TCS Daily


Vietnam, US Mend Fences

By Fred Stakelbeck - June 20, 2006 12:00 AM

Two recent events -- one military in nature, the other economic -- have propelled U.S.-Vietnam bilateral relations forward, mending, to a considerable degree, a vital strategic relationship that was severed over thirty years ago by a devastating decade-long war.

In early June, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited Vietnam for talks aimed at boosting security ties. During his visit, Secretary Rumsfeld noted that both countries agreed to increase "exchanges at all levels of the military and in various ways further strengthen the military to military relationship." The important high-level visit occurred one year after Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai met with President George Bush in Washington and pledged to raise bilateral security relations to "a new level."

The military relationship has grown steadily over the past several years, the result of determined efforts by both countries. After the tragic December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Hanoi permitted unlimited U.S military cargo plane over-flights needed to conduct rescue and supply missions. The Southeast Asia nation recently agreed to exchanges under the Pentagon's International Military Education and Training (IMET) program and has allowed U.S. naval vessels to dock at port facilities in Ho Chi Minh City and Danang. A U.S. navy destroyer is expected to arrive in Vietnam next month, the fourth such visit in past four years. Expanded military contacts beyond the current language and combat medical training, as well as trips by Vietnamese officers to U.S. military bases, are expected to take place soon.

Many experts view the budding military relationship as important component to developing relations. "In the short term, renewed military ties are part of the complete package of normal relations between two friendly countries," noted Dana Dillon, an Asia security expert with the Washington-based Heritage Foundation. "In the long-term, as Vietnam develops economically and politically, the country will play an important role in the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum (ASEAN) and a strong and friendly Southeast Asia will prevent the region from becoming the cockpit of super power competition," Dillon said.

A common regional security issue for both Washington and Hanoi is the growing economic, political and military influence of China in Asia. To date, Hanoi has been extremely careful to balance its relations with the U.S. and China. However, critical statements made by U.S. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, calling for Beijing to "demystify" its military spending and clarify its strategic intentions have angered Beijing, complicating Hanoi's foreign policy position.

Only days before Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's visit to Vietnam, both countries signed an historic trade pact eliminating U.S. quotas on Vietnamese textiles and garments and guaranteeing American companies greater access to the expanding Vietnamese market. U.S trade representative Karen Bhatia signed the agreement during a ceremony at Reunification Palace in Ho Chi Minh City that was attended by Vietnamese Trade Minister Truong Dinh Tuyen and Deputy Prime Minister Vu Khoan. "Today's agreement is the culmination of years of hard work and preparation on both sides," Bhatia said.

Under the agreement, Vietnam will reduce tariffs to 15 percent or less for 94 percent of U.S. agricultural and manufactured goods. Hanoi also agreed to open its telecom, financial and energy markets to competition from foreign companies and will withdraw a US$4billion government plan to help its domestic textile industry and garment industry. Vietnamese textile and clothing exports to the U.S. jumped from US$49 million in 2001 to US$2.9 billion in 2005, with total bilateral trade reaching US$7.8 billion in 2005, up more than 400 percent from 2001.

More importantly for Hanoi, however, the new trade agreement paves the way for Vietnam to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) before it hosts the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in November, which President Bush is scheduled to attend. A vote by the U.S. Congress is needed before the bilateral trade pact can take effect.

For its part, the U.S. textile industry has expressed strong opposition to the new trade deal. "There are no adequate safeguards in this deal. In its present form, we are left with no choice but to urge Congress to oppose this flawed agreement," noted Auggie Tantillo, executive director of the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition (AMTAC). "This agreement is bound to replicate the disastrous trade pattern the U.S. has constructed with China," she said. Others have argued that Hanoi's record on human rights and religious freedoms should prevent the U.S. from embracing the communist regime.

But Vietnam's Textile and Garment Association Chairman Le Quoc responded to opponents by saying that Vietnam's share of textiles and goods shipped to the US would not increase drastically under the new agreement. "Other countries like China, India, Pakistan and Indonesia have higher competitiveness than Vietnam, due to their experience in the business. Vietnam also pays a slightly higher duty rate, 15 percent, than North American competitors Canada and Mexico, which pay 12 percent," Le said.

