What Vietnam Can Offer America

Fishermen on Hai Hoa beach in Vietnam. Pixabay/Public domain

U.S. policy must achieve a U.S.-Vietnam alliance that can neutralize Chinese primacy in Southeast Asia.

When Vietnamese prime minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc travels to the United States later this month, he will be the first national leader from Southeast Asia and the third from an Asian—but not Middle Eastern—country after Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese president Xi Jinping were hosted by President Donald Trump. Although this does not mean that Vietnam is the third most important country in the region for the United States, it says something about the eagerness with which Hanoi and Washington, DC are reaching out to each other and the priority each enjoys in the agenda of the other.

The United States and Vietnam have important economic and security issues to discuss. With $32 billion of bilateral-trade surplus, Vietnam ranked sixth among the countries that contributed to the United States’ $502 billion trade deficit last year. With ideological ties to North Korea, Hanoi can play a role in Washington’s effort to isolate and pressure the emerging nuclear-armed state. And stretching along the western coast of the South China Sea, Vietnam holds a key to the regional balance of power. After the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Hanoi is eager to know what the Trump administration can offer instead of that multilateral-trade agreement. The Vietnamese are also nervous about the possibility that Washington may trade its interests in the South China Sea for Chinese cooperation in taming North Korea.

While these hot issues make Prime Minister Phuc’s trip desirable, it is a new level of U.S.-Vietnam relations that makes it possible. Without this new level, Vietnam would not have sent one of its top leaders and the U.S. president would not have cleared his schedule for a visit from Vietnam at this early stage. Understanding the underlying forces that have formed the plateau on which the U.S.-Vietnam engagement operates is a key to making sound policy on Vietnam. To this end, let’s first review the trajectories of U.S. policy toward Vietnam as well as those of Vietnam’s policy toward the United States.

U.S.-Vietnam Relations Viewed from Ten Thousand Feet

Once a place where three million Americans fought a decade-long war, Vietnam was relegated to a low priority in U.S. foreign policy during the 1980s and 1990s. In this long period, noted Raymond Burghardt, U.S. ambassador to Vietnam from 2001 to 2004, “the U.S. approach to Vietnam was separate from any strategic plan for the East Asia region.” The restoration of diplomatic relations with Vietnam in 1995 was an enormous landmark in the bilateral relationship, but it was not a major turning point in the United States’ approach to Vietnam. As Burghardt observed, bilateral ties strengthened in the late 1990s with the focus turned toward economic opportunities, but the progress moved at a slow pace.

A major turning point in the United States’ approach to Vietnam took place in 2001, when the George W. Bush administration brought in a more critical view of China than those of the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations. President Bill Clinton in 1997 pledged to work toward a “constructive strategic partnership” with China, but candidate Bush in 1999 said China should be viewed as a “strategic competitor,” not a “strategic partner.” Spelling out the logic behind this belief, Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national security advisor, argued in a 2000 article that as China had “unresolved vital interests, particularly concerning Taiwan and the South China Sea,” it “resent[ed] the role of the United States in the Asia-Pacific region” and “would like to alter Asia’s balance of power in its own favor.” Flowing logically from this geopolitical rationale was an enhanced role for Vietnam in U.S. foreign policy.

The Bush administration’s overtures to Vietnam—dialogue on strategic issues and cooperation in defense and security areas—were initially met with stiff resistance in Hanoi. After a short-lived rebalance to the West during 1987–1989, Vietnam pivoted to China in 1990, a sea change marked by the secret meeting at Chengdu in September that year between Chinese and Vietnamese Communist Party chiefs and heads of government. While reformers in the Vietnamese regime pursued U.S. ties as a doorway to the world and a counterweight to China, conservatives were adamant that China was an ally and America an adversary. In 1990 the balance of power between the two blocs tilted decisively in favor of the conservatives. As a result, Vietnam remained near the Chinese orbit and was careful not to veer close to the equidistant line between the two great powers. At his visit to China in December 2001, Vietnam Communist Party chief Nong Duc Manh vowed to oppose “hegemonism,” repeating the Chinese slogan for a fight against U.S. role and power. This was the first time that the anti-U.S. mantra appeared in a joint Sino-Vietnamese statement; but it was also the last.