Vietnam is perhaps the only country in the world to have engaged in so many intensive and marathon negotiations with the US over the past few decades. These include the Paris peace talks of 1968-73, negotiations on the normalization of bilateral diplomatic ties (1992-95), the Bilateral Trade Agreement (BTA) (1996-2000) and on Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) (2003-06) which paved the way for Vietnam's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) on 1 January 2007. These negotiations underscored the complexity of the relationship, yet were also instrumental in helping Vietnam and the US to better understand each other. It is difficult to appreciate how far and how quickly the Vietnamese-US relationship has evolved without having a good grasp of the difficulties bilateral ties have experienced over the years.
In his article, Professor Brown presents a detailed and comprehensive account of the decades-long rapprochement process in which the national interests--including strategic interests--of both the US and Vietnam influenced the nature and intensity of negotiations.
In assessing the history of this rapprochement, it is important to understand Vietnam's perspectives.
Geopolitics and the Rapprochement from a Vietnamese Perspective
The Vietnamese-US rapprochement should be viewed and analysed from a historical perspective rather than simply looking at developments in bilateral relations since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.
Vietnam and the US have had a long history of engagement that can be traced back to the late nineteenth century when Bui Vien, an emissary of the Nguyen Dynasty, was sent to Washington D.C. in 1873, but failed to secure a meeting with President Ulysses S. Grant to request diplomatic recognition. During the Second World War, the Viet Minh, the predecessor of the Vietnamese Communist Party, and the Office of Foreign Service (OSS), the predecessor of the CIA, joined forces to fight the Japanese. Such cooperation lasted until the end of the war, and though short-lived, the positive experience of cooperation encouraged President Ho Chi Mirth to write a letter to President Harry S. Truman asking for US help to secure Vietnam's independence from France. The letter was intercepted by Allen Dulles, then Director of OSS, and never reached President Truman. Not long after taking power, the Truman administration had decided to support France's reacquisition of its colonies in Southeast Asia in exchange for Paris' support for American policies in postwar Europe.
There is still much debate over the question of whether Vietnam and the US would have been able to avoid conflict had President Truman received the letter from President Ho Chi Minh. However, for Vietnam, the lesson was clear: Washington was willing to sacrifice its ideals and push aside the interests of small-sized countries, including Vietnam, in pursuit of its national interests. These initial interactions slowly planted the seeds of suspicion in the minds of Vietnamese leaders regarding US intentions towards Vietnam.
Direct intervention by the US in South Vietnam following France's defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 was aimed at halting Beijing-inspired communist expansion in Southeast Asia and preventing the fall of the pro-American regime in Saigon. Ultimately this proved to be a grave mistake by US policy-makers as they fundamentally misunderstood Vietnamese nationalism and the strained history of Sino-Vietnamese relations.
As mentioned in Professor Brown's article, there was a missed opportunity for normalizing bilateral ties during 1977-78. On the Vietnamese side of the equation, two factors played an important role: first, Vietnam's lack of understanding of US politics, which led Vietnamese leaders to assume that the Congress would bow to requests made by President Richard M. Nixon on reconstruction aid for Vietnam; and second, their assumption that Southeast Asia was still a leading priority in US foreign policy even after the Vietnam War had ended. These miscalculations were only realized belatedly after US policy-makers had appeared to put aside the normalization of relations with Vietnam and had instead moved ahead to offer diplomatic recognition to the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1979, which was now at the forefront of the US' grand strategy to balance Soviet influence in Southeast Asia and Vietnam.
Vietnam's 1978 occupation of Cambodia, and Hanoi's close ties with Moscow, were key reasons why the US abandoned attempts to normalize relations with Vietnam. Throughout the 1980s, the US set two preconditions for diplomatic normalization with Vietnam: first, the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops from Cambodia and second, the termination of the Vietnamese-Soviet alliance. Given the context of Cold War politics, and Vietnam's political and economic isolation by the US and the West, it is understandable why Hanoi rejected these preconditions outright.
