Foreign Relations

Southeast Asian Affairs, January 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

Foreign Relations


The ethnic unrest in February-March is an appropriate starting point to review Vietnam's foreign policy and relations in 2001. The episode affected Vietnam's delicate relations with the United States and Cambodia, although no serious damage was done. Vietnam-U.S. relations did not have a good start in 2001. It began with a controversy over a planned visit by Admiral Dennis Blair, Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, to Hanoi, that was called off by the Vietnamese on 13 January before his scheduled arrival on the afternoon of 15 January from Vientiane. The official reason given for postponing the visit was that the Vietnamese had an exceptionally "heavy workload" at that time. That was true to an extent, although the reason was probably more serious. As mentioned earlier, the VCP held its Eleventh Plenary Session from 6-16 January, which failed to reach consensus on the leadership issue and subsequently had to be reconvened on 13 March. It is likely that when the Vietnamese officials agreed to the visit, they had not expected the Plenary Session to turn out the way it did. The Plenary Session had to end prematurely on 16 January in order to give the participants enough time to travel back home to prepare for the all-important Tet on 24 January. Under such circumstances, it would have been difficult to host Admiral Blair. On hindsight, even if the visit had gone ahead, it would not have achieved very much.

Then the ethnic unrest occurred in early February. Vietnam openly criticized Washington for abetting the unrest in the Highlands and for offering asylum to the twenty-four ethnic minorities who had crossed into Mondolkiri province in Cambodia. Observers then thought that Hanoi's decision to send in the military and close off the region to outsiders (which it subsequently retracted and allowed foreign media into the region under close escort) could result in the delay of the U.S. congressional approval of a trade pact signed between the two countries on 13 July 2000. Vietnam's human rights record was always an issue that could potentially jeopardize the ratification of the bilateral trade agreement. However, it was for reasons not entirely related to Vietnam's poor record on human rights and religious freedom that President Bush waited till June 2001 before submitting the Vietnam- U.S. bilateral trade agreement to Congress for ratification. When the House of Representatives finally passed the agreement (House Joint Resolution 51) on 6 September 2001, it also approved the Vietnam Human Rights Act and wanted to link the Act with the trade agreement. This was followed by a rather sensitive period in Vietnam-U.S. relations. Hanoi was nettled by the Human Rights Act and did not wholeheartedly support the United States war against terrorism in Afghanistan. However, on 30 October, the U.S. Senate passed the trade act without any conditions. After a tortuous route, the bilateral trade agreement was finally ratified on 17 October 2001 and, by the Vietnamese side, during the tenth session of the National Assembly in late November. It came into effect on 10 December, which coincided with the visit to the United States by Deputy Defence Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and his entourage, including Trade Minister Vu Khoan, Planning and Investment Minister Tran Xuan Gia, and Construction Minister Nguyen Manh Kiem.

Vietnam-Cambodia relations also encountered some turbulence as a consequence of the unrest in the Central Highlands. The arrest of the twenty-four asylum seekers in Mondolkiri, mentioned above, drew attention once again to the anti-Hanoi FULRO (United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races) movement whose members apparently use the dense forests in Cambodian territory along the Vietnam-Cambodia border as sanctuaries. [FULRO was set up by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) during the Vietnam War.] Hanoi had demanded that the asylum seekers be treated as refugees and repatriated to Vietnam, and Phnom Penh initially agreed. …

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