Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Rapprochement between Vietnam and the United States

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Rapprochement between Vietnam and the United States

Article excerpt

Until 1995, the United States never enjoyed anything approaching "normal relations" with any government of Vietnam, either North or South, nor with the Vietnamese people themselves. The path to normal relations was strewn with obstacles that were emotional and psychological as well as political--the "Vietnam syndrome". The humiliating collapse, and tragedies inflicted on the South Vietnamese, left Americans with a sense of national sorrow and shame; Southeast Asia was often cast aside as a diseased part of the Indochina debacle. The war deflated the idealism of the Kennedy era and weakened the bipartisan consensus that had been the fundament of foreign policy under Presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Government service was no longer an honourable calling. The Central Intelligence Agency became the whipping boy for the ills of the war. The US military exited Vietnam dispirited and, in the eyes of many Americans, dishonoured by events such as "My Lai". (1) Ever since the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, comparisons with Vietnam have been hotly debated--lessons learned or not learned from Vietnam, "hearts and minds", the hazards of "nation building". How to pursue economic development in the absence of security, how to balance an American military presence with the sensitivities of the host society, these were dilemmas never fully resolved during the American effort in Vietnam and they are apparent today in Afghanistan. (2) Rapprochement has necessarily been "step-by-step" and reciprocal. Aware of their respective internal critics, the two sides have sought an atmosphere of trust in order to move the relationship forward slowly yet with a degree of certainty. It is well understood, but circumspectly articulated, that the rise of China and continuing tensions in the South China Sea are a fundamental rationale for a "strategic dialogue". Deliberately, the military-to-military aspect has not been permitted to grow faster than broader diplomatic and economic relationships. The United States and Vietnam have different--sometimes sharply opposed--views on governance and some foreign affairs issues. The relationship is nonetheless nourished by certain bilateral and regional issues on which they do indeed share common interests. The depth and durability of rapprochement will depend on constant consultation and adjustments and a clear-eyed assessment of geopolitical realities in Asia.

Lessons and Conclusions from Normalization, 1977-95

Rapprochement did not come easily. The first lesson--normalization does not happen unless the situation is "ripe". (3) The geopolitical context of the moment must be conducive either to compromise by both parties or to a clearly superior position by one party that makes further debate by the other party moot. Negotiations with the Vietnamese under President Jimmy Carter, May 1977-October 1978, and negotiations beginning in 1989 under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush (Bush 41) until fruition in 1995 under President Bill Clinton took place in radically different global contexts.

The six-year period, 1989-95, saw momentous changes in the global power structure, and by April 1991 the United States held an enormous strategic advantage in normalizing negotiations with Vietnam. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, US policy-makers actually did not pay much attention to Vietnam, except for Cambodia and the Missing in Action/Prisoner of War (MIA/POW) issue. In 1991, Washington presented Hanoi a plan (the "road map") for a four-stage process of mutual confidence-building measures that would give the Vietnamese political and economic benefits in return for cooperation on the United Nations-sponsored peace settlement in Cambodia. The road map unequivocally outlined what Vietnam had to accept as a practical basis for moving incrementally towards full diplomatic relations and modification or removal of sanctions. (4) In a reinforcing move, the United States announced a $1 million programme of prosthetics assistance to Vietnamese wounded in the war. …

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