[East Asia Forum] The General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, Nguyen Phu Trong, is currently on an official visit to the United States. Later this year, President Obama is also expected to pay a return visit to Hanoi. The visits are among a series of notable events that mark the 20th anniversary of bilateral normalisation this year.
The development of bilateral ties between the two Cold War enemies over the past 20 years is impressive. The United States is currently Vietnam’s largest export market. In 2014, Vietnam’s US exports amounted to US$28.66 billion, accounting for almost one fifth of the country’s total exports. By 2014, the United States had also become the seventh largest foreign investor in Vietnam, with the stock of registered capital reaching more than US$10 billion. In terms of political and strategic ties, the two established a ‘comprehensive partnership’ in 2013.
One notable trend in bilateral relations is the increasing importance of geo–strategic drivers. To be sure, the growth of bilateral ties since normalisation in 1995 has always been shaped partly by strategic calculations on both sides. But before around 2010, it seemed to be largely driven by both economic and political factors, especially Vietnam’s wish to take advantage of US markets, capital and technologies to modernise the country’s economy, and a US agenda of promoting a more liberal and democratic Vietnam. Since about 2010, although economic motives remain relevant, the strategic drivers seem more important. This has mainly been due to an enhanced perception of the threats that a rising China poses to both countries’ strategic interests, especially in the South China Sea.
In the past, strategic considerations have pushed the two countries apart. In 1945–46, president Ho Chi Minh of the newly independent Vietnam repeatedly sent letters to then US president Harry Truman to seek Washington’s support in what he saw as an inevitable conflict between the newly–proclaimed republic and returning French colonialists.
In a letter to Truman on 16 February 1946, Ho wrote that Vietnam ‘is just beginning its building–up work. It needs security and freedom … [that] … can only be guaranteed by our independence from any colonial power, and our free cooperation with all other powers. It is with this firm conviction that we request of the United Sates as guardians and champions of World Justice to take a decisive step in support of our independence’.
But Ho’s call for US support went unanswered. During those formative years of the Cold War, French pressures coupled with the fear of the spread of communism into Southeast Asia seemed to be the key factors that accounted for US indifference to Ho’s requests. The fact that China was still embroiled in a civil war and had not yet emerged as a visible security threat to US interests further undermined the geo–strategic significance of an independent Vietnam in Washington’s eyes. Consequently, the two countries were pushed apart by Cold War tensions and later got embroiled in a long and bloody armed conflict.
But 70 years later the regional geo–strategic landscape has changed profoundly. The two former enemies now have a deep interest in strengthening their ties to deal with new security challenges. The most important change is undoubtedly China’s rise. In the 1940s, a weak and divided China was barely a threat to Vietnam, even less so to Washington’s interests in the region. But now, while a stronger China in the South China Sea is a major source of concern in Hanoi, Washington is also irked by Beijing’s aggressive pursuit of a more dominant global posture that challenges US leadership.
As a result, US–Vietnam strategic cooperation has been strengthened in recent years. The first major step was a memorandum of understanding on defence relations signed in 2011. Other notable indications of bilateral strategic rapprochement include the US pledge in 2013 to provide $18 million for Vietnam to purchase patrol vessels, and its October 2014 decision to partially lift its ban on lethal weapon sales to Vietnam. In June 2015, the two countries announced a Joint Vision Statement to step up defence ties and add further substance to the comprehensive partnership. Despite these developments, current bilateral strategic cooperation is still modest and the room for future upgrades remains ample.
As such, the dynamics within the Vietnam–US–China strategic triangle are entering the third phase of a cycle. In the 1950s and 1960s, Vietnam and China joined hands against the US. In the 1970s and 1980s, China sided with the United States to contain Vietnam. Now, the tide has turned as the United States and Vietnam are strengthening their strategic ties in the face of a rising China.
As Lord Palmerston’s famous statement goes: ‘We have no permanent allies, we have no permanent enemies, we only have permanent interests’. Vietnam and the United States, like China, are just pursuing their interests. When interests change, ‘allies’ and ‘enemies’ may shift. China should not blame other countries for what it perceives as ‘hostile’ or ‘anti–China’ strategic developments in the region. As shown by its artificial island building in the Spratlys, it is China that has been the catalyst for all these strategic transformations, and China must be the one to remedy the increased tensions that have resulted from them.
In the meantime, as China’s assertiveness — especially in the South China Sea — shows no sign of abating in the foreseeable future, the rapprochement between Hanoi and Washington can be expected to continue apace, possibly to Beijing’s vexation.
Le Hong Hiep is a visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, and a lecturer at the Faculty of International Relations, Vietnam National University, Ho Chi Minh City.