Beyond the important issues of security and trade, both countries have initiated contacts in other vital areas such as science, technology, medicine and agriculture. In November, Vietnam-US Science and Technology Days, a technology event designed to facilitate cooperation, took place in Hanoi. "The U.S. has made numerous life-enhancing scientific and technological advances that are sustainable to Vietnam's conditions," noted Vietnam's Deputy Minister of Science and Technology Dr. Bui Manh Hai.

Joint cooperative efforts in the medical field have focused on combating diseases such as severe acute respitory syndrome (SARS), HIV/AIDS and avian influenza. In addition, both countries have worked together on projects to combat cancer, tuberculosis and eye diseases. In agriculture, the U.S. has helped Vietnam in its efforts to multiply the number of cacao trees and soya plants grown throughout the country, worked to improve irrigation methods and advanced ways to mitigate water pollution.

Although progress has been made, several formidable obstacles for the maturing relationship remain. First, costly and pervasive corruption is an ongoing problem for a communist government unaccustomed to managing large amounts of foreign direct investment (FDI). Second, the country's ruling party is governed through a highly centralized system dominated by the Communist Party of Vietnam. Eventually, ideological differences on critical issues could arise that will be complex and difficult to resolve. In theory, the government is independent of the party; however, in reality the country's policies are still created at Communist party headquarters.

Third, many Vietnamese Americans, Vietnam War veterans and U.S. lawmakers strongly oppose economic or military relations that would favor the communist Hanoi government. Fourth, Hanoi's ongoing relationship with an increasingly authoritarian and energy fixated Russia is worrisome. Moscow has reportedly offered nuclear know-how to Hanoi, possibly hoping to gain further access to the country's 600 million barrels of proven oil reserves and 6.8 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of natural gas reserves. The country's largest oil producer is Vietsovpetro (VSP), a joint venture between Vietnam and Russia's state-controlled energy-giant Zarubezhneft. Fifth, foreign business competition has been severely limited in the past by a communist government determined to protect state-controlled businesses and industries.

But the key stumbling block to improved U.S.-Vietnam relations is human rights. The country remains on the U.S. list of "countries of particular concern" due to its record on religious rights. Vietnam is still a Leninist-styled state, where freedoms of speech, religion and assembly are restricted. In the past, democracy protestors have been harassed, placed under house arrest and imprisoned. The communist government of Hanoi, like its neighbor Beijing, is ever mindful that acceptance of a market economy could lead to domestic and international calls for further democratization.

What was unthinkable only a decade ago has now become reality. The U.S. and Vietnam realize that beyond the shadows of mistrust and suspicion, lie similar aspirations and values which can be used for their mutual benefit. Vietnam is determined to take its place among other Asian countries in the global economy, and views the U.S. as a key partner that can help it meet its long-term objectives. New geopolitical realities, most notably China's growing influence in Southeast Asia and the creation of regional alliances such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), will also continue to bring both countries closer together.

The past decade has been marked by significant progress in rebuilding trust between the U.S. and Vietnam with greater trade cooperation, science and technology exchanges and military collaboration. But both governments must be careful not to apply arbitrary or impulsive yardsticks to the evolving relationship; instead, it must be permitted to grow at its own pace, minus any misconceptions and past prejudices.

Fred Stakelbeck is an expert on bilateral and trilateral alliances as they relate to China foreign policy. His writings address the implications of China's emerging regional and global strategic influence and relationships upon U.S. national security. He can be reached at Frederick.stakelbeck@verizon.net.

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1 Comment

Recall the Axis Powers & Cuba
This is a great opportunity for stability and peace on the Pacific rim. The Vietnamese current and traditional intense dislike and suspicion of China, makes them potentially reliable allies with mutual interests. We should nudge them in the direction of capitalism and freedom. But, in the meantime, ironically, maybe we could forge an agreement for a permanent US Naval Base at Danang, after all, we did build it. At worst, it could become a useful 'Gitmo' in Asia, At best, 'Nam could join other old enemies who have turned into valuable allies. Give it a go, carpe diem ! ! !

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