In addition to Missing in Action/Prisoner of War (MIA/POW) issues and America's newfound economic interests in Vietnam, geopolitical concerns continued to play a key role in US rapprochement towards Vietnam until the two countries fully normalized relations in 1995. In Vietnam's view, America's new geopolitical concerns fully reflected the fast-changing dynamics of the region: on the one hand, the Vietnamese believed that normalization was seen in Washington as the best way to balance and/or constrain the influence of other major powers in Vietnam and Southeast Asia, thus helping boost US influence in the region. On the other hand, the Vietnamese understood that from Washington's perspective, normalization would afford the US an important way of influencing Vietnam's ongoing market reforms and the expansion of individual freedoms, human rights and democracy, which would serve overall US strategy as outlined in the Clinton administration's National Strategy of Engagement and Enlargement. (2)
The American Perspective
One of the key aspects of the long engagement between the US and Vietnam from 1945 to 1995 was America's tendency to stick to a wrong-headed appraisal of Vietnam's national interests and a misreading of Vietnamese foreign policy.
Americans in the inner circle of power in charge of shaping US policy towards Vietnam seemed to be incapable of factoring into their calculations the enduring impact of the country's long struggle to preserve its sovereignty and political autonomy. They may have been aware of the facts of this history, but they failed to grasp the impact of these historic realities on the Vietnamese psyche, and the manner in which these realities made it incumbent on the Vietnamese leadership to accept nothing less than full independence and unification of the country. Americans held the strong conviction that Vietnam was dedicated to conducting a proxy war directed by Moscow and Beijing with the aim of expanding Communism throughout Southeast Asia. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the US clung to the view that the alliance between Vietnam and the Soviet Union was unshakeable, and that Vietnam's relations with the PRC would remain fraught with hostility and suspicion. However, signs of a rift in the Vietnamese-Soviet relationship began to emerge during the second half of 1980s when Vietnamese leaders tried to fend off pressure from the Soviet Union to go down the path of Soviet-style perestroika. Meanwhile, relations with China improved gradually after Vietnam withdrew its troops from Cambodia, thus paving the way for the normalization of Sino-Vietnamese relations in 1991.
The same pattern of miscalculations can be seen in the conditions the US laid out for the normalization of its diplomatic ties with Vietnam after the complete settlement of the Cambodian issue. The four-stage plan for normalization was crafted on the assumption that Vietnam was facing economic difficulties owing to the dramatic reduction of aid from the Soviet bloc and was confronted by both internal and external pressures to democratize. The US, therefore, believed that the longer the economic embargo against, and political isolation of, Vietnam continued, the more difficulties Hanoi would face. Along the lines of these arguments, Vietnam would eventually accept US preconditions for normalization. In reality, however, Vietnam's situation and its calculations totally differed from what US policy-makers had envisioned.
First, while it is true that Vietnam suffered serious economic problems following changes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the economic reforms that Vietnam had put in place in 1986 diminished the impact of reduced Soviet aid: from 1988, Vietnam was not only able to rein in three-digit hyperinflation, but was also able to prevent near famine conditions from setting in. Foreign investment started flowing in, thus making up for the decrease of Soviet aid. The situation was also less severe as a result of reduced tension between Vietnam and China, which had led to the resumption of border trade.
Second, in terms of security, the dramatic reduction in Soviet military aid did not exert a serious impact on Vietnam's defence and security capabilities, mainly due to the complete withdrawal of Vietnamese forces from Cambodia in 1989. Furthermore, new thinking in foreign policy put Vietnam on the path of seeking peaceful and non-violent means of settling disputes with its neighbours, thus creating conditions conducive for economic development.
