Vietnam-US relations: What’s the next chapter?

It has been four decades since the fall of Saigon and this July marks the 20th anniversary since Vietnam and the US first normalized diplomatic relations following the war’s end.

While optimism currently prevails and there has been considerable progress in heightened bilateral relations, there is much hard work yet to be done if the two are to create an even better future.

Landmarks on bilateral ties over the past two decades

Vietnam-US relations

In July 1995, then US President Bill Clinton and Vietnam Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet, jointly signed a treaty declaring an end to the US embargo put in place following the war and formally established diplomatic ties

In the political area, both President Bill Clinton and President George W Bush visited Vietnam while in office.  Former Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung have all visited the US, making the exchange of top leaders a common event.

Particularly, on a visit to the US in July 2013, President Sang and President Obama signed a declaration establishing a Vietnam-US comprehensive partnership, laying a solid foundation upon which to boost cooperation opportunities, both multilaterally and bilaterally.

President Sang and President Obama

Subsequently, a contingent of US Senators, led by Chairman of the Senate Armed Services John McCain, visited Vietnam in May 2015 that directly led to progress on a number of cooperation fronts.

In addition, at the beginning of June 2015, Defence Secretary Ashton Carter visited Vietnam that also resulted in escalating bilateral cooperation, especially in the fields of national defence and security. In the economic sphere, the US has become one of Vietnam’s leading trade partners with exports burgeoning nearly 36-fold from US$800 million in 2000 to US$29.4 billion in 2014.

Most of this expansion in trade followed Vietnam's admission to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2007 and during this period of time US investment in Vietnam proliferated.

Many leading experts from both nations’ believe that the potential exists and it is more probable than not the US will become the largest investor in Vietnam in the not so distant future.

Key pillars in Vietnam-US relations

Bilateral cooperation has encompassed many spheres –from politics and diplomacy, economics, science- technology, education- training, the environment, health, culture, sports and tourism to national defence.

Most importantly, their bilateral cooperation has focused on depth and sustainability based on mutual trust, political commitment and the establishment of cooperative mechanisms.

The two sides’ political officials and leaders have regularly collaborated and maintained high level dialogues on significant issues pertaining to human rights, science, and defence and security to name just a few.

The visit to Vietnam by John McCain also served to reaffirm the importance both sides attribute to the Vietnam-US comprehensive partnership. During the visit, the US Senator voiced his whole-hearted support for the US government’s plan to strengthen multi-faceted cooperation.

During a trip to Vietnam by US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, the two sides signed the Vietnam-US Joint Vision Statement, which provides clear and inspirational long-term direction for political, defence and security cooperation.

Vietnam-US defence cooperation as we know it today is based on the principle of respect for the right of the two nation’s peoples to self-determination and for compliance with international law.

This requires both nations to collaboratively protect their sovereign rights to maritime security and safety, freedom of navigation and airspace in a peaceful manner in compliance with the United Nations Charter and international law, particularly the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Vietnam relations with the US also follow the political and foreign affair guidelines decided by the 11th National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV), which require a policy grounded on independence, self-reliance, peace and cooperation.

While it is undeniable that bilateral cooperation between Vietnam and the US to solve the problems of the past has been very positive, the nostalgia of the war still lingers in the heart of Vietnamese who have not yet learned the stories of their loved ones missing in action.

Vietnamese people also continue to suffer from the enduring effects of Agent Orange, the chemical defoliant that the US military used extensively in Vietnam. Studies have shown continued high rates of reproductive abnormalities such as miscarriages and premature and still births in the sprayed areas.

There is also the continued threat posed by millions of unexploded mines and other ordinance that have killed and wounded more than 100,000 people since the end of the war in 1975.

These are tough issues to deal with but if Vietnam-US relations are to continue to advance the US must shoulder their responsibility for addressing these post-war issues and do more to assist Agent Orange victims and clean up toxic chemicals and unexploded ordnance.

The improvement of Vietnam-US relations since the normalization of ties has demonstrated that ‘nothing is impossible’.

Hopefully the upcoming visit to the US by Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong will address the hard issues and open up a bright new chapter in the history of Vietnam-US relations.


Vietnam-US relations