US-Vietnam relations appear to be warmer than in preceding years. On July 6, Secretary General of the Vietnam Communist Party (VCP), Nguyen Phu Trong, made a historic visit to the White House, where he met with United States President, Barack Obama, along with other prominent cabinet officials. Less than two months later, US Secretary of State, John Kerry, paid a visit to Hanoi on Vietnam’s National Holiday (marking the victory over the French in the First Indochina War) and fondly expressed:“On behalf of President Obama and the people of the United States, I am delighted to congratulate the people of Vietnam as you celebrate your National Day on September 2. On this festive occasion, I wish all Vietnamese people peace and prosperity in the coming year.” Such cooperative visits reveal a more normalized political atmosphere between the once adversarial actors and in effect encourage several points of inquiry: What are the motives of both parties? What does the increased cooperation between both powers reveal about the contemporary international arena?
US-Viet relations have oscillated quite a bit in the last century. During the Vietnam War between Vietnam and the United States, relations were at an all-time low. Both countries incurred significant human casualties from the opposition’s firepower: an estimated 3M Vietnamese and 50,000 Americans died. It was one of the worst political losses in American history while one of the most significant political victories for the Viet Cong. A mere 40 years later, however, it seems both parties have significantly moved on past their once bitter hostilities. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, as cited in US government archives, the Bush administration began a working dialogue towards normalized relations with Vietnam, where a US office for MIA (Missing in Action) soldiers as well as humanitarian activities such as the Leahy War Victims Fund (LWVF) made their way to Hanoi. Since then, the two powers have built a more comprehensive partnership through various political, economic, and social initiatives. Furthermore, contemporary domestic Vietnamese perceptions, among the older generations especially, are illustrative of such efforts. Le Hoang Giang, a 67 year-old former police officer in Hanoi, for example, explained to the BBC how older generations begin to bury past American animosities: “I think Vietnam’s new policy of opening up and befriending other countries especially the US is very wise. We used to think capitalist societies were morally empty but America is actually a great civilization with a great culture. Having such a powerful ally is a good thing.”
While more comprehensive diplomatic relations have been cultivated over the last few decades, this year seems to have ushered in a notably warmer tone in US-Viet relations. The current secretary general of Vietnam, Nguyen Phu Trong, visited the White House, the first one ever to do so in US-Viet diplomatic history. As outlined in The Diplomat, Obama and Trong covered and pledged several topics and issues over the five-day period. Both agreed to “deepen, sustain, and build a substantive relationship on the basis of respect for each other’s political systems, independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity,” as well as “commit themselves to complete negotiations in the Asia Pacific through regional multilateral organizations such as APEC, and ASEAN-related institutions as well as ensure South China Sea concerns and difficulties are accommodated.” While both leaders expressed great enthusiasm to strengthen bilateral ties, they expressed even more interest in strengthening regional multi-lateral organizations. Whilst both did not explicitly mention the dominant Asian power, China’s rising economic clout is playing a role in US-Viet rapprochement.
It is reassuring and quite frankly remarkable to see these former enemies on better terms. Rather than communist and capitalist ideology dominating the agendas of both states, regional concerns revolving around China are the primary area of focus this time around. An evident alignment in regional interests is taking place between Vietnam and the United States in the international landscape. Should we thank China for that?
By Enrica Ferrarotti
Image License: Public Domain by Senior Master Sergeant Kevin Wallace, U.S. Air Force.