Third, from the viewpoint of the Vietnamese leadership, the acceptance of preconditions for normalization set forth by America would have been tantamount to a surrender by Vietnam which had beaten the United States in the Second Indochina War. In this context, the Vietnamese leadership viewed Washington's demand for the fullest possible accounting for MIAs as an unacceptable precondition for normalization: Vietnam, for its part, had more than 900,000 cases of MIAs. Viewed in this way, Vietnam felt it had made a massive concession by accepting requests for full cooperation with the US in the search for its 1,700 MIAs. Moreover, Hanoi never viewed active cooperation with the US on the POW/MIA issue as an acceptable precondition for normalization. Instead, Hanoi viewed it as a purely humanitarian issue.
Looking to the Future
The Vietnam-US relationship--which was initially confined to areas of investment, commerce and POW/MIA--has been expanding rapidly to incorporate other areas of cooperation such as politics, culture, education, environment and even military-to-military ties. The convergence of strategic interest between Vietnam and the US has led to increased interactions, thus helping to bridge the gap of strategic misunderstandings between the two countries.
For Vietnam, the US has now become one of its most important foreign partners. For the US, Vietnam is a strategic partner and improved relations with Hanoi has become one of its top priorities in Southeast Asia. New developments in Vietnamese-US relations also fit well within broader US strategy in Southeast Asia and are consistent with the adjustments started under the George W. Bush administration and pursued assiduously by the Obama administration. This has been demonstrated by two ASEAN-US Summits and Washington's renewed commitments to Southeast Asia outlined in this special issue.
As interactions between the two countries expand rapidly, it is legitimate to ask what type of relationship the two countries have in mind. Judging from the statements made by the leaders of both the US and Vietnam, one could be forgiven for thinking that there are no limits to the ways in which bilateral relations can develop, at least in the short to medium-term. Yet much more needs to be done to make the Vietnam-US relationship move in the right direction so it can flourish on a sustainable basis, and, thus, serve the national interests of both countries. In particular, three issues need to be addressed.
First, there is an urgent need to avoid the sort of strategic misunderstandings that once led the two countries to engage in a bloody and protracted war. Although considerable trust and understanding has been achieved, there is no assurance that strategic misunderstandings will not re-emerge. Therefore, there is a need to build and consolidate trust between the two countries through regular high-level meetings and working level interactions. What is also required is to achieve a level of confidence through increased transparency in each country's policy-making process as it relates to bilateral engagement. In other words, each side needs to understand the other better and be confident enough in their ability to appraise the situation and make decisions that mesh with the interests of the other side.
Second, it is essential that both countries understand the new basis for this friendship. It is critical that Vietnam appreciate the motivations behind America's re-engagement of Southeast Asia. Moreover, Hanoi's newfound friendship with America should not be seen as countering the influence of third parties, or centered on larger regional issues such as the South China Sea dispute. The history of Vietnam-US ties shows that it will be bumpy if one of the parties takes advantage of the relationship to serve its own interests or to participate in a wider geopolitical game, as was the case with the US intervention in the Second Indochina War and Washington's failure to establish relations with Vietnam during the period from 1977-78. Thus, bilateral relations can only be placed on a stable and sustainable footing if they are configured to serve the national interests of both Vietnam and the United States rather than the geopolitical interests of only one of the parties.
Third, if the positive trajectory of Vietnam-US relations is to be maintained, bilateral ties must be widened and deepened. Currently, Vietnam-US relations cover a wide range of issues, from trade and investment, to education and security. It is undeniable that strategic issues are one of the main drivers for the current improvement of relations. However, the two countries can only maintain a stable relationship if they are able to concentrate on the non-security aspects, such as education, economics, trade, investment etc.
The fact that over the past few years the US Congress has decided to increase assistance to the Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange and that it has chosen to tone down its criticism of Vietnam's human rights record is a move in the right direction. This new approach, together with other positive developments in the relationship, is an indication of the sustainability and stability of the improving Vietnamese-US partnership.
(1) The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry.
(2) "A National Strategy of Engagement and Enlargement", The White House, February 1996,
HOANG ANH TUAN (1)
HOANG ANH TUAN is a diplomat at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hanoi.…