Vietnam’s Red Line Blurs As It Engages America


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By James Borton

Vietnam is writing a new story and it is not about the wounds of war that Americans saw on the evening news when the last American citizens boarded the helicopter from the American Embassy rooftop in Saigon almost 40 years ago. It appears that the Obama administration, like earlier Washington administrations, is leaving this new chapter untranslated and unread.

In an interview last year with Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung at the historic Waldorf Astoria, he reinforced the new chapter, when he stated, “ we will do everything we can to be an active, constructive and responsible member of the international community. All that is for the goals of peace, friendship, mutual respect, equality and win-win, and this is particularly true with our relations with the U.S. since they are based on that same policy.”

For the past year, Vietnam has pursued a purposeful diplomatic drive to usher in a new period of bilateral relations with the United States that included a visit by Socialist Republic of Vietnam President Truong Tan Sang with President Barack Obama at the White House, to Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc’s Harvard Executive Leadership class, and to the run-up last November of Mr. Dung’s formal address to the United Nations assembly.

Vietnam wants America to know that it is deeply engaged in forging a closer and comprehensive partnership with its once former enemy.

Some foreign policy pundits believe that China’s increasing sphere of influence in Southeast Asia is partly responsible for ratcheting up Vietnam’s dialogue with senior U.S. policy and military officials that includes sustained dialogue in defense, national security, economics and development in the Asia Pacific region.

Vietnam’s Foreign Minister, Pham Binh Minh reinforced this global engagement mandate in 2012 when he spoke at the New York based Council on Foreign Relations, stating that, “ This is a turning point in our foreign policy, because before we focused on economic integration, but now we also integrate in all areas such as not only economic but politics, diplomacy, security, defense, culture and social effects.”

Although relations between America and Vietnam were normalized in 1995, the convergence of Vietnam’s foreign policy activism and the U.S. shift towards an Asia-Pacific strategy seems to signal a perfectly timed congruent state for both countries.

While much has been written about the impressive economic relationship between America and Vietnam with bilateral trade in goods reaching US $25 billion in 2012, coupled with the fact that the US has become Vietnam’s biggest exporter since 2005, it is in the area of security that the two countries are quietly engaged in conversations and issuing discrete memorandums of understanding to establish a framework for the expansion of a comprehensive partnership. This framework is one that already includes military exchanges, defense policy, political, and security dialogues, leading up to a future Trans-Pacific Partnership.

In June 2013, preceding Vietnam’s President Sang’s visit to the White House, General Do Ba Ty, Deputy Minister of Defense and Chief of Staff of the People’s Army of Vietnam met at Joint Base Lewis McChord (JBLM) with General Martin Dempsey, US Chief of Staff at the Pentagon, as well as Senator John McCain, U.S. Congress representatives, including senior US officers from the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force.

JBLM is located south of Tacoma, Washington in the heart of the Pacific Northwest’s Puget Sound and remains the nation’s largest military installation on the West Coast.

Amidst the scenic environment of nearby Mount Rainer, these once former enemies, discussed how to shape expanding strategic interests. The meeting adds measureable texture and brass polished symbolism to the expanding U.S.-Vietnam partnership.

According to Professor Carlyle Thayer, Emeritus Professor, at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra, the significance of the meeting is twofold: it marked the first time a Chief of Staff of the People’s Army of Vietnam held talks with his counterpart from the Pentagon and second, General Ty and his delegation are the key representative operators the U.S. will deal with if they agree to step up military-to-military interaction.

Some Washington defense policy analysts suggest that the US I Corp is the lynchpin in the implementation of the U.S. rebalancing to East Asia and that there’s increasing optimism that U.S. forces may one day be engaged in joint exercises with their Vietnamese counterparts.

For sure, continued tensions in the South China Sea have prompted Vietnam to enter into a strategic dialogue with the U.S. a year before discussions with China. Vietnam refers to that body of water as the East Asia Sea, reluctant to relinquish title to China and falling in line with at least five other countries, along with China, with all voicing claims to some or all of its islands.

