Vietnam’s Slow Tilt to the U.S.
In this Briefing, our contributor Alfie Purvis (2nd year International Relations) discusses recent trends in Vietnam-U.S. relations amidst growing concerns of an increasingly aggressive China in the South China Sea. Here, he explores the nuances of the two countries' peculiar relationship from a brief history of the Vietnam War to Vietnam's current diplomatic strategy of careful balancing between three great powers: the United States, China, and Russia.
The 11th of July 2022 will mark the 27th anniversary of the normalisation of diplomatic relations between Vietnam and the United States (U.S.), and the relationship between the two countries has never been stronger. Despite a complex and turbulent history, the two nations are now close allies, who frequently cooperate on a vast array of global issues, ranging from trade and security to education and healthcare initiatives. However, is the relationship between Vietnam and the U.S. as concrete as it first appears?
Early Relations and the Vietnam War
Contemporary relations between Vietnam and the U.S. began with a positive start during the Second World War as the U.S. collaborated with the communist Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh, to free French Indochina of Imperial Japanese rule. However, in the years following the Second World War, the relationship between the U.S. and Vietnam began to sour. After the Viet Minh defeated the French military during the First Indochina War and forced France to withdraw from Indochina, the 1954 Geneva Conference divided the former French colony along the 17th Parallel, creating the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the Republic of Vietnam, known as North and South Vietnam respectively. North Vietnam enjoyed the support of China and the Soviet Union, whilst the U.S. began to supply significant military and economic support to South Vietnam to contain the further spread of communism.
This began the U.S. involvement in the infamous Vietnam War. Originally, U.S. support for South Vietnam consisted of material aid, the deployment of military advisors, and air support, but the situation rapidly escalated and the first U.S. ground troops soon arrived in Vietnam in March 1965. U.S. soldiers would remain deployed in Vietnam until March 1973. During this time more than two million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians were killed as were more than 47,000 U.S. soldiers (1). Furthermore, incidents of horrific war crimes were committed by both sides, like the 1968 My Lai Massacre, in which U.S. Army soldiers killed approximately 504 innocent Vietnamese civilians (2).
The prolonged conflict began to inflict its toll upon the U.S. military, which suffered from high casualties, low morale and a lack of public support resulting from the exposure of war crimes committed by U.S. forces. The U.S. slowly began to withdraw its troops from Vietnam and signed the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973, which provided for a cessation of hostilities, the withdrawal of U.S. forces and the peaceful reunification of North and South Vietnam (3). However, following the withdrawal of U.S. forces in March 1973, aside from a limited number of advisors, North Vietnam quickly reneged on the agreement and invaded South Vietnam. South Vietnam was rapidly defeated by the North, and so ended the Vietnam War on 30th April 1975, with the last U.S. citizens leaving Vietnam on the same day (3). Following a brief transition period, the victorious North Vietnamese government reunified North and South Vietnam on 2nd July 1976. The newly unified communist state allied itself with the Soviet Union and China. Therefore, relations with the U.S. remained very limited, due in no small part to retaliatory U.S. sanctions against Vietnam.
The relationship between the two countries began to improve extremely slowly at first, with limited talks regarding economic aid and the issue of U.S. soldiers considered to be missing in action (MIA) in Vietnam. As the Cold War began to thaw, tensions between the U.S. and Vietnam began to ease more rapidly. In 1991, the Vietnamese government opened an MIA support office in Hanoi and allowed American visitors to enter the country. Finally, in 1994 the U.S. lifted the trade embargo on Vietnam, with a full diplomatic relationship established a year later in 1995.
21st Century Relations
Since then, the relationship between Vietnam and the United States has blossomed. In July 2020, the U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Daniel Kritenbrink described the strength of the Vietnam-U.S. relationship, stating “Today we can sincerely call one another friend and partner” (1). The feeling appears mutual as a 2015 Pew Research Center survey found that 76% of Vietnamese people had “favourable” views of the U.S., and 89% of those considered to be “more highly educated” had a positive opinion (1).
Current Vietnam-U.S. relations are defined by the U.S.-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership Agreement signed by President Barack Obama and President Truong Tan Sang in 2013 (4). The agreement provided the groundwork and structure for cooperation across a vast array of topics, such as political relations, security, war legacy issues and human rights (5). Moreover, the agreement has been built upon by joint statements given by the leaders of both countries in 2015, 2016, and 2017 (5). These negotiations appear to have had a lasting and measurable impact as the U.S. is now Vietnam’s second-largest trading partner (6). Furthermore, in 2016, both nations signed an agreement to cooperate on issues of justice and law enforcement, and in the same year, the U.S. lifted a ban on the sale of lethal military weapons to Vietnam (6). Then, beginning in 2017, the U.S. transferred two Hamilton-class patrol ships, this marked the first time Vietnam had received warships from a Western nation (6).
The remarkable change in the relationship can certainly be attributed to the concerns both nations share over China’s growing militarisation and increasingly aggressive foreign policy in the South China Sea. In the last decade, China has laid claim to islands in the South China Sea, such as the Paracel Islands and has begun an extensive land reclamation project to construct further islands, complete with military bases. It has also commenced a large-scale expansion of its naval compatibilities, including commissioning new amphibious assault ships. Consequently, the U.S. feels threatened by China’s recent aggression and wishes to revive its declining status as the regional hegemon in the Indo-Pacific region.
