On July 7, 2015 at the White House, Barack Obama met with Nguyen Phu Trong and pledged to make his first visit to Vietnam “sometime in the future (Nakamura, 2015).” It was the first time a general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) had visited the US, which was supposed to be a step of significant progress towards the reconciliation of the two former enemies.
This was followed by John Kerry’s admittance that the Vietnam War was the result of “profound failure of diplomatic insight” during his visit to Hanoi in August. Speculation is rife that it is now a good opportunity for the US to nurture Vietnam into a strategic ally in its pivot to Asia, but, plagued by bilateral political distrust, it seems that Vietnam can only be an ally of convenience at best.
Not surprisingly, the primary force pushing the reconciliation may not come directly from US-Vietnamese relations per se, but rather China. Mighty economic assistance from China showing benign intentions notwithstanding, Hanoi has to seek US partnership not just due to the disputes in the South China Sea (SCS). More importantly, Vietnam has always been the most exceptional country feeling threatened in the region.
Among the Southeast Asian countries in dispute with China, Vietnam claims and controls the most islands and waters, and it is the only country that has been involved in wars with China because of border and island disputes. Besides, Vietnam is the only country in the region that has ideological affinity with China, but what’s worrisome is that the combined effects of the fading power of communism in domestic Vietnam and its rising nationalism against China is making the affinity increasingly counter-effective in terms of stabilizing bilateral relations.
In fact, shifting from its fight against France and the US during its revolutionary periods, Vietnam’s resentment against China, demonstrated by anti-China protests in 2007 and 2011 regarding clashes in Spratlys, has sparked a nationalism that stemmed from past humiliations perceived by the Vietnamese as well as their long history of resistance particularly to China.
Furthermore, similar to what is happening in Myanmar and indicated by the 2014 riots, Chinese direct investment in Vietnam, especially in infrastructure building, manufacturing and the mining industry, usually provokes prevailing social debates on labor, corruption and environmental issues. Coupled with China’s problematic soft-power building particularly in Vietnam’s civil society, the popular view of China by Vietnamese has been apparently far worse than that of Japan (Stokes, 2015). In contrast, a poll published by the Pew Research Center in 2015 indicated that 80 percent of Vietnamese said they had a favorable view of the US, and among those under 30 years old, it was 88 percent (“Global Indicators Database”, 2015).
"Chinese direct investment in Vietnam usually provokes prevailing social debates on labor, corruption and environmental issues"
Notably, once nationalism is combined with rising demands of democratization and the anti-communist sentiment in Vietnam, growing animosity in Vietnamese society against communist China will be inevitable. The reason being that, particularly for pro-democracy groups that used to criticize China as an euphemistical way to vent their discontentment over the CPV, the stronger they resist against China, the less legitimate the Vietnam communist regime will seem to be.
The situation will probably deteriorate if the Vietnamese government’s diplomatic bargains with China regarding disputes remain soft and concessive, or if the regime chooses to suppress riots in the fear that they will expand into an anti-communist movement. Facing this dilemma, an optimized policy that the CPV, either for so-called pro-US or pro-China groups within, may have to take is to welcome the US and Japan into this issue in order to yield a softened China.
After Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, China has spared no effort to placate regional tensions by initiating attractive economic programs and calling for a South China Sea Code of Conduct. On the other hand, more hardline policies have been adopted by China, as demonstrated by the oil rig incident of mid-2014 and China’s determination in island building.
Since China has overwhelming military advantages compared to Vietnam, as evidenced by its rapidly growing naval and coast-guard power, Vietnam’s thirst for US defense support becomes increasingly stronger. Supported by robust GDP growth rate averaging 6.15 percent (“Trading Economics”, 2016) since 2000 until 2015, Vietnam boosted its military spending by 113 percent between 2004 and 2013 (Hiebert & Nguyen, 2015), which contemporarily was the largest increase among Southeast Asian countries. Significantly, following Washington’s approval of non-lethal arms sales to Vietnam in 2006, the US announced in October 2014 that it was partially easing a three-decade-old embargo and would allow sales of lethal weapons to Vietnam on a case-by-case basis.
Apparently, the government-to-government military aid package of US$18 million (“VOA”, 2013) from the US could not meet Vietnam’s demands. Primarily for countering Chinese activities in the SCS, the ongoing phase of Vietnam’s naval modernization is requiring more procurements focusing on maritime surveillance and interdiction, represented by Lockheed Martin’s P-3 Orion and Boeing’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms.
In fact, defense cooperation has been the most pragmatic concern of the CPV regarding its relations with the US. On April 22, 2015, top US defense companies were invited to a low-profile but urgent meeting with Vietnamese officials in Hanoi (Boudreau, 2015), although it was hosted eight days before the 40th anniversary of the defeat of America and its allies.
