A New Era in U.S.-Vietnam Relations?

On Tuesday, the UN General Assembly voted to give Vietnam a seat on the Security Council. Washington would do well to use this opportunity to develop stronger relations with Hanoi.

On Tuesday the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to elect Vietnam to a seat on the Security Council, the first the country has gained since joining the organization in 1977. On the first ballot, Vietnam received 183 votes, far more than the two-thirds majority it required to gain admittance to the UN's principal decision-making body.

Earlier this year, I argued that given Vietnam's unique geopolitical position as well as its leaders' willingness to "put aside their revolutionary ideological baggage in order to pursue more concrete strategic objectives like economic and social development and political and military stability," American policymakers had "a unique opportunity to not only to promote our ideals about free peoples and markets in a society that is opening up, but also to advance our national interests in a geostrategically pivotal region" where China's rise has given no little anxiety to many.

U.S.-Vietnamese relations since the 1995 establishment of diplomatic ties can be divided into two rough periods. In the first years after normalization, U.S. policy toward the former adversary was largely focused on dealing with the legacy of the Vietnam War, including accounting for American servicemen missing in action, reuniting refugee families and initiating confidence-building measures like humanitarian programs and development assistance. As the relationship strengthened and trade expanded, the focus of policy shifted to the economic sector, with a bilateral trade agreement signed in 2001 and Congress approving permanent normal trade relations at the end of last year, just in time for Vietnam's January 11, 2007, accession to the World Trade Organization.

Now, Vietnam's election to the Security Council gives policymakers an occasion to open a new chapter in America's relations with the Southeast Asian country, one which gives the strategic dimension its due. Some have already begun to recognize the need to engage Vietnam on this level. For example, in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain, himself a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, includes the country in a list of regional states with whom the U.S. should strengthen security ties: "In Southeast Asia, I will seek an elevated partnership with Indonesia and continue to expand defense cooperation with Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam."

Of course, a seat on the Security Council comes at a price. Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung acknowledged in Hanoi yesterday that it was a "great honor that also comes along with a heavy responsibility." Vietnam will now be called upon to take clear stands on some of the major issues which come before the Council. It may even be asked upon to choose between the old friends who stood by it during the Cold War and the new ones with which it seeks to forge new relations.

In any event, the Security Council is now yet another venue where the United States can and ought to engage Vietnam. Building a strategic partnership is in the long-term political, economic and security interests of both nations.


J. Peter Pham is director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University.