In an historic meeting at the White House in Washington DC on Thursday, President Barak Obama announced with Vietnam’s president Trương Tấn Sang by his side that bilateral relations between the former rivals will be upgraded to a comprehensive partnership.
In his remarks, President Obama called it “the steady progression in US-Vietnam relations.” Indeed, the progress since 2005, when a slew of business contracts was signed, has been profound with the United States now Vietnam’s largest export market. With unprecedented cooperation, in a wide array of sectors, it appears that a new era in American-Vietnamese relations has begun.
The agreement stops short of a mutual defense treaty, similar to the one America has in place with Japan and the Philippines, but the breadth of sectors now open for cooperation will touch about every area of society. They include political and diplomatic relations, defense, trade, science and technology, education, the environment, health, tourism and war legacy issues.
This development comes against the backdrop of the “pivot” to Asia, the Obama Administration’s policy of reorienting American diplomatic attention toward Asia, a region that is considered central to economic growth in the twenty-first century.
Given Vietnam’s dismal human rights record, there has been inevitable criticism about engagement with the communist country. The government reportedly escalated attacks on civil rights and free speech advocates recently, including jailing prominent religious leaders, lawyers and bloggers. Obama said that he had a “frank” discussion with Sang about human rights and reiterated American support for the freedom of expression, religion and assembly.
Sang’s visit came eighteen years after relations were normalized in 1995. Economic concerns are as much behind Vietnam’s engagement with the United States as are political reasons. The population has begun to grow agitated with the country’s economy slowing to around 5 percent growth after experiencing years of rising prosperity. Protests have also mounted against China over its revisionist maritime border claims in the South China Sea which clash with Vietnam’s own claims there. Deepening relations with the United States could address both concerns.
Vietnam is taking part in negotiations to join the Trans Pacific Partnership, recognizing that the proposed free-trade area would be a boon to its economy. If it includes Japan opening its agriculture and other sectors, the partnership could boost Vietnamese gross domestic product 10 percent per year by 2025.
China’s policy in the South China Sea is delineated in its nine dash line map which covers virtually the entire sea. After his meeting with Obama, President Sang spoke at a Washington think tank where he called the nine dash line “groundless both legally and practically” and said that Vietnam supports the Philippines’ recent decision to bring China in front of a United Nations arbitration tribunal to have the map declared illegal.
As a result of this tension, the United States are welcomed in the region with open arms. Sang showed Obama a letter written by Hồ Chí Minh in 1946 to President Harry Truman. In it, the Vietnamese leader sought the establishment of “full cooperation” between his country and the United States and, ironically, said he was inspired by the writings of Thomas Jefferson about equality and liberty.
American-Vietnamese relations have come a long way over the last forty years when the last American troops were pulled out of the country. Trade and economics have heretofore been the focus of the relationship. The United States account for $10.5 billion of foreign investment in Vietnam, placing it seventh globally. With bilateral relations seemingly on an upward trajectory, it is remarkable that in such a short period of time the United States and Vietnam will see extensive cooperation in areas once deemed unthinkable like defense and politics.