Vietnam - US: The future is bright

VietNamNet would like to introduce the second part of the article by Dr. Hoang Anh Tuan in the series on the Vietnam-US relations in the past 20 years ago.

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In recent decades, Vietnam has been one of the very few countries in the world that have participated in many "marathon" negotiations with the US.

They included negotiation of the Paris Peace Accords from 1968-1973, negotiation for normalizing relations from 1992-1995, the Vietnam-US Bilateral Trade Agreement from 1996-2000, the Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) from 2003-2006, and most recently the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) from 2011 to present.

These events indicate that there are still many difficulties and problems in bilateral relations, but thanks to the "marathon-negotiation", the two "former enemies" can understand more thoroughly the strengths and weaknesses, as well as the barriers to take their relations forward.

Relations after normalization

When the US and Vietnam normalized relations in 1995, except for diplomatic relations, the relations between the two countries was not "normal" in the true sense of the word.

The starting point of relations was very low at that time: Two-way trade and direct investment from the US to Vietnam was almost zero; political, defense and security cooperation was like "a blank sheet of paper"; in the field of education, there were about 200 Vietnamese students at American universities.

The only “bright point" was cooperation in searching of US servicemen who were reported missing in action (MIA) during the Vietnam War, but it came from Vietnam’s "unilateral" response.

And yet, the past and the burden of war were so big that the "breakthrough" initiatives to promote bilateral relations faced many obstacles from both sides.

However, after 20 years, the relations between Vietnam and the US have changed in a fundamental way.

In the political-diplomatic area, the high-level visits between the two countries took place regularly, such as the visit to Vietnam of US President Bill Clinton and Bush and the visit to the US of Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet and Truong Tan Sang, Prime Minister Phan Van Khai and Nguyen Tan Dung, and the upcoming visit of Party Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong.

Along with the high-level visits, a series of cooperation agreements in trade, investment, education, etc. were signed.

The two countries have established over 10 effective dialogue channels to both build trust and handle arising challenges, including the Defence Policy Dialogue, Political Dialogue, Security Dialogue, Asia-Pacific Dialogue and Human Rights Dialogues.

In addition to bilateral cooperation, the two sides have made relatively effective cooperation in regional and global fora as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), ASEAN-Plus Defence Ministers' Meeting (ADMM +), East Asia Summit (EAS), and the United Nations.

Economically, US-Vietnam trade ties had the fastest growth rate compared with the US’s trade relations with other partners, in which the US mainly imported from Vietnam. As for Vietnam, it began to approach the US market in 1995. In 2000, Vietnam’s exports to the US rose to $800 million, with coffee and shrimp as the major products.

In 2014, the US became the largest export market of Vietnam with over $30 billion, including garments, electronics, footwear, rice and seafood.

In terms of investment, though it made late access to the Vietnamese market, by June 2015, the US jumped to No. 7 among the biggest countries and territories investing in Vietnam, with $10.7 billion.

For defense cooperation, the two countries have come a long way.

In 2011 the two defence ministries signed the Memorandum of Understanding to promote bilateral cooperation, focusing on five areas: (1) maritime security, (2) search and rescue, (3) United Nations Peacekeeping Operations, (4) humanitarian and disaster relief (HADR), and (5) collaboration between defense universities and research institutes.

Under agreements in this MOU, the two countries cooperated in finding Malaysia’s MH-370 plane and the US provided technical assistance for Vietnam to participate in the UN peacekeeping forces.

In June 2015, Minister of Defense Phung Quang Thanh and his US counterpart Ashton Carter signed a Joint Vision Statement on Defense Relations during Carter’s visit to Vietnam. The statement will guide the bilateral defense cooperation on the basis of the MOU inked in 2011.

The future defence collaboration will cover activities addressing war aftermath (searching for missing in action soldiers, dioxin detoxification, dealing with unexploded ordnance); the exchange of delegations; dialogue and consultation; experience sharing in search and rescue, disaster relief, peacekeeping operations and maritime security; training’ military medicine; mutual consultations at multilateral forums, the ADMM+; and other fields of mutual needs and capacity.

The document also targets deeper friendship, mutual understanding and trust between two countries, while fostering a comprehensive partnership between Vietnam and the US on the basis of respecting political institutions, independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and law of each other without harming security of other states.

Cooperation in education-training and other fields has also boomed. With over 17,000 students in the US, Vietnam ranks fifth among Asian countries for the number of students in the US. These students are believed a source of high quality human resources for the integration process and the development of Vietnam in the near future.

The important turning point in Vietnam-US relations at this stage is the signing of the agreement establishing a comprehensive partnership during President Truong Tan Sang’s visit to the US in July 2013.

This agreement covers all areas from trade to science and technology, education and training, politics to defense-security, politics and diplomacy and even sensitive issues such as human rights. It is a comprehensive partnership in the form, but in essence, the scope and level of cooperation is broader than some agreements of Vietnam with other strategic partners.

Foundations for the future

Commenting on the development of Vietnam-US relations after 20 years of the establishment of relations, US Secretary of State John Kerry said that no other countries worked hard like Vietnam and the US to come together, to change history and change the future.

Despite differences in political systems, the approach in matters of democracy and human rights, but it is important that through dialogue the two countries have better understood these differences, and sought to minimize the negative side, while boosting cooperations in the fields that both sides have benefits. Some great lessons have been learnt in recent years for both countries.

Firstly, it is the independence and self-reliance of both sides in the planning and implementation of bilateral relations, based on the interests of the two countries, not under the influence or impact from a third party.

Secondly, strictly respecting the principle of equality and the legitimate interests of each other, and not affecting the relations of each country with other countries.

Notably, in bilateral cooperation documents, the US emphasized respect for political institutions, sovereignty, territorial integrity, and non-interference in the internal affairs of Vietnam.

This is an important basis to build a trusted relationships and this cannot be achieved if bilateral relations are not really normalized and normally develop.

Thirdly, while looking towards the future, the two countries are still interested in solving problems left by history. The history of the two countries went through the years of grief and loss.

The best way to strengthen relations is not turning away from the past, but also not let the past affect the future of relations.

On that basis, the US has stepped up humanitarian aid to Vietnam for dealing with war consequences, such as Agent Orange, and supports the search for missing persons during the war. Vietnam has actively cooperated with the US to search for US servicemen reported as missing in action during the war.

Although there has been great progress, the potential of Vietnam-US relations in the future is still very large. US Ambassador Ted Osius said that "nothing is impossible".

Certainly, with the current foundation and framework, we have good reasons to believe that Vietnam-US relations will progressb further in the future.

Hoang Anh Tuan

Director of the Institute for Strategic Studies, Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Vietnam - US: The future is bright