By J Peter Pham
Next week, President George W Bush will welcome Vietnamese President Nguyen
Minh Triet to the White House, the first Vietnamese head of state to be
received there since Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam called on Richard Nixon
in San Clemente, California, in April 1973 three months after the signing
of the Paris Peace Accords in effect doomed his regime.
After the reunification of Vietnam in 1975, it took the United States two
decades to establish full diplomatic relations and another decade to approve
legislation extending permanent normal trade relations to the onetime enemy, an
act which the 109th Congress finally passed in its lame-duck session last
Although Vietnam formally joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in January
as its 150th member and bilateral trade between the United States and Vietnam
topped US$9 billion last year, there are still those who would invoke
inevitable disagreements between the two countries to prevent the next logical
progression in the relationship: strategic partnership in the interest of both.
Ever since the normalization during the Bill Clinton administration, officials
on both sides have prudently gone to great lengths to show that the ties are
not meant to threaten Chinese interests. However, all the diplomatic niceties
in the world cannot obscure the fact that Vietnam brings to the relationship a
set of unmatched geopolitical endowments that are of interest to any state
seeking a "hedge" in its relations with the current rulers of the
With control over about half of the Spratly and Paracel Islands - whose
ownership it disputes with China (as well as Taiwan and, in parts, Malaysia and
the Philippines) - as well as 3,444 kilometers of coastline at the center of
the vital sea lanes through the South China Sea, Vietnam is geographically
critical to either the freedom of those waters or their control.
Given its ongoing disputes with Beijing over the South China Sea - Vietnamese
officials lament the fact that their Chinese counterparts would not agree to
specifically mention the contested Paracel Islands in the 2002 Association of
Southeast Asian Nations China declaration on diplomatic resolution of
conflicting claims in the region - Hanoi cannot align itself with its larger
neighbor on issues relating to the sea, which not only has rich fisheries, but
also shows indications of major petroleum and natural gas reserves.
(According to the most recent report by the Energy Information Administration,
Vietnam's rather underdeveloped oil industry nonetheless exported 1,092,000
barrels of crude to the United States in March.) Moreover, Vietnam is the most
significant obstacle to Chinese hegemony over this maritime domain.
The signing of a Sino-Vietnamese border demarcation treaty in 1999
notwithstanding, there are still some 289 disputed areas, totaling 235 square
kilometers, along some 450 of the 1,350 kilometers of common frontiers.
Although the dispute is literally millennial, it should also be remembered that
the two countries fought a brief, but bloody, border war over this territory as
recently as 1979, during which the Chinese People's Liberation Army penetrated
some 30 kilometers into Vietnam before being thrown back with at least 75,000
Hence, while the Bush administration justly deserves considerable credit for
building up the security relationship with Japan and India, it should not overlook
the geopolitical and strategic assets which Vietnam offers along the same lines
as an "insurance policy" against any creeping southward expansion by
a China seeking great-power status.
If the United States has realpolitik reasons to want to draw closer to Vietnam,
the attraction is mutual. From Hanoi's perspective, cultivating closer ties to
Washington not only facilitates access to American capital and technology for
Vietnam's economy - one of the world's fasting-growing - and American markets
for the goods it produces, but also acts as an external counterbalance to
Sino-Vietnamese relations have improved considerably in the years since the two
countries restored diplomatic relations in 1991, especially after President Hu
Jintao's visit to Vietnam in October-November 2005. Hu's trip led to
commitments to strengthen economic ties and to develop a business corridor
running from Kunming, the capital of China's Yunnan province, to the port of
Hai Phong in northern Vietnam.
Nonetheless, the commercial relationship is not without its ambivalence, as
both countries are essentially competing for the same foreign investments and
the same markets for low-cost manufactured products. And, like their
counterparts in many other nations, Vietnamese officials are concerned about
their rising trade deficit with China.
Furthermore, as Brantley Womack of the University of Virginia documented last
year in China and Vietnam: The Politics of Asymmetry (Cambridge
University Press, 2006), the relationship between China and Vietnam over the
course of 3,000 years - arguably the longest continual rapport of its kind
between any two states in world politics - has been through "almost every
conceivable pattern of interaction among neighbors" from union to alliance
to competition by proxy to open conflict.
This long history, coupled with the significant disparities in scale, has led
Vietnam inexorably to seek out regional and global counterweights with which to
balance against its looming neighbor.
Vietnam joined Indonesia and Singapore in pushing to include India, Australia
and New Zealand in the East Asia Summit (EAS), despite China's "quiet
resistance". (China did succeed in structuring the EAS so as to exclude
direct US participation.) And there is every reason to believe that Vietnamese
leaders believe that their national interests can be better secured through an
at least tacit strategic partnership with the offshore United States than in
succumbing to the aspiring onshore hegemon next door.
Although there has been expanding security cooperation between the United
States and Vietnam - an International Military Education Training accord was
signed in 2005, and five US naval vessels have visited Vietnam since 2003 -
there is no question of a formal alliance. There is, however, considerable
scope for strategic convergence if stumbling blocks can be removed and old
Without discounting the importance of human rights and other concerns about
Vietnam's record raised by members of Congress and others in Washington, one
has to recognize the tremendous progress made by Hanoi in recent years. The
White House announcement of Nguyen Minh Triet's visit listed the agenda as
"our robust trade and economic relationship, cooperation on health and
development issues, cultural and educational ties, and shared commitment to
resolving remaining issues stemming from the war."
But it pledged that "President Bush will also express his deep concern
over the recent increase of arrests and detentions of peaceful democracy
activists in Vietnam". The announcement from the Ministry of Foreign
Affairs in Hanoi noted that the Vietnamese president had said that the two
countries "must keep channels of communication open so as to increase
their understanding of each other and deal with their differences for a
long-term and stable relationship" - implicitly acknowledging Washington's
domestic political needs and evincing a willingness to engage them, rather than
dogmatically denouncing the former as "foreign interference".
If Vietnamese leaders in recent years have been disposed 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, it should be hoped that US statesmen will have a similar clarity of
vision and the creative flexibility.
For America, it is a unique opportunity to not only to promote its ideals about
free peoples and markets in a society that is opening up, but also to advance
its national interests in a geostrategically pivotal region.
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