June 10, 2007 | National Interest Online
Next week, President George W. Bush will welcome Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet to the White House, the first Vietnamese head of state to be received there since Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam called on Richard Nixon in April 1973, three months after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords effectively doomed his regime. After the reunification of Vietnam in 1975, it took the United States two decades to establish full diplomatic relations and another decade to approve legislation extending permanent normal trade relations to the onetime enemy, an act which the 109th Congress finally passed in its lame-duck session last December. Although Vietnam formally joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in January as its 150th member and bilateral trade between the United States and Vietnam topped $9 billion last year, there are still those who would invoke inevitable disagreements between the two countries to prevent the next logical progression in the relationship: strategic partnership in the interest of both.
Ever since the normalization of U.S.-Vietnamese relations during the Clinton Administration, officials on both sides have prudently gone to great lengths to show that the ties are not meant to threaten Chinese interests. However, all the diplomatic niceties in the world cannot obscure the fact that Vietnam brings to the relationship a set of unmatched geopolitical endowments that are of interest to any state seeking a “hedge” in its relations with the current rulers of the Middle Kingdom.
With control over about half of the Spratly Islands—whose ownership it disputes with China (as well as Taiwan and, in parts, Malaysia and the Philippines)—as well as 3,444 kilometers of coastline at the center of the vital sea lanes through the South China Sea, Vietnam is geographically critical to either the freedom of those waters or their control.
Given its ongoing disputes with Beijing over the South China Sea—Vietnamese officials lament the fact that their Chinese counterparts would not agree to specifically mention the contested Paracel Islands in the 2002 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)-China declaration on diplomatic resolution of conflicting claims in the region—Hanoi cannot align itself with its larger neighbor on issues relating to the sea, which not only has rich fisheries, but also shows indications of major petroleum and natural gas reserves. (According to the most recent report by the Energy Information Administration, Vietnam’s rather underdeveloped oil industry nonetheless exported 1,092,000 barrels of crude to the United States in March.) Moreover, Vietnam is the most significant obstacle to Chinese hegemony over this maritime domain.
The signing of a Sino-Vietnamese border demarcation treaty in 1999 notwithstanding, there are still some 289 disputed areas, totaling 235 square kilometers, along some 450 of the 1,350 kilometers of common frontiers. Although the dispute is literally millennial, it should also be remembered that the two countries fought a brief, but bloody, border war over this territory as recently as 1979, during which the Chinese People’s Liberation Army penetrated some 30 kilometers into Vietnam before being thrown back with at least 75,000 casualties.
Hence, while the Bush Administration justly deserves considerable credit for building up the security relationship with Japan and India (see Robert D. Blackwill’s “A Friend Indeed“), it should not overlook the geopolitical and strategic assets which Vietnam offers along the same lines as an “insurance policy” against any creeping southward expansion by a China seeking great-power status.
If the United States has realpolitik reasons to want to draw closer to Vietnam, the attraction is mutual. From Hanoi’s perspective, cultivating closer ties to Washington not only facilitates access to American capital and technology for Vietnam’s economy—one of the world’s fasting-growing—and American markets for the goods it produces, but also acts as an external counterbalance to Beijing.
Sino-Vietnamese relations have improved considerably in the years since the two countries restored diplomatic relations in 1991, especially after President Hu Jintao’s visit to Vietnam in October-November 2005. Hu’s trip led to commitments to strengthen economic ties and to develop a business corridor running from Kunming, the capital of China’s Yunnan province, to the port of Hai Phong in northern Vietnam. Nonetheless, the commercial relationship is not without its ambivalence, as both countries are essentially competing for the same foreign investments and the same markets for low-cost manufactured products. And, like their homologues in many other nations, Vietnamese officials are concerned about their rising trade deficit with China.
Furthermore, as Brantley Womack of the University of Virginia documented last year in China and Vietnam: The Politics of Asymmetry (Cambridge University Press, 2006), the relationship between China and Vietnam over the course of 3,000 years—arguably the longest continual rapport of its kind between any two states in world politics—has been through “almost every conceivable pattern of interaction among neighbors” from union to alliance to competition by proxy to open conflict. This long history, coupled with the significant disparities in scale, has led Vietnam inexorably to seek out regional and global counterweights with which to balance against its looming neighbor. Vietnam joined Indonesia and Singapore in pushing to include India, Australia and New Zealand in the East Asia Summit (EAS), despite China’s “quiet resistance.” (China did succeed in structuring the EAS so as to exclude direct U.S. participation.) And there is every reason to believe that Vietnamese leaders believe that their national interests can be better secured through an at least tacit strategic partnership with the offshore United States than in succumbing to the aspiring onshore hegemon next door. (See John Lee’s “China’s ASEAN Invasion.”)
Although there has been expanding security cooperation between the United States and Vietnam—an International Military Education Training (IMET) accord was signed in 2005, and five U.S. naval vessels have visited Vietnam since 2003—there is no question of a formal alliance. There is, however, considerable scope for strategic convergence if stumbling blocks can be removed and old mindsets overcome.
Without discounting the importance of human rights and other concerns about Vietnam’s record raised by members of Congress and others in Washington, one has to recognize the tremendous progress made by Hanoi in recent years. The White House announcement of President Nguyen Minh Triet’s visit listed the agenda as “our robust trade and economic relationship, cooperation on health and development issues, cultural and educational ties, and shared commitment to resolving remaining issues stemming from the war.” But it pledged that “President Bush will also express his deep concern over the recent increase of arrests and detentions of peaceful democracy activists in Vietnam.” The announcement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hanoi noted that the Vietnamese president had said that the two countries “must keep channels of communication open so as to increase their understanding of each other and deal with their differences for a long-term and stable relationship”—implicitly acknowledging Washington’s domestic political needs and evincing a willingness to engage them, rather than dogmatically denouncing the former as “foreign interference.”
If Vietnamese leaders in recent years have been disposed to put aside their revolutionary ideological baggage in order to pursue more concrete strategic objectives like economic and social development and political and military stability, it should be hoped that U.S. statesmen will have a similar clarity of vision and the creative flexibility. For America, it is a unique opportunity to not only to promote our ideals about free peoples and markets in a society that is opening up, but also to advance our national interests in a geostrategically pivotal region.
J. Peter Pham is director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University and an FDD Adjunct Fellow.