Largely neglected but considerably important, at the end of 2015, Vietnam fell back into a trade deficit of US$3.54 billion (“Vietnam Customs Statistics”, 2016) after three years of surpluses. This was mainly because of its tremendously growing dependence on imports from China, which has alarmed Vietnamese leaders. In order to narrow the deficit, the Vietnamese government has issued a plan for export market development by 2020 (“Trade Deficit”, 2015).
Above all, due to its lower-wage economy compared with other member countries, Vietnam is expected to be the biggest winner from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, which will help slash huge tariffs for its goods. Obviously, closer relations with the US, which is Vietnam’s largest export market, seems to be particularly urgent at least for Vietnam’s surplus growth.
However, no matter how friendly the two countries can be, at least in the short term, U.S. ties with Vietnam can hardly be as close as its ties with genuine allies in NATO or with Japan. Although Vietnam may be considering to adjust its long-standing non-alignment policy, in comparison, it is more likely for the US that Vietnam will become a so-called “ally of convenience,” a term which has been widely used to depict tenuous strategic partnerships which have fundamental mutual distrusts that are yet to be resolved (Resnick, 2010).
In fact, offshore balancing against a rapidly rising power usually outweighs ideological missions in the US global strategic layout, and perhaps the two most vivid examples of this are Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union during World War II and Mao’s China after the Sino-Soviet split during the Cold War.
Indeed, the CPV’s concerns of regime security will inevitably affect its interactions vis-a-vis the US. In particular, issues centered on human rights have prevented bilateral relations from progressing into what Kerry has called “the fullest partnership (“John Kerry”, 2015)”, not to mention a de facto alliance. Notably on bilateral ideological clashes, anti-US sentiment is still common in political discourses justifying the revolutionary triumphalism of communist Vietnam. On April 30, 2015, in a speech marking the national day of liberation from the yoke of colonial rule with the fall of Saigon in 1975, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, who is internationally regarded as a so-called pro-US reformist, referred to the mighty victory achieved over the “American imperialist and non-legitimate” Republic of Vietnam army regimes.
Despite all this, in order to maintain the basic but necessary political trust and mutual respect underpinning the ongoing reconciliation, the US has to manage its ideological dispute with Vietnam. As Kerry reassured Vietnam in August 2015, “the United States recognizes that only the Vietnamese people can determine their political system and we speak with some humility on these matters, because as you can read and see, we are working hard to perfect our own system (“Remarks On”, 2015)”.
"Anti-US sentiment is still common in political discourses justifying the revolutionary triumphalism of communist Vietnam"
Moreover, the durability of communist rule in Vietnam may not be as vulnerable as what liberal optimists consider, which means that the political distrust between the US and one-party Vietnam may not be fundamentally resolved soon.
Apart from performance legitimacy contributed by decades of rapid economic growth, poverty reduction, and the stabilization of society with acceptable social mobility, political reform in Vietnam has been a necessary buffer mechanism for the offsetting of sociopolitical resentment. Since 1986, Vietnam has been in the process of transitioning from a “hard authoritarian” to a “soft authoritarian” state (Thayer, 2010), and even some dissident organizations are tactically tolerated, which has allowed Vietnam to gain more international support, especially from the US.
Further, since 1995, with its “open door” policy and its embrace of both the domestic and international market economy, the international legitimacy of the communist regime in Vietnam has remarkably improved through Vietnam’s diplomatic normalization with the US, its joining ASEAN, its memberships in APEC in 1998 and the World Trade Organization in 2007, its service as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, etc.
Another notable factor is the US’ downplaying of ideological concerns, which may be a good news for the CPV’s survival. For the average American, it seems that the improved peaceful interaction is more a reconciliation with America’s collective memory than with Vietnam. As Kerry said, particularly in the US, the reconciliation “was actually led by the veterans and the families of Vietnam War veterans, many of whom endured years of heart-wrenching uncertainty about the fate of their loved ones, provided the critical margin of political support for the normalization ‘roadmap’” (“John Kerry”, 2010).
For anyone running for the 2016 US presidency, including Hillary Clinton who has kept up Bill Clinton’s heritage of bringing Vietnam in from the cold, instead of simply referring to Vietnam as an ideological enemy, except in the context of strategic thinking on China, the continuing policy of reconciliation with Vietnam is probably politically beneficial, because, as indicated above, it ameliorates the chronic soreness among the generation of Americans who witnessed the war.
Author: Bojian Liu
Bojian Liu is Research Assistant at East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore. His research interests include Asia-Pacific security, international relations theory and political psychology, and China's foreign policy.
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