Vietnam upgraded its formal communications with America to deputy minister level prior to doing so with China. In the past, China was always first. While America has historically taken the diplomatic high road in its resolve to stay out of this territorial dispute, there is increasing recognition by American and Vietnam senior policy shapers that China does indeed present a common security concern to both countries.

While PM Dung believes that China’s juggernaut economy is beneficial to the region and the world, he also emphasized that “ China must also respect independence and sovereignty of the other countries, and respect international law, especially the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).”

Since Vietnam is a coastal state on the East Asia Sea, there are clear differences, and possible red lines between China and a number of ASEAN countries on the issue of sovereignty and respect for international law.

Earlier in the year, Vietnam protested against a plan by China’s state-owned company, China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC), when it sought bids for the rights to drill in one block that was only one mile from an island in the Paracel chain. China has occupied the islands since military clashes there with then South Vietnam in 1974.

In a reinforcement of Vietnam’s mindfulness of the potential for flashpoints in the region, in his formal UN speech, PM Dung stated, that “ the East China Sea and the East Sea of Vietnam (South China Sea) still rage with territorial disputes. Just one single incident or ill-conceived act could trigger conflict, even war.”

While Vietnamese citizens and PM Dung recognize that peace, cooperation and development are the dominant trends, and they (Vietnam) consistently pursues a peaceful policy, they are hopeful that a more legally binding Code of Conduct of Parties in the East Sea  (COC) will prove instrumental in resolving differences.

Vietnam is deeply divided on how fast it should engage with the United States. This is not attributed to any geo-policy foundation there are pro-China and pro-American camps in-country, but party conservatives are concerned about the negative fallout from China if they move closer to the U.S. A fundamental road bloc among Vietnamese party leaders is the current climate in the U.S. Congress on democracy and human rights.

Last year’s nearly unanimous passage of the Vietnam Human Rights Act in the U.S. House of Representatives, designed to advance religious freedom and other human rights, will prohibit any increase in non-humanitarian U.S. aid to Vietnam if its government does not make significant progress in promoting human rights. Although the U.S. Senate has yet to act on the Bill, it does impede some of the fast moving security and foreign policy cooperation between Washington and Hanoi. For that matter, the U.S. has provided almost $595 million for relief and development activities since 2000. This and more are at stake.

In the course of his interview, Mr. Dung acknowledged that the passage of the bill would be a “setback” in many of the conversations that Vietnam is conducting with the U.S. However, he was quick to point out that in his conversation with Secretary of State John Kerry, that the former Vietnam veteran, pledged that he would do everything possible to oppose the passage of the bill.

Of course, the language of the human rights bill is onerous to Vietnamese hard-liners since they perceive this as part of a plot of peaceful evolution or an anti-communist regime change. Current party infighting politicizes almost every aspect of Vietnam’s external relations with China and the U.S. Of course, U.S. officials repeatedly make clear that unless there is “demonstrable progress on human rights” there can be no improvement in bilateral relations. This proves a conundrum for both parties.

Nevertheless, President Sang’s visit to Washington demonstrated how both sides are attempting to deal pragmatically with the human rights issues in the face of a growing convergence of their strategic interests. It’s no coincidence that Sang’s large delegation included religious dignitaries so they could speak directly to U.S. Congress representatives and policy makers about religious freedom in Vietnam.

Vietnam also agreed to host a visit sometime in 2014 by the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, and to sign the UN Convention Against Torture. Despite their differing opinions about human rights, both presidents agreed to a new ministerial mechanism at the foreign ministry level to oversee bilateral relations. The present comprehensive partnership also pledges continuing cooperation on defense and security matters.

The Vietnam-United States strategic relationship bears closer examination in relation to the continuing rise of China in Southeast Asia. History reveals all clearly that Vietnam has faced multiple sovereignty challenges from China in the past and presently lacks any significant American support.

While the U.S. has failed to adopt the promised geo-political shift towards an Asia Pivot strategy, including the administration’s expressed support for peace, stability, security and maritime security and safety in the region, Vietnam seems poised to play a more pivotal role as much more than a comprehensive bilateral trading partner.

James Borton is a freelance writer and has reported widely on Vietnam and SE Asia for many publications, including The Washington Times, Asia Times and Radio Singapore International.

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