Vietnam’s relationship with China is somewhat more complicated. China has occasionally been a very close ally of Vietnam, being the first country to recognise the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in January 1950 (7). However, there have been instances of tensions and even conflict between the two states, most prominently in 1979 and 1988. However, the relationship between Hanoi and Beijing was normalised in 1991 and the relationship quickly grew, unsurprisingly China is currently Vietnam’s largest trading partner. Today, however, tensions between the two states are at one of their highest points in recent decades. At the centre of these tensions lies the South China Sea, as both countries lay claim to overlapping territories, such as the Spratly and Paracel Islands. The sovereignty of these islands is particularly important in the context of exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and the oil and fishing rights they provide. Numerous incidents have raised tensions between the two countries, the most dangerous of which began in 2014 when the China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) began to operate an oil rig called Haiyang Shiyou 981 in Vietnam’s claimed EEZ (7). Ships belonging to the two states clashed in the area for weeks before the rig was removed (7). The incident provoked significant public support for Vietnam from the U.S., who also lifted the ban on naval weapons to Vietnam in response (8). It represented the first time Vietnam trusted the U.S. over China. Finally, in 2021, senior Vietnamese officials publicly acknowledged the importance of relations with the US, and whilst the official promotion of status has not been made due to its overt political meaning, discussions are beginning to take place in Hanoi regarding taking the unprecedented step of embracing the U.S. (8).
However, with increasing tensions with China, is Vietnam ready to fully embrace the U.S.? The answer is probably not just yet. Since the 1980s, Vietnam has framed its foreign policy around the Three No’s; no military alliances, no bilateral alliances to counter a rival power, and no foreign military bases in Vietnam. Whilst a fourth No was added later— no military force to achieve geopolitical aims— Hanoi is careful to remain officially neutral between China and the United States. This allows Vietnam to court investment in Russia and China whilst seeking security initiatives with the United States. Furthermore, Vietnam has bestowed the greatest diplomatic title upon Russia and China, a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’, while the relationship with the U.S. is officially one of a ‘comprehensive partnership’. For comparison, Vietnam has established the more prestigious strategic partnerships with the UK and Germany among other states. The restraint exercised by Hanoi suggests it doesn’t consider closer relations with the U.S. to be a risk worth taking.
Vietnam’s close relationship with Russia is also a concern for the United States. Russia is currently Vietnam’s largest arms supplier and after numerous changes and cancellations, Russia and Vietnam are collaborating on the construction of Vietnam’s first nuclear power station (9).
Overall, Vietnam’s relationship with the U.S. can be categorised as close and of growing importance to both nations. Cooperation between the two states, especially with regards to security issues is significant and will continue to be so. However, in the eyes of Hanoi, the U.S. has not yet surpassed the strategic importance of more traditional allies like Russia and China, and therefore, it is currently assigned a lower-tier ranking. However, as tensions continue to rise between China and Vietnam, and between China and the U.S., Vietnam will seek the support of a powerful maritime ally to safeguard its claims in the South China Sea, whilst the U.S. seeks an ally at a time when its grip on power in Southeast Asia is waning. Thus, it is highly probable that both countries will wish to expand upon their current relationship.’
David Hutt, “US, Vietnam ties have never been better,” Asia Times, 13th July 2020. https://asiatimes.com/2020/07/us-vietnam-ties-have-never-been-better/ [Accessed 11th January 2022].
Shaun Raviv, “The Ghosts of My Lai,” Smithsonian Magazine, January 2018. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/ghosts-my-lai-180967497/ [Accessed 22nd January 2022].
History.com Editors, “U.S. withdraws from Vietnam,” History.com, 24th November 2009. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/u-s-withdraws-from-vietnam [Accessed 22nd January 2022].
Nguyen Thi Thuy Hang, “U.S.-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership: Present and Possible,” The Journal of International Relations, Peace Studies, and Development Volume 4, Issue 1, 2018. https://scholarworks.arcadia.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1046&context=agsjournal [Accessed 22nd January 2022].
Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, “U.S. Relations With Vietnam Bilateral Relations Fact Sheet,” U.S. Department of State, 9th April 2021. https://www.state.gov/u-s-relations-with-vietnam/ [Accessed 11th January 2022].
Hong Kong Nguyen and Pham Muoi Nguyen, “US-Vietnam Relations in 2021: ‘Comprehensive,’ But Short of ‘Strategic’,” The Diplomat, 20th August 2021. https://thediplomat.com/2021/08/us-vietnam-relations-in-2021-comprehensive-but-short-of-strategic/ [Accessed 11th January 2022].
Huong Le Thu, “Rough Waters Ahead for Vietnam-China Relations.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 30th September 2020. https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/09/30/rough-waters-ahead-for-vietnam-china-relations-pub-82826 [Accessed 22nd January 2022].
Alexander L. Vuving, “Will Vietnam Be America’s Next Strategic Partner?” The Diplomat, 21st August 2021. https://thediplomat.com/2021/08/will-vietnam-be-americas-next-strategic-partner/ [Accessed 21st January 2022].
Tomoya Onishi, “Vietnam poised to resume nuclear project a decade after Fukushima,” Nikkei Asia, 19th December 2021. https://asia.nikkei.com/Economy/Vietnam-poised-to-resume-nuclear-project-a-decade-after-Fukushima [Accessed 22nd January 2022].