another $3 billion worth of Pratt & Whitney engines.
At the same time, U.S General Electric and the Vietnamese government have agreed to cooperate in the field of wind energy. To deepen people-to-people ties, Vietnam allowed the Peace Corps to enter the country to teach English in Vietnamese schools and both sides mutually agreed to grant one-year multiple-entry visas for short-term business and tourism travelers from both countries. There is no doubt that these arrangements will make it easier for both Vietnamese and Americans to connect, to share ideas and build long term partnerships.
While it is decidedly true that China's increasingly assertive behavior in the South China Sea has sped up the process of full rapprochement between the U.S and Vietnam, this process had been initiated long ago and at a time when Sino-U.S relations were still fairly cordial. After a lengthy period of negotiations, in 1994, President Clinton finally lifted the economic embargo on Vietnam, paving the way for the full normalization of the U.S-Vietnam relations a year later. In 2000, Clinton became the first U.S president ever to visit Vietnam and in that same year, the U.S and Vietnam also successfully concluded the Bilateral Trade Agreement, which has been fundamental in boosting trade relations between the two countries.
In 2013, during President Truong Tan Sang's visit to Washington, the two countries agreed to upgrade their relations to "comprehensive partnership", signaling that their bilateral relations have entered a new era of deepening cooperation in all aspects. In late 2014, after much consideration, the U.S decided to partially lift its lethal weapons embargo on Vietnam. In 2015, General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong made an unprecedented visit to the U.S, which led to the U.S-Vietnam Joint Vision Statement - a very important document that laid out a crucial roadmap for future U.S-Vietnam cooperation. In this context, what Obama achieved in this trip is remarkable but also expected as it is a natural result of a process that has been carefully nurtured by both sides for many years.
Nevertheless, it is impossible not to view Obama's trip to Vietnam as part of the "U.S pivot to Asia". While the U.S denies that the trip has anything to do with China, Obama's remarks in Hanoi makes it clear that Washington wants to counterbalance Beijing's attempts to dominate the South China Sea. The decision to fully lift the lethal arms embargo on Vietnam is the highlight among various agreements reached by both sides. Symbolically, this move is important because it sends a robust and unambiguous signal to China that their "gunboat diplomacy" in the South China Sea has backfired. At the same time, it shows Chinese leaders that Vietnam is now important enough strategically for the U.S to set human rights concerns aside and move forward in the field of defense cooperation. This will not immediately change the strategic calculus in Beijing but in the longer term, there are grounds to believe that closer defense relations between the U.S and Vietnam can moderate China's behavior in the region.
Substantively, this decision will allow Vietnam to purchase military hardware that it is in dire needs to enhance its maritime defense capability vis-à-vis China. According to SIPRI, between 2011-2015, Vietnam imports 93% of its arms from Russia. This suggests that Vietnam needs to quickly diversify its arms supplier because too much reliance on a single supplier puts Hanoi in a vulnerable position by giving others too much leverage and leaving itself exposed in the event of a supply shock. It is also worth noting that Russia has been selling similar weapon systems like the Su-35 fighter or S-400 missile defense system to both China and Vietnam. This is understandable from an arms' seller viewpoint but it is clearly disadvantageous for Vietnam because it does not allow having a military edge over China in any area.